Getting started with problem-based learning – a four-week reflective programme

Many university teachers probably recognise the benefits of problem-based learning (PBL), but struggle to find the opportunity to embed the methodology in their teaching. At Think Up we are part of an EU Erasmus+ programme called Enginite which aims to help engineering teaching staff develop their problem-based learning facilitation skills. As part of that programme we are collaborating with Prof Søren Wilert of the University of Arlborg to develop a three-day training course and a training manual in problem-bsaed learning.

In designing this training we immediately see the paradox inherent in creating a set of instructions for delivering PBL: PBL is based on inductive self-led inquiry and problem solving, not following instructions issued by an authority. The approach we are therefore advocating is to make the training process itself, as far as possible, problem-based.

The training itself will be synchonous, initally face-to-face and in future may possibly be available remotely, but to make the training work, we have created a programme of reflective pre-training. We are making this pre-training available and open to anyone who wants to develop their PBL facilitation skills.

Not just for teaching staff

If you aren’t a teacher, or aren’t currently teaching you can still develop your problem-based learning facilitation skills through this programme as it is all about reflecting on how you empower other people to take responsibility for their own development. We’ve created a parallel set of teaching notes for non-teaching participants.

What’s involved?

The aim of this preparatory work is for you to experience PBL for yourselves. The preparatory work we ask you to so is to experiment with implementing elements of PBL in your current teaching and to reflect on the successes and challenges in action learning groups that you will form with your Enginite colleagues in your departments/companies. Thus you learn about the practicalities of applying problem-based learning in your own habitual teaching setting, and you will also learn about dealing with the challenges you face using a PBL philosophy. For us as training designers, this process will give us very good information about your training needs so we can tailor the course exactly to what you need.

We are not asking you to apply a complete PBL methodology, but equally, if you just carry on doing what you do already, then no progress will have been made. Neither you nor we will learn anything. We are also keen to point out that even if PBL is already part of your teaching repertoire, there will always be room for new experiments.

We ask you to commit two hours in week one, and one hour per week thereafter to spend time reflecting on your teaching/working practice with colleagues in a small action learning group that you will form. How much effort you put in to experimenting with your own practices is then down to you – the more you put in the more you will get out.


PBL in the context of the Enginite initiative

PBL is found in many varieties across the globe. Common to all varieties is the unwavering contention that learning must be brought about through the learner’s active self-guided, yet also supervisor-supported search for answers to a range of practical and/or theoretical questions that have been derived from some particular problem issue, i.e. something not understood or known. This ubiquitous PBL aspect is aligned with a number of well-known learning principles such as learning-by-doing (Dewey), experiential learning (Kolb), student-centered learning (Rogers), zone of proximal development (Vygotsky).

In Enginite we are interested in one particular dissimilarity among PBL varieties. It has to do with problem ownership: Who chooses or defines the problem that shall serve as motor for the learner’s search process? – By whom is ‘the problem’, in the first place, recognized as being problematic?

Two examples illustrate this dissimilarity:

The term PBL was originally coined in the late 1960s by Harold Barrows and his colleagues in the medical school program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. In this tradition problem ownership belonged to the teaching institution. PBL was invented in response to students’ complaints about the vast amount of handbook material that had to be memorized as part of, e.g., anatomy training. Through PBL obligatory fact-oriented reading supported by classroom lectures was replaced by teaching programmes where students solved teacher-posed problems about body functioning as their means of gaining anatomical knowledge. Instead of feeling weighed down by individual fact cramming, groups of students collaborated on solving real-world medical problems. Through their collaboration they became, in principle, capable of formulating those very same handbook sections which, before, had been experienced as burdensome. The anatomical details became a lot easier to remember. At Republic Polytechnic, Singapore, this pedagogical strategy has been built into educational programmes for engineers.

In the PBL variety found at Aalborg University, problem ownership is in principle handed over to the student. After having been introduced to the knowledge field related to a given course, groups of students are requested to make their own choice as to what particular problem issue shall guide their inquiry. Implementation of this pedagogical form has a marked impact on working relationship between teacher (or supervisor) and student(s). Instead of it being the students’ job to uncover correct problem solutions that are already known to the teacher, the teacher must accept that, even though the students may use ‘normal words’ when describing their chosen problem issue, the full meaning of those ‘normal words’ can only clarified by putting questions to the students. What exactly has caught their attention as being problematic?

Using the terminology introduced by Donald Schön, moving from classical PBL towards the Aalborg variety means that the supervision mode called Joint experimentation gains in importance relative to the supervision mode called Follow me.


Your brief for this preparatory work: to broaden your teaching methods using a PBL manner, one step at a time.

You will do this by forming action learning groups with your colleagues in your institution/company. For a period of four weeks you will meet weekly to discuss what PBL methods you are going to try and implement that week and what are your experiences as you do it. The aim of the action learning group is to support each other to go beyond your normal teaching habits. Whether you choose classic PBL or PBL-Aalborg style, or some combination of your own invention, is up to you. Don’t make it so complicated it feels like a burden. But please, don’t either make it so small it becomes totally un-interesting.

We suggest your first meeting should last two hours to give you enough time to set things up; subsequent meetings need only take an hour. Below are suggested agendas for your meetings, and attached is a form you can use to support your group discussions and capture your learning.

What exactly you decide to do each week is up to you – all we ask is that you commit energy and time to these activities.

How do I get started?

The instructions for the first two weeks are below. More instructions will be released in due course. The four week-programme starts Friday 9th Feb, but you can start the programme later if you wish.

Stay in touch

If you are not part of the Enginite programme, but want to tell us that you are following this programme, please fill in this form so we can keep in touch.