Problem-based learning – Revisiting Case Studies in Motivating the Learner (Part 4)

By Matt Cornock

Problem-based learning (PBL) shifts the responsibility for learning firmly onto the student. Whilst the educator acts as a facilitator, providing an initial brief, stimulus materials and devising problems to solve, the students must decide what materials to use, what to learn, and how to approach the problem. As Peter Ommundsen describes in the fourth chapter of ‘Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner’, “PBL inspires students by involving them in meaningful learning activities rather than requiring them to listen passively to lectures” (p.25). In this post I look at Ommundsen’s case study and make suggestions as to how learning technologies could support the learning process.

Digital resources for PBL

The context of Ommundsen’s case study is a biology course which aims to develop students analytical, diagnostic and reasoning. PBL acts as a way to develop these skills whilst simultaneously exposing students to new academic content. To summarise Ommundsen’s implementation of PBL, students are provided example medical cases, specimens, video clips and other stimuli that feed into a complex and multilayered problem. Key here is the selection of resources, some students will need, others perhaps distractors, but the problem itself is authentic and representational of ‘real world’ problem solving. An obvious benefit of learning technologies is the way that a variety of media can be presented to students. Colour copies can just be presented digitally online as high resolution images and other forms of multimedia. In particular, the flexibility of multimedia means that evidence and stimulus resources such as first-person narrative, interviews, personal accounts and expert perspectives can be pre-recorded and provided to students without the struggles (or cost) of organising face-to-face contributions. Students can be provided with the range of evidence they would find in the real world, rather than just endless, ‘dry’, text-based documents.

Such resources may be presented in a structured way through a VLE or use more creative repositories such as virtual pinboards (Padlet), social bookmarking (although this form of web 2.0 platform was swiftly overtaken by social networking sites), or Twitter with a course-specific hashtag (allowing resources to be released periodically over time). The selection of resources relevant to ‘solving’ the problem is a fundamental learning process within PBL. Resources need to be explored by students, but also the knowledge within them only applied when relevant, as Ommundsen described learning “on a need-to-know basis” (p.27). Contrast this process with lecture delivery where the lecturer is delivering content that has been pre-selected for students to learn, the PBL resources are selected by the student as appropriate for the problem. Learning technologies could also assist here, with commenting facilities on web-based resources shared amongst PBL groups to demonstrate their understanding of the relevance to the problem. The lecturer controls the flow of stimulus resources, which may require the students to reconsider previous understanding of the problem, but this is what Ommundsen describes as a useful motivational factor of short-term gains and achievable goals. At each stage of the PBL process, students discuss their understanding, perhaps raising questions about knowledge gaps that need addressing in order to proceed with the problem. In Ommundsen’s case study mini-lectures were provided in group discussion situations, providing additional academic material to complement the problem. At-desk video recordings by the lecturer would also achieve a similar objective.

Welcoming participation

Ommundsen suggests how students can be motivated by the very first part of the PBL process, an initial group brainstorming session where students’ initial thoughts and ideas are captured as first lines of enquiry. By creating an environment that welcomes students to draw upon their existing knowledge (even if it turns out to be incorrect for the problem), Ommundsen aimed for students to appreciate “they can learn from each other; they are capable of self-directed learning; [and] they are capable of tackling a problem” (p.28).

To encourage open participation in this way will probably require overcoming preconceptions of the role of the student and the lecturer, to support instead an exploratory approach to learning rather than assessment against one right answer. However, through this participation students can be more interactive in asking questions, working out why something is the case rather than just memorising facts. The lecturer is no longer just delivering lectures, but must be more reactive to the lines of enquiry the students wish to explore in order to resolve the problem.

In the subsequent case study in ‘Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner’ by John Savery, lecturers Weston and McCloud for their authentic, problem-focused course, clearly stated to their students how the module would run. They stated in the handbook “there would be no lectures” and that students would need to be “mature, responsible and self-directed” working in teams, inviting students not willing to engage to participate in a different “lecture-based” course (p.35). Providing such clarity of expectations appears to be a common component of induction where modules are taught in a ‘non-traditional’ way. Who knows, perhaps one day we might need such induction processes for lecture-based courses (although it could be equally argued students do now!).

Spaces of participation

As Ommundsen suggests, this changes the dynamic of the teaching environment and requires planning and flexibility of the instructor. The face-to-face environment works well for this, mediating a way through the change in roles. However, online spaces such as group blogs to record group progress and Q&A discussion boards can also be used to allow the instructor as facilitator to provide feedback to students. Beaumont and Swee Cheng (2006) studied preferences for online and face-to-face spaces for various stages of the PBL process, with discussion boards (and equivalent group online spaces like Blogs within Blackboard) particularly useful in maintaining social cohesion of groups, sharing and disseminating resources, and sharing learning. Group blogs act as a good way to record the progress during a problem, including where lines of thought change and the learning objectives for the next phase of problem solving. Jennings (2006) also notes the possibility of using online group tutorials with synchronous platforms such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect, instead of the face-to-face taught session for wholly-online PBL and distance courses. The means of interaction allow for immediate discussion in order to progress the PBL activity on from analysis to study and solving.


Ommundsen’s case study presents creative and interesting problem material for students. This in itself is a great motivating factor, but the ownership of learning and the self-directed nature of problem-solving stimulates further interest and engagement. The approach to PBL also requires a change in the classroom dynamic, that may take some getting used to, but structured PBL design offers regularity to the learning process that compensates for the flexibility in the learning content (see Jennings, 2006, p.123 for a practical overview). Technology offers a way to extend the ideas Ommundsen presented, adding more variety to materials, alternative methods of interaction and adding to the authentic nature of the task.


Beaumont, C. and Swee Cheng C. (2006). ‘Analysing the use of communication tools for collaboration,’  in Savin-Baden, M. and Wilkie, K. (2006). Problem-based Learning Online. Maidenhead: Open University Press. pp. 191-209.

Jennings, D. (2006). ‘PBLonline: A framework for collaborative learning’, in Savin-Baden, M. and Wilkie, K. (2006). Problem-based Learning Online. Maidenhead: Open University Press. pp. 105-125.

Ommundsen, P. (1999). ‘Problem-based Learning’, in Fallows, S. and Ahmet, K. (eds.). Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner. London: Kogan Page. pp. 25-32.

Savery, J. R. (1999). ‘Enhancing Motivation and Learning Through Collaboration and the Use of Problems’, in Fallows, S. and Ahmet, K. (eds.). Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner. London: Kogan Page. pp. 33-41.

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