Problem Based Learning (PBL)

Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a research based learning method. In PBL students are encouraged to solve problems, both theoretical and practical, which are set in a real world framework.

Problem-based learning in action

What is PBL?
In PBL, rather than sitting in a lecture or blinding following a lab manual, students are encouraged to solve problems set in a real world framework.

The problems are often complex and open-ended, requiring real thought and enquiry. The students work together in small groups supported by a staff facilitator. The groups enable the students to test and develop their level of understanding as they discuss their theories and findings with others.

A PBL approach means that students take a greater part in their own learning. In order to solve a problem, at each step students must decide what they know already and what they need to know in order to continue. They then have to seek that knowledge and embed it in their developing framework of understanding.

There are many variations of PBL, for both practical and theoretical aspects of a course. A module can vary in length, the amount of contact time, and the level of self study required of the students.

The advantages of PBL
PBL can give students a deeper understanding of the theories and principles of physics than they can gain from a normal lecture approach. As they work through a problem, applying knowledge they already have and new knowledge they have sought and explaining it to their group, they begin to appreciate what they are learning and the connections between courses.

The PBL method also eases transition to life beyond degree level as it mirrors how people work in the real world. Encountering a complex problem, working in a group, dividing up tasks and employing communication skills are all aspects of real-life jobs that are sharpened through PBL.

PBL and the HESTEM programme
A number of the IOP's partners are using PBL approaches in both the practical and theoretical aspects of their courses: Integrated Sciences at Leicester and London South Bank and at Salford in its new-look physics degree. The IOP is keen for other institutions to try this learning method. The departments are willing to share the good practice they have developed in embedding PBL into their courses.

Interested in adopting PBL in your institution?
The IOP, in partnership with Professor Derek Raine and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science at the University of Leicester, has created fifteen PBL modules that can be adopted by university lecturers for their own teaching needs. These cover both physics and broader integrated sciences topics. The student versions of the modules are available for download from here.

If you would like more information or guidance on how to adopt the modules for your own needs, please contact

last edited: July 04, 2014

Related information

A Short Course in Problem Based Learning (PDF, 2 MB)

A series of slides that provides a short introduction to problem-based learning

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