PBL step by step


How does Problem-Based Learning work?

Research has shown that people learn more effectively when they can discuss the study material with others. Problem-Based Learning is therefore based on tutorial groups, in which 10 to 15 students work together on a specific problem. The study material and related tasks are included in what is referred to as a ‘block book’. The tasks form the core of this book, which also includes the course schedule, the literature list, an explanation of how your work is evaluated, etc. The block book is basically a ‘screenplay’ intended to help you navigate all the necessary learning activities.

A task is also called a problem or case. The aim is for you to solve the task. Each task deals with a specific subject related to a particular theme. After working on all the tasks, you will have dealt with all the subject matter related to the theme in question.

To deal with the task in a structured fashion, you use the ‘seven-step’ method. Steps 1 through 5 are preliminary steps, step 6 is self-study, and step 7 is the post discussion.

The seven-step method (with example):

STEP 1 Clarifying difficult terms

After reading through the task, you get down to work with the rest of the group. First, you identify and explain all the difficult words, so that everyone at least understands what the task is about.

Example: Relationship Marketing at McDonald’s

McDonald’s is an American company, founded in 1948. Since the opening of its first restaurant, the company expanded rapidly. After ten years, the first one hundred stores were opened. At this time, McDonald’s franchises and operates McDonald’s restaurants in more than 100 countries world wide and serves around 58 million customers a day.

In the past, McDonald’s franchise system enabled the company to grow fast, while it was not focusing on increasing customer satisfaction. Therefore the company changed its focus to being better – not just bigger. This customer-centered plan is part of Relationship Marketing, which recognizes the long-term value of customers. Happy customers will probably come back for more. Unhappy ones most likely will not.

Currently the company focuses on its franchise system to deliver locally-relevant restaurant experiences to customers in different countries. This is important as the needs, preferences and values of customers differ across countries. Besides taking local differences into account, McDonald’s changed its business strategy to adapt to important global business trends – e.g. changes in lifestyle and the need for healthier products.


Example of difficult words:

Franchising – is the practice of using another person’s business model. The franchisor grants the independent operator the right to distribute its products, techniques, and trademarks for a percentage of gross monthly sales and a royalty fee. Various tangibles and intangibles such as national or international advertising, training, and other support services are commonly made available by the franchisor.

Customer satisfaction – is a measure of how products and services supplied by a company meet or surpass customer expectation. Customer satisfaction influences customer loyalty and thereby customer retention.

STEP 2 Defining the problem

The second step leads to a precise definition of the problem. The group needs to agree on which aspects need to be explained or resolved. What is the central issue or question involved in this task? You make a list of all the questions which need to be answered. This provides you with a good overview of issues you need to discuss.


Example: Defining the problem

  1. Why did McDonald grow fast?
  2. How can McDonalds get better?
  3. What are the needs in different countries?
  4. What is the added value of a franchise system?
  5. What is a Business Strategy?


STEP 3 Brainstorming

You are now ready for step 3, in which you attempt to analyse all the questions listed. Everyone can provide input on the various questions. This is a process of ‘thinking out loud’, also referred to as brainstorming. The aim is not to immediately evaluate the ideas and input of other members of the group. All ideas and pieces of information are welcome at this stage – good or bad, right or wrong.



Example: Brainstorming

“Fast food is popular all over the world” “McDonalds has nice fries and burgers”

“McDonalds also serves healthy food”

“McDonalds had a young and energetic image”

“In Asia they should serve meal with rice and fish”

“A business strategy is concerned with how a business competes successfully in a particular market. It concerns strategic decisions about choice of products, meeting needs of customers, gaining advantage over competitors, exploiting or creating new opportunities etc.”

STEP 4 Taking stock of and analysing the possible solutions provided in step 3

In step 4, you make an overview of all the solutions which have been provided, and everyone is given the opportunity to express an opinion on the solutions. This stage of the analysis makes it clear what is not understood, which aspects the group members have their doubts about, and in which areas there are conflicts of opinion. The group may even be able to solve some of the problems during this step


Example: Taking stock and analysing

Questions 1 and 5 have been answered satisfactory, but we could use more background on questions 2-4.

