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Problem-based learning

From problem to solution: with a large degree of independence, students learn how to find a solution to real problems.

Concept and method

The aim of problem-based learning (PBL) is the acquisition of knowledge that can be applied to problems encountered in professional practice. The learning process starts with a realistic situation from day-to-day practice, which is presented in the form of a problem. A “problem” in this context means a challenge. In tutored groups and through self-study, students analyse the problem independently. They put their existing knowledge to use, formulate learning issues themselves, and develop the kind of new knowledge required to solve the problem.

This ensures students play an active part in the learning process. Meanwhile, the teacher assumes the role of tutor. In their role as tutor, the teacher not only reveals their own knowledge, but also supports the learning process by asking open questions.

he problems are dealt with using the so-called seven-jump method:

Phase 1 Analysis of the problem within the group
Step 1 Clarify any unfamiliar terms
Step 2 Determine the central issues
Step 3 Put existing knowledge to use, form hypotheses
Step 4 Discuss hypotheses and put them in some kind of order
Step 5 Formulate learning objectives or learning issues
Phase 2 Dealing with the problem through self-study
Step 6 Research information
Phase 3 Broader understanding of the problem within the group
Step 7 Exchange new information, reflect on the learning process

The specialist knowledge acquired is fleshed out via skills training and with one eye on professional practice. This involves students training in professional aptitudes and skills in a laboratory situation replicating a professional environment. The teacher, as a professional expert, assumes the role of a skills trainer.

So with problem-based learning, students combine what they already know with new content and acquire both specialist and more generic competencies. They learn how to get along in a team and learn both from and with each other. They consciously assume responsibility for their own learning.

Origins and development

Problem-based learning was developed towards the end of the 1960s by Howard S. Barrows at McMaster University in Canada. This approach is now used all over the world in training schemes at various levels of education.

Depending on how it is interpreted, PBL is applied as a pedagogical concept to an entire curriculum, as a continuous form of learning, or as a technique (seven-jump method).

The original concept exists in numerous forms. Related approaches such as project-based learning and enquiry-based learning are also regarded as highly promising concepts for incorporating the development of competencies into training programmes and comprehensively promoting learning processes and behavioural competencies.

Special edition

The Zeitschrift für Hochschulentwicklung (Journal for Higher Education Development) has published a special edition to mark the Congress Problem-based Learning 2016. It comprises 14 articles on how to implement PBL and related approaches. The articles show how exploratory approaches to learning can be used to promote a competency-based view of things at training institutions.


Barrows, H.S., & Tamblyn, R.M. (1980). Problem-based learning: an approach to medical education (Vol. 1). New York: Springer.

Barrows, H. S. (1999). A Taxonomy of Problem-based Learning Methods. In J. A. Rankin (Hrsg.), Handbook on Problem-based Learning (S. 19-26). New York: Forbes.

Benner, P. (1984). From Novice to Expert. Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice. Menlo Park: Addison-Wesley.

Careum Stiftung (2000). Eine transferwirksame und praxisnahe Ausbildung mit Skillslab und problem-based Learning. Bericht Vorprojekt der Stiftung. Zürich: Careum Verlag.

Careum Stiftung (2013). Problem basiertes Curriculum Höhere Fachschule: Curriculum-Buch 1. Zürich: Careum Stiftung.

Crittin, J.-P. (2004). Selbstbestimmt und erfolgreich lernen. Bern: Haupt Verlag.

Landwehr, N.(1994). Neue Wege der Wissensvermittlung. Aarau: Sauerländer-Verlag.

Moust, J.H.C.; Bouhuijs, P.A.J.; Schmidt, H.G. (1999). Problemorientiertes Lernen. Wiesbaden: Ullstein Medical.

Reusser K. (2005). Problemorientiertes Lernen – Tiefenstruktur, Gestaltungsformen, Wirkung. Beiträge zur Lehrerinnen- und Lehrerbildung, 23 (2), 159-182.

Siebert, H.(2005). Pädagogischer Konstruktivismus. Weinheim: Beltz Verlag.

Swanson, K.M. (1991). Empirical development of a middle range theory of caring. Nursing Research, 40 (3), 161-166.

Weber, A. (2004). Problem-based Learning. Bern: hep-Verlag.

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