Problem-based Learning

We explain what problem-based learning is, its characteristics and how it is implemented. Also, what are its advantages?

A student acquires new skills through problem-based learning.
In problem-based learning, the student is the protagonist of his own teaching.

What is problem-based learning?

Learning is the dynamic through which people acquire knowledge, skills, values ​​and beliefs., as a result of various processes of observation, practice and reasoning. It is a complex process that can be analyzed from different perspectives, giving rise to different theories of learning, that is, to different descriptions of how learning occurs.

These theories, on the other hand, allow the design of different teaching and learning methods: strategies and plans whose role is to promote certain forms of learning, and which differ from each other in how they understand the fact of learning and in what way. they promote it. One of these methods is problem-based learning (ABP).

Problem-based learning puts learning in active, practical terms, in which complex issues of life are addressed through the raising of questions, doubts and uncertainties, in such a way that the student is the protagonist of his own teaching. The task of problem-based learning is not only for the student to acquire new knowledge, but also that he learns by his own hand how and where to use each new knowledge discovered in the acquisition of new skills and the resolution of future problems.

This learning method emerged in the mid-20th century at Case Western Reserve University (USA) and McMaster University (Canada), and in 1974 it gained popularity in Europe. One of its great promoters was the American physician and educator Howard Barrows (1928-2011), who supported three fundamental axes of problem-based learning:

  • That knowledge is acquired autonomously or self-taught.
  • That knowledge can be retained and used in various life situations.
  • That knowledge comes from learning to analyze and solve problems.
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The University of Maastricht in the Netherlands designed all its faculties with this type of learning strategies.

See also: Meaningful learning

Characteristics of problem-based learning

Problem-based learning is characterized by the following:

  • It is a constructivist learning method., that is, it raises the need for an active and leading role on the part of the student in the classroom, instead of the passive and monotonous role assigned to them by educational methods based on repetition and memorization. The student must learn to learn.
  • Use complex real world problems as a vehicle to promote learning of concepts and principles, rather than presenting them directly from the start. In this way, the traditional scheme of teaching is inverted and the student is allowed to trace his own path towards knowledge.
  • The design of this educational strategy is based on small groups of students that address a complex problem, and that through active learning manage to draw simpler conclusions from a pragmatic, investigative and interdisciplinary approach.

The four of them fundamental principles of problem-based learning are:

  • Contextual learning. Learning cannot be disconnected from the real world and from the professional and experiential needs of individuals, but must be in contact with tangible realities of the everyday world to stimulate attention and the transfer of knowledge.
  • constructive learning. Learning cannot take place without the student playing an active role in the acquisition of knowledge. Thus, the role of education is to facilitate the learning experience, through strategies that allow students to accommodate the new information they receive to their cognitive schemes.
  • Collaborative learning. Ideal learning occurs from collaboration with peers, taking advantage of the diversity of interests, experiences and prior knowledge. Therefore, it is convenient to stimulate the cooperation between the students and the collaborative spirit to jointly reach the resolution of a problem.
  • self-directed learning. Learning must be directed by and towards the student, in such a way that the latter can reflect on the way in which he learns and can communicate his own objectives, strategies and educational needs. This does not mean that the teacher is not necessary, but that the student must be very involved and very aware of the teaching process.
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Advantages of problem-based learning

Among the advantages of the learning model are:

  • Promotes an active role on the part of the students, which translates into greater commitment, greater decision-making capacity, more self-esteem and the promotion of critical thinking.
  • Promotes teamwork and the positive accumulation of knowledge based on shared experience. Likewise, it promotes the recognition of own and other talents.
  • It consists of a permanent learning methodwhich encourages self-evaluation, self-criticism, individual responsibility and communication skills.
  • Inserts the academic curriculum in a relevant context for students, with clear and evident links to the real world and everyday needs.
  • allows the incorporation of various materials, sources and information elementsas well as an interdisciplinary approach, less compartmentalized.

How to implement problem-based learning?

The implementation of an educational model of problem-based learning is part of the design of problem-situations, from real life, that students can critically address. These scenarios should be conducive to identifying different issues of importance, which should be discussed in small groups of students during a certain time, at the end of which they must present to the teacher the investigative goals that have been outlined.

For this, they can go to different sources of information to document themselves around the subject, and thus undertake a synthesis process that leads them to certain conclusions. Finally, students must evaluate their own performance and that of their classmates.

This system can be summarized as follows:

  • Approach of the situation-problem. It must have direct ties to real life, cover a complex problem, and arouse interest and motivation. Ideally, it should lead students to conclusions based on verifiable facts.
  • Formation of the groups and design of the research plan. Students should be encouraged to refer to prior knowledge on the subject, justifying their judgments and asking open questions. The search for external and independent information should be encouraged.
  • Application of learning to the situation-problem. Once the information is obtained, the group must undertake the resolution of the problem in a creative, pragmatic way, and that reflects the experience obtained from the investigation, so that it can also be applied to similar situations in real life. For this it is important that you ask yourself questions about the necessary resources, the duration of the solution and what kind of learning will be obtained from all this.
  • Evaluation. The resolution of the problem must be exposed to the rest and later evaluated, both by the individuals in the group and by the rest of the classmates, based on objective, communicable and collaborative criteria.
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Continue with: Cooperative Learning


  • “Learning” on Wikipedia.
  • “Problem Based Learning” on Wikipedia.
  • “Problem-Based Learning” at the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico).
  • “Problem-based learning” (video) at the University of Maastricht (Netherlands).
  • “Problem-based learning (PBL)” at the University of Illinois (USA).