Getting started with problem-based learning

Matt Summers
Cranfield University

January 2021

“Without knowledge, action is useless, whilst knowledge without action is futile”.
(Attributed to Rashidun Caliph Abu Bakr, early 7th Century)

Knowledge unapplied – problems unsolved

The 21st Century sees us living in a world of complexity, and society faces challenges requiring solutions that account for this complexity. ‘Knowing’ is no longer enough. Graduates must be able to implement the art of ‘applying’ to solve problems and deliver solutions and this is an issue for many modern graduates. Their education has largely been taught using traditional lessons and lectures, with assessment via exams. They have been shaped by a system that reinforces the view that providing facts and theory under exam conditions determines competence, resulting in a system that rewards ‘knowing’ whilst often relegating the ‘applying’ to the side-lines (Ali, 2015).

This is well recognised – discussions with employers regarding graduate skills reveal consistent themes of shortfalls in graduates’ ability ‘to do’ from day one in employment. Whilst enthusiastic, they are often less well-developed in their ability to apply theoretical knowledge to solve real world problems. However, there are pedagogies and approaches that can readily assist in closing this skills gap and produce ‘work ready’ graduates. One of the most lauded is problem-based learning (PBL), yet its use in Higher Education is sporadic at best. This blog is aimed at non-experts in PBL, and in it I explore what PBL is, the benefits to students, and how I design and utilise PBL in my own teaching practice.

What is problem-based learning?

PBL is an experience-based educational approach where learning is driven by the setting of an open-ended, yet meaningful, problem scenario that students solve through working together in small groups.

“But I already do workshops and syndicate exercises!” I hear you cry.

Alas, that is not PBL. Whilst the practical workshop and syndicate exercise is a step along from the traditional “chalk and talk” lecture by a “sage on a stage”, the workshop remains deliverer-led and based on some formal direction. PBL is a truly student-led pedagogy. To solve a given problem, the students self-direct their learning to identify and understand the relevant facts, approaches and theory, determine information gaps and generate hypotheses which are applied to progress towards a solution. In PBL there is no formal teaching before or after the problem is presented to the student group. A strange notion for sure, but the deliverer acts as a facilitator who guides and supports the group rather than specifically directing them. PBL is based on constructivist learning theory (Jonassen and Rohrer-Murphy, 1999) and was developed in the 1960s for medical teaching, although it has been used in other fields since. As a constructivist approach, students draw on their own background knowledge and experiences alongside extensive collaboration within their group. The group working element ensures there are multiple perspectives and experiences that are brought to bear and shared in progressing to a solution.

PBL provides an approach to learning that places collaboration and application alongside knowledge in terms of importance, thus better preparing learners for the realities of the workplace. Iteration is usual, with groups taking their successes and failures to further develop an increasingly complex solution (Mann et al., 2020). This allows PBL to be scalable in both complexity and time within the learning environment.

Student benefits

Since students are free to develop and adopt the approach and direction that is best suited to and evolving ‘real-time’ solutions, PBL generates high levels of learner enthusiasm. This, in turn, increases engagement and performance and results in more effective acquisition, understanding and application of underpinning theory. PBL also improves student knowledge retention compared with more traditional pedagogical approaches (Yew and Goh, 2016).

But this is not the only benefit. PBL is based around group work, so the approach naturally develops more effective collaboration and communication skills whilst also improving and enhancing organisational skills through the need to divide and allocate roles and tasks. The constructivist approach recognises and facilitates individual skills and ways of working which promotes diversity of thought and approaches, resulting in a richness of shared experience in the group. PBL therefore encourages interdisciplinary views where learners draw on not only their own pre-existing professional/educational knowledge and understanding, but also those of others with the common aim of developing a solution. Consequently, the learners also mature their critical analysis and reasoning skills through the considered identification and selection of appropriate techniques and information to apply.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Implementing PBL is not easy and this is one of the reasons why the approach has not been widely used for the teaching of non-medical subjects. The approach can be resource-intensive, especially in terms of preparation time and this is even more so for those inexperienced in PBL. Recruiting experienced staff or training existing staff to effectively use PBL provides a further challenge, but one that is counterbalanced by the educational benefits. The most fundamental challenge facing the deliverer is the selection and development of the problem scenario. Preparation is, of course, important for any pedagogical approach, but the success of PBL lives or dies at this stage. There is no ‘winging it’ here and those who do come unstuck very quickly, the saying “Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail” could have been written specifically for PBL.

