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Problem Based Learning (PBL)

PBL is a student-centred instructional approach in which students collaborative solve problems and reflect on their experiences. It is characterised by

  • triggers / problems / scenarios used as starting points for learning experiences,
  • student led groups in which students work together collaborative to identify gaps in learning, and learning goals,
  • teacher as group facilitator, allowing more self-directed learning,
  • independent self-directed study, after which students meet and report on their advancement towards the learning goals
  • student self-evaluation of learning activities.

PBL allows students to enact problems they are likely to come across in the workplace, whilst enhancing transferable skills such as teamwork, problem solving, public speaking and self-motivation.


Guidelines for Inclusive PBL

Reflect on the level of guidance you give students during the PBL tutorial. Adjust if necessary.

While self-directed learning is central to PBL, students may need a level of guidance and reassurance, particularly when first introduced to PBL. For example, students may need guidance regarding learning goals:

  • In a recent survey of TCD students studying PBL, only 50% of students reported feeling confident that their learning goals were relevant and useful. Lack of confidence in learning goals was reported to raise stress amongst students who did not know if their subsequent research was worthwhile or helpful. Tutors can help alleviate this stress by reassuring students that if they go off track they will step in and redirect them.


Reflect on student participation, and work to encourage engagement from all students.

Encourage participation in discussions:

  • Be aware some students may need more encouragement to participate in the group discussion, especially at the beginning (e.g. non-native speakers, shyer students). Other students may find engagement difficult due to language limitations or a speech impediment. Encouragement will lead to great benefits academically, professionally, and socially as it improves confidence in speaking in English in front of others.
TCD student
I found that when I talk sometimes people don't understand it well...maybe because of my English is rather weak. Because of that, they don't respond to my opinion. That makes me feel dejected a bit...


TCD student
My low confidence in being scribe for PBL group is due to dyslexia, not reflection on PBL structure


Clearly explain the role of scribe and chair, so students know why, and how, to perform their roles effectively.


Don’t underestimate the importance of good group dynamics for effective learning.

Bad group dynamics can hinder the tutorial discussion and cause low participant morale. Take time to help the group work together. Be alert for the following and address if causing a problem:

  • Some students dominating the discussion, while others are reticence to contribute,
  • Unequal sharing of workload,
  • Group acting as competitors rather than collaborators, hiding materials and trying to outdo each other,
  • Students going off topic onto personal discussions,
  • Challenging and debating becoming personal attacks.


Ensure students have the opportunity to feedback to each other and to the tutor in a safe environment.


Ensure alignment with assessment methods employed and learning outcomes in any module that uses PBL. image of students in a pbl class

Alignment means that course content reflects learning outcomes, teaching methods are chosen to reach outcomes, and assessment is designed specifically to judge if and how well the learning outcomes have been achieved by the students.

  • Ensure that PBL is the right method to reach the learning outcomes on your course.
  • If combining PBL with a formal assessment using a different assessment method, ensure PBL has sufficiently prepared the student to demonstrate learning through this assessment method.


When using PBL, consider possible barriers with the physical environment. Is it fit for the purpose and activities involved in PBL? Is all necessary resources and equipment available?


Also note that PBL uses elements of

and so it is useful to consider the good practice guidelines for these activities when designing inclusive PBL.


Last updated 28 February 2019 by Trinity Inclusive Curriculum (Email).