Problem-based education: learning independently in a group

Do you want students to learn to apply knowledge in a professional assignment? Are you looking for a teaching method where students acquire new knowledge in a self-driven and motivated way? Then problem-based education may be a suitable approach for your course unit. 

What is problem-based education? 

Problem-based education is a collective name for different teaching methods in which students acquire new knowledge based on a problem or task in an authentic, professional context. The emphasis in the different variants of this method is on the self-driving ability of the students. The lecturer takes on the role of supervisor or tutor. This student-centred teaching method lays a significant amount of responsibility for the learning process on the student.   

Problem-based education is also a specific form of group work in which students build up knowledge together by way of a step-by-step plan. In this method, elements such as prior knowledge, knowledge in an authentic context and active processing of the teaching material contribute to in-depth learning. 

When do you use problem-based education? 

Using problem-based education as a teaching method is useful when you pursue course competencies where the student: 

  • approaches and solves analytical tasks and problems in a group; 
  • acquires new knowledge actively and independently; 
  • takes responsibility for their learning process and formulates their own learning objectives. 

Why is Community Service Learning a special form of problem-based education? 

Community Service Learning (CSL) is a form of education where students apply the theory during a concrete social engagement, individually or in a group, within or outside the university walls (e.g., Industrial sciences students make a tool for a person with a disability). This service is part of the course unit. 

This way, students are made aware of real needs within society. Knowledge sharing and reciprocity are therefore central. Not only does the student learn, but the organisation also benefits from the students’ assistance in their specific request. In addition, students are encouraged to reflect critically on their social contribution and their learning process. 

More on CSL.

What points of interest are there in problem-based education? 

Problem-based education works best cross-curricular 

One-time use of problem-based education, for example, in a single course unit, is not effective in achieving the desired learning effects. Students should be given various opportunities with regular intervals and in different courses and situations to work with this method. 

Offer your students structure 

Structure gives students a foundation as they tackle tasks and problems. An example of such a structure or step-by-step plan is the seven steps (in Dutch) of the Maastricht model. By way of a step-by-step plan, students learn to work methodically. It gives them guidance to learn independently within this teaching method. 

Offer resources 

Problem-based education emphasises the processing of information, not finding it. Provide information sources so students don't spend too much time searching for information. 

Supplement group moments with lectures 

The lectures clarify the problem statement and help students to organise their (study) efforts and place the content in a broader, professionally relevant context. 

Pay sufficient attention to the group 

The composition and size of the group are important for the success of this teaching method. Groups of between eight and twelve students are ideal. 

Support a good division of roles and assignments 

Assigning roles and distributing clear demarcated sub-assignments helps to centre the group work around the assignment. 

Provide the students with information about the teaching method 

Tell students where they can find all the necessary information about this new teaching method, for example, in the syllabus or via Ufora. Pay attention to the following questions: What is problem-based education? What are the different steps within problem-based education? What does the reporting of the process look like? What are the assessment criteria? 

Make agreements 

Formulate deadlines and indicate your expectations about both the process and any end products. This forces students to draw up a solid plan. Regularly check their progress to make sure they comply with the agreements.   

Educate yourself 

If you want to succeed in this teaching method, it is advisable that you educate yourself. Make sure you understand what problem-based education is, how it works, and what is expected of the students and supervisors. 

Want to know more? 

  • BV Databank. (2015). Zevensprong. Geraadpleegd op 11/10/2019 via
  • BV Databank. (2015). Probleemgestuurd onderwijs model Maastricht. Geraadpleegd op 11/10/2019 via
  • Kallenberg, A.J., Grijspaarde, L. van der, Ter Braak, A., Horzen, C.J. van, (2000) Leren en doceren in het hogeronderwijs. Utrecht: Lemma BV. 
  • Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1). 
  • Van berkel, H.J.M.; Schmindt, H.G. (2001). The role of lectures in Problem-bases learning. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Research Association, Seattle, WA, April 10-14. 
  • van der Vleuten, C. P. M, & Driessen, E. (2000). Toetsing in probleemgestuurd onderwijs. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff. 

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Last modified April 21, 2022, 11:25 a.m.