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Problem-Based Learning: Strategies for Forming Effective Learning Behaviors


Problem-based learning starts with a question – a real-life question. It is an educational method that seeks to engage people in what they’re learning. It also seeks to increase the retention of information. So, the “real-life” element of presenting teams with a challenge is crucial. 

By attaching meaning to the question, you're increasing the chances of engagement. The reason problem-based learning increases engagement is because it involves action. It's a self-driven process, meaning there isn't much opportunity to sit back and switch off. 

Who can use problem-based learning?

Usually, it's used in schools and colleges by teachers and lecturers. Without problem-based learning, teaching in school is passive. Students listen, make notes, and try to remember information. Problem-based learning doesn’t work like that. Instead, it aims to develop dynamic skills that are relevant in the workplace. 

Problem-based learning develops critical thinking abilities, confident communication, independent research skills, and self-reflection. Let’s be honest, there’s plenty of working adults who haven’t quite nailed these skills yet. Whilst problem-based learning is generally discussed in the context of schools, then, it’s adaptable to the workplace too. 

How should a problem-based lesson run?

So, let’s imagine you’re a manager or a teacher. You’ve decided to try problem-based learning. You’ve prepared well, (more about that later), and you’ve devised a real-life problem for teams to solve. Here is what should happen next: 

1) Clarify any terms which people don’t understand. This is so all teams start from the same knowledge level.

2) Students/employees ask themselves questions, to establish the problem. At this point, they need to decipher what they do know and recognize what they don’t.

3) Analyze the questions. This leads teams to focus questions around what it is the team is trying to find out. This is a crucial point because it guides their research.

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4) Teachers can validate whether students/employees are on the right path. At this point, it’s important to guide a little. This is so that future research doesn't go off course. It's important to guide, so the learning goal objective is achievable.

5) Students/employees begin to research and answer the question. This might be throughout an afternoon or a few weeks. In this time, they’re devising a final solution to the problem you gave them. But they’re also answering a bigger problem which motivated this lesson in the first place.

An example…

So, an example of a problem-based learning project in a school might go as follows.

Problem the teacher is looking to overcome

Pupils are failing to communicate with one another or share opinions. This is stalling lessons and the learning process.

Objectives of the problem-based learning lesson

Encourage conversation about educational topics. Have students feel confident to speak in class.

Real-world problem/question assigned to the teams

What could we do to make our school carbon neutral?

What you would do next:

  • Lay the ground rules, tell each team that there is a no judgement policy on ideas.
  • With clarity, discuss the assessment procedure and grading expectations.
  • If they need further guidance, assign them roles such as leader, critical thinker, creative thinker, etc., to get the conversation going.


Students now communicate with confidence about environmental issues. They are also more confident to speak in class. As a result of the lesson, they have initiated a plastic ban on the canteen.

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If you were to adapt this in the workplace, meanwhile, you might address a problem with CRM integration. What is CRM integration? Well, it means assessing customer interactions and connecting with them across multiple systems. This is to improve customer retention and sales growth.

Overall, problem-based learning pushes people to do the following things…

Role designation

Be it, leader or critical thinker, designating roles leads to self-confidence and recognition of areas to improve in.


Throughout the problem-based learning process, self-evaluation is ongoing. This is good practice for a working environment, for example, when you need to work within a CI framework. What is a CI framework? Well, CI stands for Continuous Integration. It’s a set of principles software development teams use as part of a process in which the team self-evaluates and makes continuous minor adjustments to their work. This is so they can be more reliable and efficient when coding in the future.

Develop research skills

An employee may need to research venues for the company Christmas party or landline vs VoIP phone systems. Whatever the topic of research, and however dull, research skills are essential in every job.

Improve communication skills

Effective communication is more important than ever. Remote working has meant that a lot of nonverbal communication has been lost. For example, over a video call you can’t sense microexpressions and a change in body language. Communication skills need to be strong for employees to effectively convey ideas through a screen or a chat box. 

Problem-based learning seeks to develop skills but digs deeper than that too. It also looks to ingrain effective learning behaviors.

