Problem Based Learning

What?: What is Problem-Based Learning?


PBL is traditionally understood as a learning method that organises the “curricular content around problem scenarios rather than subjects or disciplines” (Savin-Baden, 2001), yet no global definition of PBL exists (Frambach, Talaat, Wasenitz, Martimianakis, 2019). Nevertheless, many PBL approaches have a student-centred approach to education, in which the students direct their learning in a way that it allows to solve or understand a problem (from academia or the professional world for example) that they were confronted with.

First developed in the context of medical education in Canada in the 1960s based on the need for learning that was centred around a particular professional context and an experience. Hence, the problem-based approach emphasises this integration of learning in multiple ways and is partially used as the overarching term for related approaches such as research-, project- or inquiry-based learning. The insights explained in the following are derived from Maastricht University’s practice, where PBL has been implemented as a university-wide educational methodology though, over the past 40 years of PBL practice varying in shape and definition.


PBL at Maastricht University is generally understood along the core principles of constructive, collaborative, contextual, and self-directed (CCCS) learning. As defined by Dolmans, De Grave, Wolfhagen & van der Vleuten (2005), constructive learning emphasises the learner’s active role in the process, the stimulation of cognitive abilities, and the continuous construction of knowledge networks. The principle of collaborative learning fosters group learning through common goals and shared responsibilities, and the development of learning outcomes through interaction. Contextual learning situates the theoretical knowledge to be acquired in its practical context or a specific problem, also emphasising the role of transfer by addressing different purposes and perspectives. Finally, self-directed learning highlights the learner’s responsibility, capacity and motivation to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning. These principles can be implemented on a smaller or larger scale ranging from one section of a course to a curricular approach. At UM, PBL is thus also an umbrella term that includes research-based or project-based approaches to education.

PBL exemplified by the 7 steps

PBL implementation can take the shape of the “seven-step format”, which was developed at Maastricht and guided PBL practice at UM since the implementation. The seven steps are a guideline for a student-centred tutorial set up in which students are presented with a problem description that they pre-discuss to understand the problem, activate prior knowledge and identify learning gaps. Students proceed with self-study, in which they e.g. read literature or attend lectures. Finally, a few days later, students discuss their study results in class to be able to solve the problem case they were presented with.

Based on a UM-wide research project, the seven-steps have been found to be too restrictive (Frambach & Wasenitz, 2018). There is thus currently a shift towards a more flexible implementation of this approach, it is currently still the dominant way of putting the CCCS principles to practice. The seven steps approach shall, for the purpose of this toolkit, nevertheless be one of the main elements to exemplify one way of putting the CCCS principles to practice. It should be kept in mind that while the seven-step approach may be successfully used in all fields of study, that adjustments or other creative approaches may be necessary and beneficial.


Video Introduction to PBL

In this video, CREATES contributor Stella Wasenitz of University College Maastricht gives a brief introduction to problem-based learning as a co-creative approach in higher education.


Why?: Which learning objectives or competences does it support?

Making problem-solvers through problem-solving

The CCCS learning principles that define PBL at UM are quite synonymous to the CREATES principles of engaged and active learning by each student, the communal, interactive learning as the mode, and the shared responsibility and co-ownership as the ethos of learning. Education being guided by these very principles is partially to emphasise the principles as educational goals or an orientation. Focusing on such principles explicitly on an organisational level may then in itself already contribute to the development of practices that foster related competencies. Learning by solving problems shall make one a better problem-solver, so the argument. But is that actually the case?

PBL and its inconclusive evidence

Indeed, research at UM has shown that students and staff do perceive that the education is guided by the CCCS principles and that the related skills are acquired (Frambach & Wasenitz, 2018). Similarly, in the video below students share some of their experiences about the positive aspects of PBL. However, PBL is not an educational panacea and there is a great sum of research around PBL that should critically be reviewed to address the PBL strengths and weaknesses. As Hung, Dolmans and Merriënboer (2019) write in their systematic review, early PBL research focussed on whether PBL works and is “better” than more traditional and lecture-based approaches. Overall, research on e.g. information retention, skills acquisition, and student satisfaction yielded inconclusive results, which are attributed to imprecise ways of measuring and testing with insufficient regard of context.

An often-cited study by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) criticises the cognitive overload in student-centred discussions and warns that some students may be left behind. This research has been much discussed in PBL context, often leading to suggesting a diversity of educational approaches but also triggered a shift in PBL research. First, research became more context-dependent and looked into under which conditions PBL works, which for example showed that this is the case when the assessment is adjusted and aligned with the different instructional method, or if there is a curricular approach (Hung et al., 2019). Later, research specifically focussed on different contexts with a heightened consideration of hybrids and variations in PBL approaches. Recent research at UM has for example shown that the UM population generally appreciates the PBL but especially with more creative and flexible understanding of PBL (Frambach & Wasenitz, 2018).

