Problem Based Learning Thinking Faster and Slower in a complicated society

What PBL actually is?

Problem based learning is a new teaching-learning technique which, is more and more implemented in the world's leading educational institution. In the traditional approach the student is being provided with a specified quantity of theoretical material which he has to understand by learn it off by hard. The concept of PBL allows a candidate to first confront the problem itself and while searching for answers to solve it, learn the theoretical part and understand it immediately. The objectives of the PBL methods in general is to make students acquire knowledge more effectively, efficiently develop a set of skills and shape the right attitude through problem solving.

Diference between Problem Solving and Problem Based learning!

To just... solve a problem, means to arrive at the decisions however, the process is based on our past knowledge and reasoning which, most often is derived from past experience. The PBL is the process of acquiring knowledge by recognising the need to learn. The technique is greatly different from the traditional learning method since, the steps to be taken vary greatly in order and reasoning behind them.

Why bother PBL

Sir Ken Robinson is one of my most favourite TED speakers. Once upon a time, I was even inspired to make my own TEDx talk based on a few ideas in his writing. The main premise that he advocates that: our education system is in many ways not tailored to the needs of the individual. It is tailored to the industrial/capitalist needs of our economy. I do not dare to argue. What we would like to reveal is that the complication comes from a more simple issue.

Mystics and Pedagogs

Thinking was not invented by the Greeks but the Greeks found many ways to inspire how to think. One of such models of thinking is Andragogy. In plain English this really means: the self directed learning of an individual. This in a purely academic sense, lead to discovery and learning that arguably is not present in the modern society. There are more than a few more articulate attributes (in the graphic above) but for our sake - university learning - this will suffice. The reality that one can easily grasp by looking at these attributes is that we are really (or have not really become) self directed. The amount of information available, makes us more organisers, fabricators or even rhetoricians. But definitely not explorers and discoverers.

On the other end of the spectrum of learning is what we know as Pedagogy. This model of learning basically has the educator in the middle of the whole standardised and pre-established process. We most certainly have advanced far by observing the world through a very common lens but lack the creativity that ignites great change (this is especially true after a standard education). Consider many simple experiments by the likes of Karl Dunker who directed participants to use a few props (candle, box, pins) to find a creative way to light the candle without having it on the table. Not a lot of people were able to do this. More so, this idea is extrapolated further where the compare the creativity of children and adults (where the later is less creative at prototyping). This begs to ask: are children or the less brain washed more creative?

I doubt that either of us are competent to answer this but a key notion of PBL learning is using these two models - Andragogy and Pedagogy - to instigate creative learning. We will try to explain how in this one pager. The main elements are: 1) experimentation the ability to take risk and fail; 2) observation by leveraging other points of views and; 3) correlation of experience and learning.

The above graphic summarises a number of central notions that are common to many researchers. If you are interested in the more academic side of this concept proceed here. In very simple terms however, the biggest notion about all this PBL fuss is: a trigger that directs a learner (who is independent) to discover and learn by doing with others.

The above graphics right about summarise the main elements of this particular approach. Namely, the steps and SPICE principles. My personal view is that this all is quite technical and I prefer what we broke down into the Pyramid on the left image. Here we explain 3 activities that each groups generally conducts - researching, reflecting, and reasoning. These actions are directed to major topics - context, content, connection. I prefer pyramid because we do this process intuitively and do not need to mechanically go through a stepwise process.

What I would argue however, is that we fail to do some of the most fundamental and simple things to impose a structure; unto our learning. This makes the process not self and group directed but rather context directed. When we fail to figure out what we are trying to learn and who is responsible to drive this process - role attribution - we get a little lost. When we fail to set deadlines and targets we execute at the best of our abilities given the time we have. Finally we seldom engage with out tutor (teacher/group leader etc.) albeit knowing that: his goals are aligned with ours. If you are to remember anything of the above consider to: - next time your working on a group project - 1) attribute roles; 2) set deadlines and milestones; 3) and engage with the one directing the learning.

History of PBL

PBL is based on the idea that an information overload is not the most efficient way to teach students and helping them solve their problems. The vast amount of information available is impossible to teach students and simultaneous it keeps on growing.

The concept of PBL was born in 1913, when Sir William Osler noticed a "too great a reliance on lectures and on students’ capability of memorising a growing number of items of knowledge" among his students. In the 1960 PBL was introduced to Canadian Medical Schools. Although it was Osler who pioneered the concept of PBL, it was a group of of physicians and scientists recruited by the McMaster School of Medicine, who had shared the view that the undergraduate education systems should be improved. Medical education in the past has overwhelmed medical students, as they were presented with extensive amounts of learning material in medical schools, which often lacked relevance to the actual practices of medicine. Thus, the purpose behind the development of the PBL curriculum was to enhance learning of the students, help them see the relevance behind what is being taught and how it could be applied in the real world. By 1960, PBL was becoming increasingly integrated into the curricula of US medical schools, which have previously followed an integrated teaching system. In the 1990's PBL was adopted by many UK and other European medical schools too. Today, the integration of PBL is not only witnessed in medical schools or K-12 settings, but there has been a gradual adoption of this pedagogy throughout a variety of different universities and programs.

