PBL's logic

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Understanding the logic of PBL

PBL is based on three core principles for successful and comprehensive learning:

1) Learning should be learner-centered, 2) follow an active process of knowledge construction, and 3) be collaborative.

PBL is learner-centered

PBL is often superficially portrayed as little more than small-group teaching. And indeed, PBL as an interactive learning activity works best in groups of around twelve students (but it can also be used in bigger classes, for which it then becomes closer to the idea of the flipped classroom). Thus, it is not only the size but also rather the quality of interaction within this small group that makes the PBL experience different.

The seven steps of the PBL

First, in PBL, learners themselves (and not the professors) are the ones identifying the learning objectives and learning goals. It is assumed that “deep” learning occurs when we have the possibility to dePine our own learning goals, also because we then grasp the relevance of and give meaning to our specific approach to the topic. Learners (not the instructors) identify the respective questions of the respective PBL cycle based on prior knowledge, interest and relevance identified by the tutorial group. The coordinator dePines topics and designs assignments that trigger interest, but the tutorial group in a consensus-seeking process dePines the precise learning objectives for each session (as they are the ones who know what they know for sure, are able to dePine assumptions to be tested etc). Involving learners before the start of the learning activity makes PBL differ considerably from other forms of active learning, in which students, for example, are asked to be in charge of implementing a task given by the instructor (e.g., preparing a presentation about some topic). In a PBL setting, students are not only active in implementing the given task, but during the pre-discussion they actively dePine their exact approach to the assignment. This set-up supports deep learning because learners are able to research what they are specifically interested in; learners dePine the relevance of and give meaning to the identified puzzle; and learners link the new topic to existing knowledge and familiar interpretations (Glaser 1991, pp. 132–3). Additionally, in discussing possible learning objectives, the group members exchange individually existing knowledge. According to neurological research, this favours deep learning again as new information is linked to previously acquired and familiar knowledge.


Secondly, in PBL, learners are not only central in dePining the content of learning, but they also actively shape the process of learning. Students are dynamically in charge of their learning process by fulfilling the roles of chair, secretary (or whiteboard worker) and active participants during the tutorials. In the most ideal case, students run the tutorials themselves, without any intervention of the tutor: the student ‘chair’ runs the meeting, moderates the discussion, and ensures an efficient and engaging exchange between group members. The ‘secretary’ takes minutes and supports the group discussion by visualizing and making notes on the whiteboard. Yet, it is the responsibility of all group members to participate actively and make their meeting work. By engaging in this learning process, learners mimic every time a small-scale research process: from identifying the questions, engaging with the literature, looking for empirical evidence, formulating arguments, to presenting individual research findings to colleagues in subsequent meetings.


Next to the interactive element in the small-group setting, the ample scheduled self-study time plays a major role in a PBL environment. Students need to extensively engage with the dePined learning goals individually before then comparing and contrasting their research findings during the post-discussion. A large part of the work during the learning process therefore takes place outside of the classroom during the self-study. The pre- and post-discussions are possibilities for checking one’s own understanding and deliberating among members of the team. At the end of the PBL cycle after each post- discussion, it is highly recommended to integrate a reflection moment, during which the group assesses its learning process, discusses shortcomings and agrees on potential adaptations for the next learning cycle.


In the most ideal case, students run the tutorials themselves, without any intervention of the tutor. By engaging in this learning process, learners mimic every time a small-scale research process: from identifying the questions, engaging with the literature, looking for empirical material (evidence), formulating arguments, to presenting individual research findings to colleagues in the next meeting. At the same time, a central element of a PBL environment is ample scheduled self-study time. Students´ preparations should be extensive and allow the learner to engage with the dePined learning goals individually, before then comparing and contrasting the research findings in the group. You will experience that therefore a large part of the work during the learning process takes place outside of the classroom during the self- study.

PBL is a problem-based process of knowledge construction

A central element of PBL is that students do not just passively receive knowledge from the instructor, but instead they are actively involved in constructing knowledge. Two reasons identified by pedagogical research make active learning more favourable than passive knowledge transfer.

First, learning is treated as ‘sense-making activity’. Students do not just grab what is identified as knowledge by academic authority and memorize it, but they give meaning to facts and construct knowledge to solve a puzzle. Knowledge is thus not an abstract and objective aim for knowledge’s sake, but factual knowledge becomes an instrument required to solve a task. This rationale of PBL relates smoothly to Bloom’s taxonomy about different levels of educational objectives, which starts from the idea of knowledge transfer before building up to more complex objectives, including comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Secondly, knowledge is context dependent, and learning needs to be contextualised as well. Assignments and PBL tasks often ask students to apply academic knowledge to practical (‘real-world’) situations. By doing so, learners establish relevance for their research steps before consulting the suggested material. More importantly, this setting helps learners to understand what the gained knowledge is applicable for. Consequently, learning in a PBL setting is ideally situating knowledge construction in contexts where academic knowledge can be used and applied. This idea of learning being actively constructed by the learners also strongly shapes the role of the tutor, who is not responsible anymore to transfer knowledge in the traditional sense (“to teach”, but facilitates students in developing and improving their self-directed learning skills (“facilitate to learn”). This is well in line with the emphasis on the learning process within PBL, where it is not predominantly about “what is learnt” but “how it is learnt”.

The logic behind active knowledge construction is that when learners establish the relevance of certain questions before they look for information to solve the puzzles, they do not just memorize but they understand. Learning in a context provides relevance, and helps the learner to understand what the gained knowledge is applicable for. PBL is collaborative learning

Last but not least important, PBL depends on integrated and collaborative learning within the tutorial group. Through this collaborative learning exercise learners train and increase their ability to judge information provided by others, relate findings of others to their own learning success, and critically assess compatibility or conflicting judgment.

Within the post-discussion meetings tutorial members elaborate on the information that they collected, discuss with peers and exchange views and arguments. Additionally, learners are not only confronted with different perceptions and argumentation, but in the discussion of the researched and read materials, acquired knowledge often has to be re-formulated in own words when presented. Repeating this learnt knowledge helps again to memorize and retain information.

Additionally, learners become socialized to work in a group, train their communication and team working skills. While that is certainly a challenge at the start with PBL, one gets easily used to reflecting on group dynamics or to overcoming challenges in miscommunication or dysfunctional group behaviour.

Useful Toolkit Resources

Moust, Jos, Bouhuijs, Peter, and Schimdt, Henk (2007): Features of problem-based learning: An introduction. In Introduction to problem-based learning. A guide for students. Nordhoff Uitgevers, pp. 9-17, 53-56;
Gijselaers, Wim (1996): Connecting Problem-Based Practices with Educational Theory. In Wilkerson, LuAnn and Gijselaers, Wim (eds). Bringing Problem-Based Learning to Higher Education: Theory and Practice. pp. 3-12
Maurer, Heidi, and Neuhold, Christine (2012). Problems Everywhere? Strenghts and Challenges of a Problem-Based Learning Approach in European Studies. Paper presented at HEA Conference, May 2012 in Liverpool. Accessible at http://tinyurl.com/ problemseverywhere
"Tutorial Group 2013": An explanation of the seven PBL steps as used at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) at Maastricht University: http://tinyurl.com/sevenpblsteps
PBL Workshop during INOTLES June 2014 meeting in Brussels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xW1efcfSKtE