Acknowledging that there is no one-fits-all approach and the inconclusive research about the effectiveness of PBL, a diversity of PBL practices and hybrid approaches seem to be desirable. Indeed, PBL should be adjusted to the specific cultural context (Frambach et al., 2019) This begs the question of how to put these principles to practice, which will be addressed, by example, in the following section through an elaboration on the seven-step approach. Further ways of putting the PBL principles to practice can be found under the link to additional resources.

Video: Compiled quotes on PBL from Maastricht University


How?: How should I set up PBL?

Steps for Implementation

Video: PBL 7 Steps at Maastricht University 

As illustrated in the video above, the seven step method takes place in a tutorial classroom. A tutorial is usually between 2-3 hours long, split into the so-called post-discussion (step 7) of the last class and the so-called pre-discussion (step 1-5) for the next class. The group assigns a discussion leader and a note taker. While a tutor is present, it is mostly the discussion leader who structures and leads the discussion while the students discuss the material.

Figure 1. Reproduced from van Til & van der Heiden, 2009, p. 7

The process generally follows the following 7 steps:

  1. Read the problem task and clarify any unclear terms.
  2. Define the problem statement based on the problem task.
  3. Brainstorm and discuss the problem statement based on prior knowledge or information from the problem task. The note taker takes notes of the discussion.
  4. Cluster the notes on the board into several topics and identify knowledge gaps.
  5. Based on the structured notes on the board, define learning goals that guide the research.
  6. Self study: Students do their individual research and find information to answer the learning goals. Sources of information depend on the aims of the course but can for example be from a provided reading list, lectures, or individual research.
  7. During the post-discussion the students discuss their findings and answer the learning goals. They may see if they can now better address the initial problem statement.


Resources: What do you need to implement it?

Planning on the side of the teacher requires a course manual that contains problems (e.g. a description, a graph, or a video or multiple, see "Sample Problems" below) that ought to present the students with a problem related to the theories to be learnt. Teachers may provide literature lists or other resources for students’ orientation during their self-study (step 6).

-       A series of problem descriptions addressing the course topic (often these are general problems and topics of discussion in the field)

-       Scheduled tutorials of 2-3h, 1-2x per week

-       Rooms that can be set up to cater to a group discussion with 8-12 people



Principles: How can we employ PBL well?

  • Consider the educational context.
    • When introducing PBL within a non-PBL curriculum, consider the rest of the curriculum and how students were prepared for this moment. PBL may be a great and beneficial addition to the curriculum as it indeed might focus on different competencies. Keep in mind the context of your particular institution to integrate PBL in a way that sensibly compliments the students experience and consider other aspects of the education like, e.g. the flexible nature of the curriculum, internationality of student population and related cultural differences, the use of lectures in the context of the course, or assessment (see below).

  • Provide a cutting edge insight into the main topics of discussion in your field.
    • Problem descriptions ideally are the problems that people in the field discuss, work with or address - or those that have been solved in the past. The different problem tasks provide a great opportunity to enable constructive and critical perspectives on discussions that academic research encounters and deals with. Problems are very broadly defined and can range from a patient that shows certain symptoms to a philosophical quest of what truth is or the presentation of a disputed lawsuit. Learning can then take place in a contextual manner, in which students immediately gain insight into the practice and shortcomings of the theoretical approach.
  • Different types of knowledge require different types of problems, for example clustered into explanatory, descriptive, procedural or personal problems (see Schmidt & Moust, 2010 for examples and further elaboration).
    • While some courses aim to, for example, teach students to explain a certain phenomenon, others ought to teach them descriptive knowledge. The related problems should be clear about the aims, where descriptive knowledge often requires a fact-based problem and others aim for an explanation problem. Other problems might be more about procedures and thus require training, while personal problems might use discussion texts that confront the students with a dilemma or other decision-making. It often helps students to be aware of what type of knowledge should be taken away from the problem, even if it is a mixture of e.g. facts and explanation.
  • Scaffold according to need and make the learning more or less CCCS.
    • Depending on the educational level of the learners and the time available, you might provide literature or let students explore it on their own. Problems may be more general or specific, allowing to build on prior knowledge and experience. While problems may be more descriptive and less self-directed in the beginning of a programme, students with more experience in academia usually require less guidance and can discuss more easily based on prior experience with theories and acquired knowledge. This should then impact the amount of design and guidance: while problems early on may be rather narrow and literature or other resources are provided, a course that comes later in a student’s curriculum might not even have all problems predefined but develops them out of the newly arising questions.
  • Adjust problem and course design to the level of the learners.
    • Problems should be written taking into account the prior knowledge of students. While sufficient background knowledge is necessary to understand the problem and the identification of learning goals, the problem should be intriguing and challenge students’ further knowledge acquisition. Problem descriptions should contain a mystery or put something at stake in a way that the answer is not given but so that questions are raised. Students ought to actively engage with this, as, after all, active learning is one of the central components of a PBL education. Moreover, the level of interdisciplinarity among the student population may be important to consider, as students may approach the problem from different angles.
  • Respect and plan for the principle of self-direction
    • Within the principle of self-direction, the seven-step approach should allow for students to take the problem into their own hands. This includes giving students the space to fail and the balancing act of learning to not control the learning experience. Keep this in mind when planning and designing the course. As indicated above: self-direction may be dependent on the intended learning outcomes and related to the level of experience among students. Thus, scaffold self-direction and don’t plan too much for a course.
  • Keep an eye on Constructive Alignment
    • In PBL contexts it is specifically important that the educational method is constructively aligned with the intended learning outcomes and assessment (Biggs & Tang, 2011). Especially the latter part often provides a challenge. PBL tutorials generally do not emphasise knowledge retention but rather collaboration or problem-solving. Assessment should be designed in consideration of what the students were supposed to learn in the classroom. For example, an exam may be one way to make students study the material but might then be weighted less than a group paper or a portfolio that considers the educational approach and the aims of the course (see for example the (e) Portfolio section of this toolkit).


