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The Benefits for Students of Problem-Based Learning

Daniel Johnston - Feb 14, 2022

Haack and Jambor recently highlighted the high drop-out rates of Engineering students at German universities: quoting that at least one in every three students drops out or changes their course (Haack & Jambor, 2020). Over similar concerns (although with slightly less frightening figures), the UK government has called on universities to reduce their drop-out rates across all subjects (Department for Education, 2019). In Haack and Jambor’s work, the authors highlight the lack of positive performance and lack of internal drive as being among the principal causes for students dropping out (Haack & Jambor, 2020). In their work, the authors propose the problem-based learning method as a potential solution to this problem. While there is a wealth of literature on this approach, for this case study, we focus on that of M.A Almulla (Almulla, 2019)

Many educationalists consider problem-based learning (PBL) to present several strengths by comparison to (what Almulla refers to as) “traditional teacher-centred didactic technique[s]” (Almulla, 2019).With this in mind, this paper studies the impact of this technique on students’ outcomes.

First of all, what is problem-based learning? Dating back to (American pragmatist and educationalist) John Dewey’s ideas of the early twentieth century, PBL centres on the idea that “teachers should ask students to explore and create using their instincts”(Delisle, 1997, as cited in Almulla, 2019). There are believed to be six keystones of this approach (Barrows, 1996, as cited in Almulla, 2019), these are the development of:

  • Hypothetical deductive reasoning;
  • Cognitive flexibility;
  • Self-directed learning skills;
  • Teamwork and collegiality;
  • Self-identification of strengths and weaknesses; and,
  • Habits of self-reflection and self-appraisal.

Based on other authors’ discussions concerning the benefits of PBL, Almulla studies (using feedback questionnaires) the impact of PBL on students’ internal drive, their problem-solving abilities, learning styles, learning difficulties, their broad range of learning skills, and (of course) their academic achievements.

Almulla sought to study a total of twelve hypotheses. The first six of these pose that problem-based learning has a beneficial impact on the following capacities of students.

  • Internal drive for learning;
  • Thought processes in learning contexts (referred to as their “learning thinking”);
  • Ability to benefit from a range of learning styles;
  • Learning difficulties;
  • Transferable skills; and,
  • Academic success.

The remaining six hypotheses investigate the interrelated nature of the six listed factors above (e.g. Increased internal drive for learning has a positive impact on students’ successes, and so on). The research used student feedback questionnaires as the source of data which helped to confirm, or dispute, these hypotheses.

Through a statistical analysis of the survey results, Almulla found that all six listed hypotheses were supported relatively strongly, with students’ responses to the questions gathering around the “agree”-end of the scale.

One issue that the author highlights, is the need for future research into the implementation of problem-based learning. They advise that this further work should result in the development of standardised guidelines. Educators could then follow these to ensure that the positive impacts (found across the body of literature) are seen in their implementations of the approach. Notably, Almulla’s concluding note highlights the potential benefit of research into the response of educators to the problem-based learning method. This last point should also cover the possible constraints imposed on the approach’s implementation in certain circumstances as these can undoubtedly vary depending on factors such as technology, degree course, culture, and learner age groups.


[Source Paper] Almulla, M. A. (2019). The Efficacy of Employing Problem-Based Learning (PBL) Approach as a Method of Facilitating Students’ Achievement. IEEE Access, 7, 146480-146494.
DOI: 10.1109/ACCESS.2019.2945811

[1] Department for Education. (2019, 7 March 2019). Education Secretary warns universities over dropout rates.
Available Here

[2] Haack, M., & Jambor, T. N. (2020, 27-30 April 2020). Influence of Problem-Based Learning on Student Performance. Paper presented at the 2020 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON).
DOI: 10.1109/EDUCON45650.2020.9125113

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