STEP 5 Formulating learning objectives

During the next and final step of the preliminary review, step 5, learning objectives are formulated for all those problems which the group has not succeeded in solving or about which the group has insufficient information.


Example: Defining Learning goals

How can you increase customer satisfaction? What is Relationship Marketing? What are the different needs and preferences across countries? What can McDonalds do to keep growing while maintaining quality?

Self-study: Step 6

With the help of these learning objectives, you then start working on your own, at home or during a free period at the university library. In order to work out the learning objectives quickly and effectively, you should focus on the following aspects: Select your study material efficiently:

  • Don’t just look in a book in a particular section, but also use your literature folder.
  • Take an active attitude when studying: While reading, check whether your insight into the issues involved is improving.
  • Try to put the material into your own words: Ask yourself, “How would I explain this to someone else?”
  • Take clear notes of the most important points.
  • Read up on background information regarding the learning objectives. It’s not enough to look only for information needed to answer the learning objectives – you also need more background information.


Example: Self study

The post discussion: Step 7

At the next group meeting, you discuss the answers you have found regarding the learning objectives. You can also provide a summary of the material you have learned and mention which material, if any, you have not understood, so that the group has the opportunity to explain it. In addition, the tutor can of course also help you out. As you see, the activities involved in carrying out the task are divided into three stages. First, the tutorial group works together to determine what is already known and what is not and holds preliminary discussions. After that, you start working on your own to learn the subject matter involved. Finally, you return to the group to discuss what you have learned. You will more easily remember the material, as you have already been working on it three different times. When reviewing the material to prepare for a test, you will be dealing with it for the fourth time.

Example: Post-discussion

How can you increase customer satisfaction? Increase the level of perceived value (costs vs. benefits) by a customer.

What is Relationship Marketing? Relationship marketing refers to a long-term and mutually beneficial arrangement (relationship) wherein both the buyer and seller focus on value enhancement. Important relational variables are commitment and trust, which lead to higher customer satisfaction and retention. An important idea behind relationship marketing is that customer retention is less expensive than customer acquisition.

Different needs and preferences across countries – you can ask for examples (These examples are extracted from the annual report 2008 of McDonald’s) U.S. – focus on menu classics, specialty coffees, trial of new products (more conservative, less healthy products) EU – focus on transparency (of McDonald’s as employer, product quality and nutrition), menu variety (more healthy products, e.g. McDonald’s sells more different salads in the EU)

Examples of McDonald’s key success factors:

  1. Branded affordability (e.g. Euroknaller)
  2. Menu variety and beverage choice
  3. Convenience
  4. Day part expansion (i.e. extended opening hours)
  5. Ongoing restaurant reinvestment (reimaging its restaurants)

The role of the discussion leader, the note-taker and the tutor

Each group member takes on the role of note-taker once and the role of discussion leader once. The person acting as the note-taker for a meeting will act as the discussion leader for the next meeting. This is only logical, as the discussion leader can only function effectively if s/he knows what was discussed during the previous meeting. The roles are assigned to the various group members during the first group meeting. The note-taker During the meeting, the note-taker writes down notes on the note sheet. The group can also use the blackboard/whiteboard to better understand and remember certain concepts, draw diagrams, and write down agreements etc. This too is one of the note-taker’s tasks.

The notes must always include the following points:

  1. The date of the meeting, the task involved, the name of the note-taker, the name of the discussion leader, and the name of the tutor;
  2. Difficult concepts;
  3. Definition of the problem;
  4. Learning objectives (points 2, 3 and 4 comprise the preliminary stage of the task);
  5. Summary of the follow-up discussion of the task;
  6. Day’s agenda (including all the matters agreed upon within the tutorial group).

If you were the note-taker for a meeting, you will be the discussion leader the next time. Always make sure you bring the notes, typed or neatly written, with you to the next meeting.


The discussion leader

If you are the discussion leader for a meeting, you are actually acting as the chairperson for the meeting. Your most important responsibility is to ensure that everyone in the group continues to work effectively. As you have prepared the notes yourself, you know exactly what the agenda of the meeting looks like, which matters were agreed upon previously, and how much time is available. You also make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to speak and that the discussions are conducted effectively and orderly. If you find that the discussion is veering away from the topic on the agenda, you must remind everyone of what the meeting is actually about (the ‘thread’). To do so, it helps if you provide a summary of what has been discussed every now and then.

