Third International Conference on the Teaching of Psychology
Joerg Zumbach,
Department of Science Education and Teacher Training,
University of Salzburg,

Presentation (pdf)

Joerg Zumbach


Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional approach that emphasizes the role of self-directed knowledge construction by problem solving within small groups. Learning in small groups is facilitated by use of authentic and ill-structured problems. PBL has gained widespread support during the past 50 years in many countries and several domains. Basic elements of PBL are highlighted by Barrows (1986):

Authentic problems: The basis for learning and its underlying processes are problems. These problems represent learning objectives to be met by the learners. Problems can be presented by written descriptions, videos, actors, simulations, and so on.

Small-group learning: Working on problems always takes place in group settings.

Tutoring: Small groups are supported by tutors who moderate and guide students’ progress.

Self-directed learning: The time between small-group sessions can be effectively used for self-directed learning. Here students typically intensify their work on the topic and elaborate their individual contributions.

Research on PBL suggests that this approach fosters problem solving, meta-cognition, team skills, and several other aspects that are crucial to lifelong learning.

Current developments in European universities, according to the Bologna-process, require crucial changes of psychology curricula across all countries involved. The curricular and didactic consequences of the fundamental changes of the new BA/MA studies are rarely discussed. Especially in BA studies, which are supposed to qualify graduates to act professionally, the current distinction between basic and applied studies in the old diploma curricula has to be suspended. This is problematic due to the nature of basic studies within early semesters and applied studies in later semesters. Thus, this distinction cannot be maintained in order to qualify BA students for vocational practice. To address and solve these problems, interdisciplinary approaches such as PBL are useful. By means of PLB, present distinctions between basic and applied majors could disappear within a student-centered, applied problem-solving classroom. Only a few universities have incorporated PBL into their psychology curricula (e.g., the University of Maastricht). Psychology is a predestined domain to follow a case-based, problem-solving approach. Disciplines like clinical psychology, industrial psychology, and educational psychology benefit from working with authentic cases that help learners transfer basic sciences into applied contexts.

In addition, PBL offers many new technologies for teaching and learning that help to overcome restrictions of the traditional face-to-face classroom. Research on PBL in educational psychology suggests that replacing traditional approaches requires redesigning courses to meet the needs of students and staff members. My research indicates that problem design, tutoring strategies, integration of appropriate media, and staff training are essential to ensure a successful curriculum change.

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