Problem-Based Learning: Benefits and Risks

Problem-based learning, the instructional approach in which carefully constructed, open-ended problems are used by groups of students to work through content to a solution, has gained a foothold in many segments of higher education.

Originally PBL, as it’s usually called, was used in medical school and in some business curricula for majors. But now it is being used in a wide range of disciplines and with students at various educational levels. The article (reference below) from which material is about to be cited “makes a critical assessment” of how PBL is being used in the field of geography.

Much of the content is relevant to that discipline specifically, but the article does contain a useful table that summarizes the benefits and risks of PBL for students, instructors, and institutions. Material on the table is gleaned from an extensive review of the literature (all referenced in the article). Here’s some of the information contained in the table.

Benefits of Problem-Based Learning

For Students

  • It’s a student-centered approach.
  • Typically students find it more enjoyable and satisfying.
  • It encourages greater understanding.
  • Students with PBL experience rate their abilities higher.
  • PBL develops lifelong learning skills.

For Instructors

  • Class attendance increases.
  • The method affords more intrinsic reward.
  • It encourages students to spend more time studying.
  • It promotes interdisciplinarity.

For Institutions

  • It makes student learning a priority.
  • It may aid student retention.
  • It may be taken as evidence that an institution values teaching.

Risks of Problem-Based Learning

For Students

  • Prior learning experiences do not prepare students well for PBL.
  • PBL requires more time and takes away study time from other subjects.
  • It creates some anxiety because learning is messier.
  • Sometimes group dynamics issues compromise PBL effectiveness.
  • Less content knowledge may be learned.

For Instructors

  • Creating suitable problem scenarios is difficult.
  • It requires more prep time.
  • Students have queries about the process.
  • Group dynamics issues may require faculty intervention.
  • It raises new questions about what to assess and how.

For Institutions

  • It requires a change in educational philosophy for faculty who mostly lecture.
  • Faculty will need staff development and support.
  • It generally takes more instructors.
  • It works best with flexible classroom space.
  • It engenders resistance from faculty who question its efficacy.

Reference: Pawson, E., Fournier, E., Haight, M., Muniz, O., Trafford, J., and Vajoczki, S. 2006. Problem-based learning in geography: Towards a critical assessment of its purposes, benefits and risks. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30 (1): 103–16.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, February 2007.