How Has Psychological Research Shown That Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an Effective Instructional Method?

Posted December 2019 by Sean Jackson, B.A. Social Studies Education, B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; 4 updates since. Reading time: 6 min. Reading level: Grade 9+. Questions on problem-based learning? Email Toni at:

One of the difficulties educators face is finding ways to not only help their students master the content of their studies, but also do it in a way that leads to long-term skill development.

That is, students shouldn’t be asked to simply memorize names, dates, facts, and so forth. Instead, instructional methods should facilitate the development of higher-order thinking strategies, the ability to engage in self-directed learning, and improved problem-solving skills. Problem-based learning (PBL) does just that.

Psychological research has proven PBL to be a highly effective instructional method. But how? Let’s explore what PBL is, how it’s implemented, and how psychology has demonstrated its efficacy.

What is Problem-Based Learning?

If we were to define problem-based learning, it would be something along the lines of:

An instructional method that uses real-world problems to facilitate student learning.

This is an oversimplified definition, but it gets to the heart of this type of learning. Rather than students passively absorbing concepts and facts, they are engaged in the exploration of those concepts and facts in the context of seeking to solve complex problems.

Problem-based learning is often conducted in small groups, where learners work collaboratively toward a solution for a single problem. However, the problem has multiple potential solutions. This small-group format promotes multiple higher-order skills, including critical thinking skills, improved communication skills, problem-solving abilities, and collaboration skills.

Steps in Problem-Based Learning

There are multiple steps in the process of PBL. By following these steps, educators can help students maximize the benefits of this type of learning:

  • Explore the issue – Students gather information, learn new skills, gain new knowledge and understanding, and evaluate the topic or problem.
  • State what is known – Students evaluate what they know (as an individual and as a group) and also identify topics about which they need more information.
  • Define the issue(s) – Students present the problem in the context of what is known and what still needs to be learned.
  • Research the knowledge – Students examine resources that can assist them in devising their solution to the problem.
  • Investigate solutions – Students identify potential solutions to the problem, examine possible actions they can take, and test their hypotheses.
  • Present the solution and provide support – Students articulate what their conclusion is and offer supporting evidence for why their solution makes sense.
  • Review the performance – Students evaluate how they performed in the task. They also identify areas of improvement and make a plan for implementing those improvements in the next task.

As you can see, PBL is extremely detailed, with multiple opportunities for students to flex their intellectual muscles.

This is precisely where psychological research has played such an important role in demonstrating the effectiveness of PBL.

Psychological Research on Problem-Based Learning

As PBL has grown in popularity, there has been an increasing desire among psychological researchers to explore just how effective it is as a learning tool.

From the standpoint of social learning theory, research has shown that PBL seizes on the benefits of social interaction on cognitive development. For example, the collaborative problem-solving opportunities provided in PBL aids students in examining not only their individual knowledge of the topic under study, but also examining what the group as a whole knows and understands.

Furthermore, peer learning is facilitated via small-group discussions in which students explore what they know, what they don’t know, postulate potential solutions, and so forth. 

This, in turn, results in each individual learner in the group consolidating this collective knowledge and developing deeper connections with the topic of study. In other words, students not only construct their own ideas about the potential solutions to the problem before them, but they also co-construct ideas through interactions with their peers.

Constructivists in psychology also point to the efficacy of PBL as an instructional method thanks to the active role that students take in the process.

Rather than simply being empty vessels into which their teachers place important information, students are engaged in self-directed, active, and collaborative investigations.

Therefore, students are able to create, organize, and store information and experiences into schemas while also developing deep knowledge of the content being studied. This results in long-term retention of the material under study, in addition to the development of critical thinking skills, the ability to reflect on one’s learning, collaborative skills, and the other skills outlined earlier.

From a general perspective, psychological research has supported the notion that PBL offers students significant gains in long-term knowledge retention than other types of instruction.

Specifically, meta-analyses of problem-based learning data found that this type of instructional method outperforms traditional types of instruction (i.e., lectures) when it comes to student retention of knowledge and skill performance over the long-term. Furthermore, PBL was found to be more effective for performance and skills-based assessments over the long-term.

Another study revealed that students randomly assigned to a PBL learning group demonstrated a higher level of understanding, particularly on measures of conceptual change. The PBL group outperformed students in two other groups – one lecture-based and one self-study – on conceptual tests both immediately after the conclusion of the lesson and on a post-test administered one week later.

Much research has been done on the effectiveness of PBL as an instructional method for applied learning, such as medical-related courses. In a study from 2011, it was learned the PBL was particularly effective in nursing programs. Specifically, PBL had demonstrable effects on the acquisition of skills needed to perform one’s nursing duties. Likewise, another study showed that nursing students whose professors use PBL had improved critical reasoning skills.

In should be noted, however, that PBL does not outperform other types of instruction when the measures are based on short-term outcomes.

In fact, PBL facilitates similar learning gains in the short-term as lecture-based instruction. Therefore, its efficacy as an instructional method is much more robust for long-term retention of knowledge and skills.

Conclusion: How PBL Benefits Learners

As noted above, problem-based learning certainly has its place in a teacher’s repertoire, particularly when it comes to developing higher-level thinking skills. Likewise, retention of information and skill performance is much improved over the long-term when students engage in PBL as opposed to other types of instruction.

Something that psychological researchers should continue to examine with PBL is the efficacy of its individual stages. Though many studies have been done on the problem analysis and reporting phases of PBL, less literature exists to explore just how effective the other five phases of PBL are for instruction.

What is known is that simply collaborating with other learners is not enough to boost long-term retention of material, nor is simply engaging in self-directed learning. Instead, psychological research suggests that it’s the sum of the whole – all seven phases of PBL – that has the greatest effect on instruction and student learning.

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