PBL in the Classroom

In PBL, small groups of students are presented with contextual situations and asked to define the problem, decide what skills and resources are necessary to investigate the problem and then pose possible solutions (Duch, Groh & Allen, 2001). Therefore, unlike the usually approach towards learning and teaching, PBL courses start with the problems rather than with teaching of disciplinary knowledge. Students gain knowledge, skills and understanding of the material by encountering a sequence of challenges when trying to solve the problem.

Unlike traditional pedagogy, the two parties to PBL are students and tutors. This means that no teacher is involved in the process. The two key functions of tutors throughout the PBL process are the facilitation of the students’ development of analytical skills, metacognition, and critical thinking, as well as helping them to become independent and self-directed learner (Barrow 1992). Tutors face two dilemmas in the PBL approach. Firstly, the conceptualisation as facilitators and secondly, the tensions that arise as tutors tried to redefine their role in PBL as compared to their previous role as teachers (Donaldson and Caplow 1996). When investigating the perception of tutor effectiveness, Mayo found that the four most important facilitation skills perceived by students are: (1) helping the group be aware of how group processing works, (2) encouraging feedback within the group, (3) guiding the group to set appropriate learning issues, and (4) assisting the group to integrate learning issues (For more details check here.) Students generally value effective tutors who advance the learning process in PBL. Just like traditional teacher and professors, students have to recalibrate their roles. Students are no longer passive listeners and information absorbers, but have to take on a more active role in the learning process. To smoothen the transition from traditional learning methods to PBL, students should be explained their roles and responsibilities in the process by the tutors, as well as the criteria they will evaluated against. Group dynamics and group collaborative learning are essential in PBL. While collaborative learning prepares students for their future professional careers, enhances creativity, builds a sense of a learning community and improves metacognitive skills, group dynamics facilitate the functioning of the group by taking into account the members strengths and weaknesses.


We can find triggers that engage a person or a group of people to undergo problem-based learning in very different environments. Triggers have acted as the little situations that helped push humanity forwards throughout the years and driven efficiency in almost every thinkable process. Just think of how differently the Egyptians used to build their pyramids compared to how we now set up monumental skyscrapers across the world. One thing, among many, that has helped us make the process so much more efficient are wheels, a simple yet powerful tool to greatly decrease the amount of manpower necessary to construct buildings.

In case you are triggered and looking for a way to improve your Problem-based learning approach, have a look at the following video where Elon Musk explains the first principles approach to solving a problem.


Although PBL has been criticized at times, since students may be exposed to less breadth of content as compared to traditional learning methods, these do not outweigh the advantages of PBL. Problem-based learning fosters higher level thinking among students and also helps them actually understand and apply the content they learned. This is because students, while solving a problem, are intimately engaged with and applying the theory rather than just reading and trying to retain information. Moreover, students using the problem-based learning method improve their self perception and confidence during the process, since they are applying the knowledge they gain and creating something with it. Finally, PBL methods have also proven to foster retention among students more actively than traditional methods of learning since students engage in more activities and use more of their senses, while learning through a PBL method.


PBL can be found in a variety of academic disciplines, but legal education has so far been reluctant to adopt this pedagogy. Learning the law requires students to study legal codes, cases, law interpretations, books and opinions extensively. Traditionally and still in most law schools, a law lecture is a monolog by the professor. Involvement of the students is limited and students are expected to just listen to the professor and learn material. No student entering his legal studies expects something different than studying extensively, however, a PBL approach could shape the way law is taught.

The requirements for becoming a lawyer a follow a similar procedure around the world. Prospective lawyers have to firstly study the law, and then take an admissions exam. Unlike many other disciplines, it is rather challenging to categorise law into one specific field. Obviously law is not a science, but is it a humanity? A social science? Or rather a liberal art? A number of subjects in these academic fields have adopted PBL curricula, so why have law educators been so hesitant? Although law students are expected to develop into critical thinkers during their studies, there has been an equal emphasis on engaging students with jurisprudential issues. Legal academicians have questioned PBL ability of producing true intellectuals. Consequently, we face a question in the legal education whether the goal should be to educate students to become practically oriented, technically skilled and ethically aware legal professional, or students should rather be educated to become jurists. PBL is at conflict with the traditional approach in the legal education and the idea of top-down education, where the jurist lectures mostly passive students. PBL calls for a more holistic approach towards teaching and evaluating students in law. Attitudes, attributes and competencies should be given more weight in this discipline. The concept of PBL has gained in gained in popularity and proved to also function well at law schools. One example where PBL is incorporated deeply into the curriculum is York Law School in the UK (click here for more information). York Law School PBL process looks as follows and resembles the traditional PBL process.

1. Read and clarify the problem

2. Identify parties and interests

3. Set out chronology of events

4. Mind-mapping possible ‘issues’

5. Identify issues and give problem

6. Organise themes

7. Define learning outcomes from themes

8. Plan, agree and carry out research

9. Share results – this is a two-stage process

10. Check to see if learning outcomes are met

Created By
sai agnihotram

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.