How to Use Problem Based Learning


Recently, Professor Caroline Hunter visited UNSW Law and gave a terrific talk on Problem Based Learning (PBL) at York Law School, a new Law School that has deliberately integrated PBL into its design. Caroline agreed to share some of her talk on our blog:

York Law School and PBL

York Law School at the University of York was established in 2007 and thus had the advantage of designing the undergraduate LLB programme with a “clean slate”. One of the principles that the degree has been based on is the use of problem based learning. York Law School is the only Law School in the UK to build a significant component of its undergraduate programme on PBL.

How is real PBL different from a normal ‘learning cycle’?

A typical learning cycle in higher education involves students attending lectures in which key content is provided; developing their knowledge through additional reading; and applying their knowledge in a smaller group session such as a seminar or tutorial.

By contrast, the PBL cycle (which usually lasts for a week) begins with students encountering a problem scenario which they have not seen before.  They work with a tutor, who facilitates a structured conversation among the students, with a view to their identifying a set of learning outcomes associated with the problem.  If the problem has been designed well, the learning outcomes will emerge reasonably naturally from the discussion and will be associated with issues of interest arising in the problem.  The learning outcomes, framed as questions, form a research agenda for the remainder of the cycle. The learning resources are then accessed, leading to ongoing self-directed study and supervised work. This moves to feedback sessions to check progress against the learning outcomes, which returns to the problem.

How does it work?

Over the course of the cycle, students access a range of learning resources, including bespoke written materials; resources on the VLE; a range of online and physical information sources both online and in hard copy.  They also attend plenary sessions.  A plenary is intended to be different from a conventional lecture in that, rather than focusing on the delivery of content, it is designed to engage students in thinking or discussion about deeper or broader issues associated with the problem(s) with which students are engaging in that cycle.

By way of illustration, here is a problem scenario taken from the year 1 UG curriculum:

Your office receives the national newspaper, The Daily Issue, in which the following reports have recently appeared.

26 October 2012

Another assisted suicide in Switzerland

The number of people going to Switzerland to die is ever increasing. It emerged yesterday that another man has died at the well-known clinic there. The man is Eric Johnson, who had advanced motor neurone disease. He was only 48 years old and was accompanied to Switzerland by his mother, Anna, aged 79. She returned to the UK yesterday, saying “Eric wanted the right to end his life with dignity. He could not do that in this country, so I accompanied him to Switzerland so he could.” She was asked if she was worried about being prosecuted for helping him. She replied: “I can’t imagine anybody prosecuting me in my circumstances.  And in any event, I don’t care.  No-one seems to know what might happen, and the law is still a mess.  Eric and I didn’t have the time to wait for it to change.”

2 November 2012

Assisted suicide bill rejected by the Lords

Although it has passed through the House of Commons, the House of Lords has rejected the government’s assisted suicide bill, which would in limited circumstances allow doctors to assist the terminally ill to die. Lord London, who has been leading the opposition to the Bill in the House of Lords, said last night: “We will continue to reject this Bill even if the Commons seeks to force it upon us.” A Government spokesman has, however, stated that “We recognise that this is a controversial topic, but our view is that the current law on assisted suicide is unsatisfactory and needs to change.  Whatever members of the House of Lords are saying, they cannot block a bill which has been properly approved. Jackson – the hunting case – taught us that.  It also underlined the primacy of the House of Commons over both the Lords and the judiciary in the making of law, which is as it should be on matters of social policy in a democracy”.

The Learning Outcomes towards which the students work in relation to this problem are as follows:

  1. What offences might be committed through helping somebody to take their own life?  To what extent does it matter that the death takes place abroad?
  2. What factors determine whether a prosecution would take place in this type of situation?
  3. How should the law regulate suicide?
  4. Can the House of Commons force a Bill through the House of Lords?
  5. What were the key aspects of the decision in the “hunting case” of Jackson?
  6. Does the House of Commons have primacy over the House of Lords and the judiciary in law-making?  Should it?

Among the plenaries which students would attend during this PBL cycle, that in Criminal Law involves a discussion not of (assisted) suicide directly but of the principles which should inform the involvement of the criminal law in behaviours which might be morally contentious. In Public Law the plenary is on constitutional principles of separation of powers.

Evaluation of PBL

Indications thus far regarding PBL are very positive. Students report high levels of satisfaction; and examiners have attested to the quality of students’ work produced for assessment.  We also hear reports of students on, for example, work experience opportunities, making direct use of the skills they develop in PBL:  eg, in working through an unseen case file with a view to identifying the key issues.

We also are able, through PBL, to deliver on a key aspiration – the offering of reasonably authentic learning experience to students. This approach is also beneficial in terms of employability and lifelong learning, where the ability to cope with ill-defined problems is a key to success.

Our practices are informed by the research into learning and teaching and as a consequence we recognise that there are reasonable criticisms of PBL to which we have to be well-placed to respond. One such criticism, which has also been raised by an external examiner has been that PBL risks focusing on the process of learning at the expense of ‘the answer’.  In law, that might be most apparent in the context of students experiencing difficulty applying law to factual scenarios with a view to advising clients.

We have borne this criticism in mind in various aspects of the curriculum: in the design of problem scenarios and their associated learning outcomes (eg, we may design learning outcomes which specifically require students to apply the law to the scenario); in the management of PBL sessions in which tutors may spend time specifically exploring with students how the law might apply to the facts; in the design of other learning opportunities and assessment items (eg, we run ‘application of law’ learning sessions, and our examinations require students to work with a problem scenario and to manipulate relevant legal knowledge in ways including the application of law to the facts).

Your thoughts? In what ways do you use problem based learning? Justine Rogers

(image: lumaxart via


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