The scenario should be real or realistic (enabling artistic license and more complex activities to be incorporated), as well as offering opportunity for the learners to discuss, research, and then collect and apply relevant information, data and/or approaches to produce a solution. In my own practice of using PBL at postgraduate level, I sometimes use traditional PBL-type contemporary scenarios such as “How can we improve the UK’s national public transport network?”, although I have recently moved to use more ‘near future’ scenarios. I find this can make the scenario more interesting to the students, whilst ensuring ready-made solutions are not easily obtainable, thereby stretching their thinking and promoting more discussion. Recent ‘near future’ megaprojects scenarios I have used with student cohorts have included, “How can we neutralise enemy satellite surveillance during military operations?” and “How do we establish and support a colony on Mars?”.

These are big problems, so deciding whether to give the whole problem to each group or break it down into sub-questions depends on the degree programme students are following. For my systems engineering students, the focus is on holistic thinking so it works well to give them the whole problem and to use the same problem across the cohort. In contrast, my procurement students would naturally operate in discrete areas of a problem in the workplace, so assigning different sets of sub-questions to each group is more realistic for them.

A key part of setting up PBL is the grouping and briefing of students. In classes with a diverse set of skills, I will do the briefing first and allow the students to self-form into groups once they know what skills are needed. In other situations, I will assign students to groups before the briefing (this requires you to know the skill sets of your students). In all cases, the briefing puts the problem in context and gives the students sufficient background to enable them to make an informed start.

When it comes to feedback, my approach is the same across all groups. Regular, informal discussions that provide support and opportunities for reflection. I approach these discussions like a chat in a coffee shop so that students do not feel compelled to give a formal deliverable. Ultimately, I firmly believe that PBL success relies on a natural, personable and conversational approach.

I can attest to just how much effort is needed to get PBL right. Preparation of the scenario is one part of the groundwork, but no less important is being sufficiently equipped to guide the students no matter which direction of travel they take. Since they are in control of their learning journey, you as a deliverer must react to their lead. I personally love this challenge as I have no idea how the module will progress, so the students constantly keep me on my toes.

The ‘so what?’ – enhancing employability

The challenge upon us as deliverers has been set by graduate employers. They are clear that we must produce students that have knowledge, but also have well-developed skills in applying that knowledge to help solve real-life problems (Baker, 2020). After all, businesses deal with practical reality, not theoretical concepts. With a highly competitive graduate employment environment, it is critical that our graduates have that advantage when applying for the world of work.

PBL helps us meet this challenge by replicating the reality of how graduates will be expected to operate in the workplace, but from within the safety of the classroom where mistakes or wrong turns are useful lessons. It delivers learning, enhances knowledge, and develops critical professional skills, whilst reducing the shock of their transition from student to employee. What is for sure as a deliverer, is if you like the certainty of similar delivery year on year, then PBL may not be for you.

For more information on how to get started with PBL, Manchester Metropolitan University provides a helpful guide.

Matt Summers

Matt Summers, Lecturer in Applied Systems Engineering at Cranfield University contributes expertise to the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Education (CILE). The joint virtual centre aims to develop new knowledge in innovative education, business-engaged educational design and innovative delivery modes in undergraduate provision within UK Higher Education. Through joint research, the sharing of best practice and the design of innovative education pathways, Aston and Cranfield Universities are supporting the proposed development of a new model STEM-focused university in Milton Keynes.

This blog has been produced for the Centre for Innovation and Learning in Education, a Catalyst OfS funded project.


Ali, A. (2015) ‘Schools are ‘too focused on exam results and don’t prepare students for the workplace’, survey finds’ The Independent, 24 August. Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2020)

Baker, S. (2020) Firms shift towards wanting ‘work-ready’ graduates. Available at: (Accessed: 2 December 2020)

Blanchard, K.H., Zigarmi, D. and Nelson, R.B. (1993) ‘Situational Leadership® After 25 Years: A Retrospective’, Journal of Leadership Studies, 1(1), pp. 21–36.

Jonassen, D.H. and Rohrer-Murphy, L. (1999) ‘Activity theory as a framework for designing constructivist learning environments’, Educational technology research and development, 47(1), pp. 61–79.

Mann, L., Chang, R., Chandrasekaran, S., Coddington, A., Daniel, S., Cook, E., Crossin, E., Cosson, B., Turner, J., Mazzurco, A., Dohaney, J., O’Hanlon, T., Pickering, J., Walker, S., Maclean, F. and Smith, T.D. (2020) ‘From problem-based learning to practice-based education: a framework for shaping future engineers’, European Journal of Engineering Education, , pp. 1–21.

Yew, E.H.J. and Goh, K. (2016) ‘Problem-Based Learning: An Overview of its Process and Impact on Learning’, Health Professions Education, 2(2), pp. 75–79.


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