Contexts: What do I need to take into account when implementing PBL?

  • Depending on how familiar students are with the PBL approach and levels of self-direction, PBL problems should be appropriately scaffolded.
  • PBL should be implemented with consideration of the general curriculum, especially with regards to courses that students have taken and with respect to existing courses. Exchange with colleagues might be especially useful to estimate and get an idea of what students bring to the course.
  • It is generally suggested that seven-step tutorial groups function best with 8-10 or a maximum of 12 students.
  • Often students are provided with a course manual at the beginning of the course. The course manual clarifies the general approach, intended learning outcomes and assessment of the course, as well as the method of instruction. It then provides an overview about the course including deadlines, lectures and tutorial meetings. This is followed by the problem descriptions for all tutorial meetings, possibly including literature lists.
  • PBL can be implemented in a single session, throughout a course or for an entire curriculum. It might be necessary to introduce students or teaching assistants to PBL. How extensive introductions should be depends on the scope of implementation. For an extensive introduction, please refer to the manual for student introductions.
  • If PBL is implemented very much along the seven steps, it often requires teaching assistants that ideally have a general idea of the content of the course and are trained in facilitating tutorial groups. If the students are used to the 7 step method, staff may require less training, as this is a student-centred method. Staff should respect their limited role in the classroom, in which they indeed are not the centre of the discussion. Quite the contrary, it is their role to ensure that the students do thoroughly engage with the topic of discussion and don’t just stay at the surface of the topic. This however addresses a delicate balance in which staff should not provide answers or be too directive but act as an enabler. Sometimes compared to a driving instructor, the teacher in a PBL classroom should stay clear of interfering too much and touching the steering wheel - unless the students go off the road, or off-topic.
  • Given the implications for assessment and taking into account tutorial group sizes, teachers should be aware of the fact that more resources (time, space, staff) might be needed than those required for lecture-based approaches to courses.



PBL Annotated Bibliography

Manual for Student Introductions to PBL

Sample Problems

  • Sample problem from an introductory course in the life sciences
  • Sample problem from a philosophy course
  • For further examples and explanations for problem design please consult: Schmidt, H., & Moust, J. (2010). Designing problems. Lessons from problem-based learning, 31-45.


Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching For Quality Learning At University. 4th Edition. New York; Maidenhead: Society For Research Into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Dolmans, D. H., De Grave, W., Wolfhagen, I. H., & van der Vleuten, C. P. (2005). Problem-based learning: future challenges for educational practice and research. Medical Education, 39(7), 732-741.

Frambach, J. M., Talaat, W., Wasenitz, S., & Martimianakis, M. A. T. (2019). The case for plural PBL: an analysis of dominant and marginalized perspectives in the globalization of problem-based learning. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 24(5), 931-942

Frambach, J. M., & Wasenitz, S. (2018). EDview position paper: The full potential of PBL philosophy. Diversifying education at Maastricht University. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from Maastricht University, EDLAB website:

Hung, W., Dolmans, D. H., & van Merriënboer, J. J. (2019). A review to identify key perspectives in PBL meta-analyses and reviews: Trends, gaps and future research directions. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 1-15.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86.

Savin-Baden, M. (2001). The problem-based learning landscape. Planet, 4(1), 4-6.

Schmidt, H., & Moust, J. (2010). Designing problems. Lessons from problem-based learning, 31-45.

Van Til, C., & van der Heijden, F. (2009). PBL study skills. An Overview. Maastricht: Department of Educational Development and Research, Maastricht University.