So the discussion leader actually has two responsibilities:

  1. She/he must make sure that all the learning objectives are dealt with and that the seven-step method is carried out effectively;
  2. She/he must make sure that the group members work together effectively and that each group member behaves appropriately.

If you are the discussion leader, you should pay attention to the following points:

  • Make sure a clear agreement is reached on who the note-taker for the meeting will be;
  • Check whether everyone has received a copy of the notes, and give everyone the opportunity to read them;
  • Does anyone have any questions regarding the notes?
  • Always start with the follow-up discussion; explain briefly what the task is about (the thread), and summarize the discussion held during the previous meeting;
  • Discuss the learning objectives and the subject matter to be studied;
  • Are there any questions, problems, comments?
  • You have now completed the post discussion stage, and you can simply continue with the next group task (the preliminary stage).
  • You must now make sure that steps 1 through 5 of the seven-step method are carried out;
  • You bring the meeting to a close.

So the primary task of the discussion leader is not to deal with the subject matter under discussion, but to ensure that the discussion is carried out in an effective and orderly way. Of course, in addition to the discussion leader, there’s also a tutor present, who keep an eye on the entire process


The tutor

In addition to a discussion leader, a note-taker, and the group members, there’s always a teacher present during a tutorial group meeting. The teacher is referred to as a tutor. In contrast to a teacher lecturing a class, the task of the tutor is not to explain all the subject material and tell you what is more important and what less. The tutor’s primary task is to make sure that the group members work together effectively, to encourage the group to delve more deeply into the subject matter, and to make sure that everyone understands the subject matter. The tutor is responsible for the course contents as well as the functioning of the tutorial group. Whenever necessary, he can also lend a helping hand to the discussion leader.

Making agreements

What can you expect from the tutorial group and the group meetings? At any rate, you can expect a commitment and a willingness to work together as a group. This demands quite a lot from you and your fellow group members. You will, for example, be expected to adopt a proactive attitude during the meetings, to prepare yourself properly for the meetings, and to follow through on all the matters agreed upon. Whenever necessary, you must also be able to keep your fellow group members in line. In short, participating in tutorial group meetings does not mean simply arriving, sitting and adopting a passive attitude. When it’s your turn to act as note-taker or discussion leader, the other group members will be depending on you. This means that you cannot simply fail to show up. The planning schedule for determining when various members of the group have to function as note-taker or discussion leader is agreed upon during the first meeting. So make sure that the dates agreed upon for you are also feasible for you. If you should suddenly fall ill, you must try to arrange for a replacement and provide that person with the notes and relevant instructions. You should also always inform the tutor in such a case.


The skills involved in relating to other people and working together with them are not the kind of skills you learn by reading a book. You learn them by repeated practice. If you’re thinking of entering university after secondary school, or if you become coach of a sports association, or if you have to work together with others in organizing a celebration, you will be expected to demonstrate certain skills. It therefore wouldn’t hurt if you already started practicing some of these skills now:

  • Active listening: Many interpersonal problems arise simply because people are not able to listen to each other effectively
  • Asserting yourself: You’ll work together with others more effectively if you’re able to assert yourself. This doesn’t mean that you always have to get your way. It means that effective cooperation is difficult if you always feel as if you’re on the defensive.
  • Giving and receiving feedback: You work together because you can learn a lot from each other. This means that you must also be able to tell each other what the other is doing wrong.
  • Discussions: You will have to discuss a great many matters. One of the reasons for doing so is to exchange views and information.

Variations on PBL

  • You might encounter courses where PBL is not strictly followed (or not at all), depending on topic of the course (e.g. Accounting, Finance)level of the course (more PBL in yr.1, less in yr.3/MSc) But still: learning is ‘student-based’ e.g.: literature presentations, cases, facilitations
  • Then what’s the point of learning PBL? Although we do not follow PBL explicitly, we certainly follow it implicitly. When students know all the steps, then they can easily skip less relevant steps of PBL. Therefore, it is still important to learn the process of PBL