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Problem-based learning can impart skills for life

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan

Problem-based learning is a pedagogical approach that enables students to learn scientific concepts in real-life contexts. In this article, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, a researcher and educator, elaborates on this approach with examples and explains why it is so useful.

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Problem-based learning (PBL) is a creative pedagogical approach that aims to promote self-learning by engaging students in contextual exercises. McMaster University, Canada, was the first to introduce PBL in their classrooms, way back in the 1960s, and shortly after, it was established in Europe and Australia. According to an eminent researcher in higher education from Deakin University, the main idea behind PBL is that the starting point for learning should be a problem, a query, or a puzzle that the learner wishes to solve.’ 

In this approach, students are given authentic problems that are in need of resolution. They are required to understand the situation, use prior knowledge to make connections, find resource material to better understand the concept, and formulate a solution. These exercises can be carried out individually or in small peer groups. Additionally, as it is carried out through discussion and analysis, a tutor facilitates these interactions and steers students along guided inquiry paths. This approach encourages students to think outside the box and realise that there might not be just one correct answer to a given problem.

Examples of PBL 

(a) Students are given a DNA sequence; asked to identify the regions that are required for transcription and translation, identify signal and localisation sequences, and functional motifs in the peptide, and determine its function and under what conditions it is expressed. 

Students could be further asked to design an experiment that involves cloning the cDNA into a suitable expression system.

This problem requires students to familiarise themselves with bioinformatics and applies molecular biology tools in a digital-lab format. 

(b) Jenny is a teenager facing a critical decision. Should she have DNA testing for Huntington’s Disease (HD), a genetic disease that took the life of her grandmother? Why does her mother insist that Jenny get tested? Why won’t her father get tested when he’s started to show symptoms of HD? What are the potential consequences of this decision for Jenny and for her family? 

This problem requires students to understand the genetic cause of Huntington’s Disease as well as the process of genetic testing, its risks, limitations, and bioethics.

Advantages of PBL 

PBL has been popularly identified with medicine, nursing, and biological sciences, though it can be applied to any discipline. Studies have shown that PBL offers a significant advantage over traditional lecture-based learning environments in undergraduate biology courses. According to the Hun School of Princeton, PBL empowers students to think independently and become drivers of their own learning. It appears to be effective in imparting long-term retentivity and is efficient in developing critical thinking and collaborative skills. PBL encourages students to formulate new ideas based on scientific evidence. It coaches students to understand natural phenomena and find solutions to existing challenges, thereby applying scientific ideas and practices.

Problem-based learning does not dismiss the importance of traditional teaching styles, rather it reinforces material that has already been taught in the classroom by making students understand real-life concepts and apply knowledge. In PBL classrooms, instructors will need to divide the cohort into groups and constantly move around the room and engage with different groups. By roving, instructors will fulfil the role of cognitive coaches,’ where they guide, probe, and support student initiatives, as opposed to lecturing and directing. In addition, the inclusion of novel assessment methods, including, self-reflection and peer assessment enables students to keep a track of their own learning. 


Implementing a problem-based learning method to a curriculum is challenging and poses certain questions, including, how can PBL be scheduled within the curriculum, will it meet course objectives, how will student learning outcomes be evaluated, and what methods will be included to organise and monitor groups. Higher-education providers could offer training programmes and workshops so that educators can have a defined understanding of the roles and responsibilities of instructors and students, thus equipping instructors with the necessary skills needed to lead PBL-based teaching. 

Studies indicate that most of the challenges faced by educators stem from controlling course content, devising unique problems and questions, as well as ensuring that the problems meet academic standards. Despite its challenges, the PBL approach also serves as an avenue for educators to learn new teaching skills, and design and evaluate meaningful, high-quality projects.

In light of Covid-19

The importance of self-directed learning has only become more prominent with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has necessitated the adaptation and evolution of educational systems through distance and virtual learning. Unfinished learning’, a term coined by McKinsey & Company, is used to demonstrate that students have missed out on opportunities that they normally would have had during a typical academic year, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Be it schedule disruptions, unreliable internet connectivity, Zoom fatigue, Covid-19, or overall well-being, the pandemic set students back in some form or the other. 

In India, there is a lack of robust data on the impact of the pandemic on the education system but according to the Covid-19 Learning Loss in Higher Education’ by TeamLease, India has an estimated learning loss ranging between 40 – 60%. It is evident that the closure of educational institutions triggered a shift to technological and remote learning methods, which raised challenges, such as access to such technology, sustaining motivation to learning, and incorporating reliable assessment methods. In the case of disciplines that require hands-on practical classes, such as life sciences and engineering, there have been limitations imposed on access to classes and the nature of assessments. 

It is with this novel scenario in mind that researchers called the need for innovative alternative education and assessment strategies. The pandemic has therefore acted as an opportunity for higher education providers to recalibrate the way they deliver their teaching styles. A study conducted at Aalborg University, Denmark, which has a long tradition of applying PBL in their educational activities, found that a digital PBL approach was able to mitigate some of the negative consequences of online learning. Digital PBL enabled students to work in a productive manner without the feeling of isolation and was effective in achieving positive learning outcomes when group collaborative online tools were used. 

The way forward 

Problem-based learning encourages students to give importance to evidence, formulate opinions, develop skills to justify their well-founded opinions, work as part of a team, improve written and oral communication skills, and actively engage in issues that are relevant in today’s society. Bearing this in mind, the incorporation of a PBL approach into the classroom can greatly motivate students to challenge themselves and develop transferable skills for higher education, such as doctoral programmes. Moreover, as education delivery methods are becoming dynamic, it is prudent for educators to incorporate innovative teaching styles, such as PBL, in their classrooms.