Problem-based learning vs. the classic style: A trade-off is a better choice.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach and curriculum design methodology often used in higher education and K-12 settings [Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (1995)]. In this method, the teacher exposes the students to “challenging, open-ended problems with no one right answer”. Then, students learn through self-directed and active investigation of the possible answers to the problem in small collaborative groups. Several benefits have been mentioned for this style of learning, such as developing critical thinking and creative skills in students and making the knowledge active for students so that they can apply it to other situations. Yet, there are some criticisms as well. Two important criticisms include: 1) students cannot know what are the important points they are really supposed to learn [Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1997)]. 2) It might not be possible for the teacher to cover all the required materials. On the other hand, the classic teaching style allows for delivering more materials, including the key highlights, but does not foster the skill of critical thinking in students.  In this regard, I believe that it does not have to be either entirely classic style or entirely PBL. The better choice is to hit a middle ground such that we can have the advantages of both styles. For example, the teacher can deliver the main points in the class and have exams and homework to make sure students learn the key points. Simultaneously, the students can be given project assignments regarding the application of the materials they have learned. They can also be asked to present the findings of their works on the projects in class. Although this mixed style creates more work for the teacher, it makes it possible to deliver the key materials to the students while simultaneously developing their critical thinking skills.

This entry was posted in Pedagogy. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Problem-based learning vs. the classic style: A trade-off is a better choice.

  1. hleah says:

    Hi Ali!

    I definitely agree that there are some things that PBL can’t do and it’s not suited for all audiences and topics all the time–no single teaching method will ever do everything all the time! I think your suggestions of incorporating PBL into the assignments and assessments after exposing students to the basic concepts are very good.

    I’m not sure I’m sold by the idea that simply delivering more content than PBL is an advantage for lectures, though. While survey courses may have a requisite amount of material to be covered in a given timeframe and we may not be able to control that as individual instructors, I think there’s limited value to a course which only covers as much material as can possibly be fit into the timeframe. Even anecdotally, how often do we complain that students never remember anything they memorized in their introductory classes and have no idea how to apply it? Is it really a disadvantage that we can “cover” less material with student-active methods like PBL if the students aren’t remembering what they’ve “learned” in content-heavy lecture courses?

    As you’ve discussed, balance is important.

  2. Emily Burns says:

    I like this idea of finding a middle ground between traditional learning and PBL. It makes me reflect back on one of our earlier topics, “discovering your authentic teaching self.” If using both techniques seems like the best way for you to teach, I would design your courses in this manner. On the flip side, I loved the idea of PBL as the main means of learning. Giving students a real-life problem or example to “solve” sounds engaging and exciting to me. I would rather students work on a project that requires they learn foundational skills in a hands-on way, instead of giving exams. I think it is easy to remember information for a test and then forget it. However, I could see how some subjects may require students to demonstrate their knowledge on exams as well as through PBL.

  3. silknets says:


    I tend to agree with you that “the better choice is to hit a middle ground such that we can have the advantages of both styles”. But I must say that for me, this comes from a fear of going all-in on the PBL approach. While you suggested that you could take pieces from both a traditional lecture style course and PBL, I think this might end up as a watered down style that might confuse students. If I were to implement PBLs in a course of my own, I think I’d try a multiple week case study. Perhaps start the course as a classic lecture-style course, but then after the midterm set aside ~4 weeks to really tackle a problem. Use groups, and follow the PBL approach to have them use the knowledge from the first 6 weeks of class to address a problem related to the course content. Then have a few weeks at the end of the semester remaining for students to reflect on their problem and present their findings to the class. This would allow (I hope!) for an assessment of their critical thought through the project, but also allow them to teach their classmates what they’ve learned. Thanks for the post!!

  4. deryaipek says:

    Ali, those are important limitations of PBL that you mentioned. I think PBL is an effective way to learn, but I agree with you that it is not suitable for learning new topics because students will be busy working on their projects. I think common ground is a good solution to this problem. Something else I would recommend is to determine prerequisite classes in which the required content is covered. That way, students would be familiar with the required content, and they can only focus on working on their problems and learning throughout the process.

  5. aralvarez says:

    Hello – A middle-ground for teaching with PBL can be beneficial. I agree that PBL does have limitations that need to be addressed when professors are designing their courses. Thank you for sharing. Alexandria Rossi Alvarez

Leave a Reply