Learning behavioral outcomes problem-based learning seeks to achieve:

1) Intrinsic empowerment

A sense of control and influence a person has in a situation. This drives motivation and a sense of resourcefulness.

2) Entrustment

This involves students/employees self-assessing and peer-assessing. The feedback they give and receive will help with their work. Beyond this, it will strengthen communication skills between teams.

3) Functional skills

This can be anything from digital literacy to time management. Problem-based learning gives people the chance to learn functional skills as they go. This is far more engaging than sitting and listening.

The nature of behavioural outcomes means they are difficult to quantitatively measure. Is there statistical evidence to back up problem-based learning as an educational method? 

Below are three examples of students taking a maths test. See the results for yourself: 

Potential challenges to be aware of and strategies you should use to meet these outcomes

The above outcomes might seem a natural follow-on from problem-based lessons. It’s never going to be a straight path when it comes to teaching, though, is it? To quote one of the best self-help and personal management books out there, “when dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic”.

Let's look at some challenges faced in problem-based learning. This way, we can also look at strategies and solutions to overcome them:

Challenge 1:

The transition to remote teaching—would problem-based learning work over Zoom or a Zoom alternative?

Let’s face facts, 97% of employees don’t want to return to the office full-time. So, it’s important to consider whether remote problem-based lessons would still be engaging.

Strategies to overcome this challenge… 

  1. ​Embrace the change. Don’t be scared of problem-based teaching online. There is research taking place around the development of a problem-based learning model via a virtual learning environment, and it’s been discovered that the problem-based model piqued interest. 
  2. If you do feel uncertain, explore ways to increase your confidence. There are many ways of improving engagement while teaching remotely.
  3. Whilst communication and teamwork are big parts of problem-based learning, it is the research which takes up the most time. Research is best done remotely with no distractions, and so the transition to online is not a problem for the most part.

There are multiple platforms which assist rapid eLearning for employees. No doubt there will be one in development to assist in problem-based learning lessons.

Challenge 2:

Students/employees aren’t accustomed to problem-based learning

It might take a while for students to transition to a problem-based learning model. If they’re not willing to adapt, they may not prepare for lessons. This is problematic because students need to prepare so that they can contribute. A lack of communal contribution defeats any sense of teamwork.

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Strategies to overcome this challenge… 

  1. Consider blended learning to begin with. Usually the term “blended learning” refers to creating a hybrid between online and in-person teaching. There are infinite possibilities of blended learning, and the same attitude can be used to mix traditional and problem-based lessons. Rather than sticking to only traditional or only problem-based teaching methods, mix the two. 

A hybrid approach can overcome unfamiliarity by introducing problem-based learning gradually. Also, this way, students get the best of both theoretical and real-world skills.

  1. Mix up the schedule of when you teach in the traditional method and when you teach through problem-based learning. This will improve students/employees ability to adapt to new ways of learning.

Challenge 3:

Teaching preparation

Despite being a student-led method of learning, there’s still a lot of crucial planning and preparation involved for the teacher/manager. Without this, students feel they lack basic knowledge at the end of the lesson. Without complete planning, there's also a chance that information comes across as disorganized.

Strategies to overcome this challenge:

Be sure to do the following things with clarity and confidence:

1) Identify learning outcomes. What do you want them to know by the end?

2) Identify a problem that will best communicate the learning outcomes

3) Root it in real-world situation—this helps ground lessons and helps people identify with them

4) Set ground rules for research

5) Make it clear how they’ll be assessed or graded. Your students need to know their grades and get feedback from you, as well as each other. Otherwise, they might miss learning objectives.

Is it time to give problem-based learning a go?

Some businesses already have. In Ireland, some small-and medium-sized enterprises have used a problem-based learning model. They found that it had the potential to address long standing company problems. It also encouraged continuous development, addressed employee knowledge gaps, and increased communication.

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If you are willing to give it a go, remember to be adaptable. Be it in the office or school, the first problem-based lesson you try will teach you a lot. 

Problem-based learning holds all the potential to engage employees or students and lead them to form effective learning behaviors. A change of pace through introducing problem-based lessons is likely to stick with them, so why not give it a go?




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