Strength in Diversity - Future-proofing PBL Research and Practice



PBL was first introduced into higher education at the medical school of McMaster University in Canada in 1969 (Servant-Miklos, 2019). The teachers at McMaster experienced a growing dissatisfaction with their students’ ability to adequately apply their acquired academic knowledge and previous learning when they entered clinical practice encountering real patients with complex issues. This led to a restructuring of university courses in medical education to support students’ development of skillsets beyond the acquisition of basic medical knowledge (Barrows, 1996). The subsequently developed interdisciplinary “units” used problem-based case studies as the basis for the students’ learning. Using patient narratives, the students worked in small groups led by a tutor to derive relevant learning issues, investigate these by searching relevant literature and other sources to identify possible causes, explanations and solutions during independent self-study time, before returning to their groups to elaborate on their findings (Dolmans & Schmidt, 2010). The idea of bridging academic knowledge and practice was not new: the Harvard Case Method and other ancestors of PBL had already tried to tackle this for a centuries before the “invention” of PBL (Servant-Miklos, 2019). However, the timing of PBL and the ease with which it could be adapted to other contexts allowed it to spread to other medicals schools. Today PBL is a well-recognized approach within medical education around the globe (Neville, 2009). Other areas within university teaching, such as law and economics, soon began experimenting with this new approach as well. Engineering science followed shortly after (Du et al., 2009) and over the next four decades PBL spread to universities and polytechnics around the world within a growing number of academic disciplines (Savin-Baden, 2014). As the popularity of PBL has grown, so has the diversity of practice in the field. For instance, whereas PBL in the Netherlands follows a 7-step approach pioneered by Maastricht University, PBL in Denmark uses a project-organised approach – and there are many in-between hybrids of both models to be found around the world. Likewise, research on PBL has moved on from its quantitative origins in constructivist psychology, and a whole array of complex methodologies ranging from existential phenomenology to action research have contributed to our understanding of the PBL approach.

If PBL was one of the defining educational innovations of the 20th century, the question of its relevance for the 21st century cannot be taken for granted: is PBL up to the challenges of pandemics, climate change, inequality and the digital divide? Can PBL still thrive in a world dominated by digital education, especially after COVID? What can the diversity of PBL practice and research teach us about pedagogical resilience for the future?


The constituting factors of PBL

In practice, problem-based learning has been organised in many different ways, in very diverse organisational settings. However, across the research literature there is general agreement on the common characteristics of learning that form the basis of PBL in higher education (Barrows 1996; de Graaff & Kolmos 2007; Illeris 1974; Kjær-Rasmussen & Jensen 2013; Savin-Baden & Major 2004). As such, PBL is characterised by the following principles:

  • Learning is organised around real and complex problems that link theory to practice
  • The nature of the academic work that students produce leads to authentic learning
  • Knowledge is constructed through active learning processes
  • Learning is a social phenomenon based on students’ active participation and involvement
  • Learning takes place in small groups in order to achieve goals collaboratively
  • Teachers act as facilitators of learning
  • Students take responsibility for identifying their own learning needs and organising their own learning path.

As can be deducted from these defining characteristics, problem-based learning is not constrained to a specific academic discipline. All fields of study can establish a learning culture based upon problem analysis, collaboration and self-directed learning and many university teachers from multiple disciplines have indeed undertaken this approach to university teaching (Xian & Madhaven, 2015). However, while the principles are recognized across disciplines, they are interpreted and practiced quite differently from university to university and from one academic field to another (Servant-Miklos, 2020). As Ravits (2009) mentions in his introduction in the special issue on the efficacy of PBL in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, research is still needed to specify how PBL is used in different disciplines and contexts. Twelve years have passed since Ravits presented this observation, yet this question is still relevant today (Condliffe et al., 2017). Therefore, this special issue calls for papers that address PBL pedagogical practices and research approaches undertaken around the world within different academic fields such as Medicine, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science and Humanities in the context of the challenges of the 21st century, especially in the light of a post-COVID context.

Even though PBL is often described as an interdisciplinary didactic approach (Jensen et al., 2019) most PBL research has been disciplinary. Medical schools have studied PBL in the light of medical education (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Barrows, 1986), with prominent journals like Medical Education and Advances in Health Sciences Education regularly featuring articles on PBL, while engineering schools have focused on publishing in engineering education journals. In this respect, Xian and Madhaven (2015: 282) mention that almost 5 percent of all articles in the Journal of Engineering Education from 2000–2009, have PBL or its varieties either in their keywords, titles, or abstracts, while the Aalborg Centre for Problem Based Learning in Engineering Science and Sustainability under the auspices of UNESCO, over the last decade has contributed massively to develop engineering education through problem-based learning (Hadgraft & Kolmos, 2020; Kolmos & de Graaff, 2014).  In similar fashion, other scholars have provided research on how PBL can be integrated in other academic fields. Sluis (2020) explores how students perform when faced with a project-based learning activity in art history. Permatasari (2019) describes how problem-based learning can improve the cognitive learning outcomes in social science, while Dahl (2018) seeks to uncover whether mathematics, including pure mathematics, fits into a PBL curriculum. This special issue seeks to explore how these disciplinary research approaches can best learn from each other to expand the range of PBL research for the future.    


Celebrating diversity in Problem-based Learning

Even though we see advances within PBL research and practice in a large array of academic fields, few PBL scholars discuss the underlying differences in philosophical understanding, didactic basis and concrete practice between the academic disciplines (Mahnaz Moallem, 2019). Thus, this special issue seeks to emphasize and explore diversity in PBL research and practice in and across the different academic disciplines within higher education. Diversity can be understood as the differences in understanding of PBL from similar traditions (e.g. the project approach, or the 7-step approach), within different disciplinary contexts, as differences in PBL models within the same disciplinary context, as the diversity of perspectives (students, teachers, managers) within the same context, and diversity of research approaches in PBL (quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods, action research). However, in any case the diversity we are looking for is of such kind that it strengthens the research and practice foundation of PBL so that it is still a relevant and important pedagogy in a post-pandemic context.

In short, we want this issue to contribute to the future-proofing of PBL by inviting papers that examine how diversity in PBL practice and research contributes to preparing PBL for future challenges in a post-pandemic context. This issue will accept conceptual papers, empirical research papers and perspective papers. Due to the theme of future-proofing PBL the traditional “case-papers” have to be framed as perspective papers, which means that the case presented has to be an exemplary case for the main theme and highlight how this specific case of diversity in PBL practice and research have contributed to future-proof PBL. The editor group especially encourage students to provide such perspective papers. The editors remain open to discussing and co-exploring ideas with potential authors. 


Editorial Group


Time schedule

  • 1 December 2021: Call for papers
  • 31 March 2022: Deadline for abstracts
  • 15 April 2022: Feedback to authors
  • 15 July 2022: Deadline full articles
  • 1 October 2022: Feedback to authors
  • 1 December 2022: Deadline for revised articles 
  • 1 February 2023: Publication


Submission and Review Process

Prospective authors intending to submit a paper for the special issue are asked to supply a 500-word extended abstract, outlining the content and aims of the proposed paper, plus a list of 7 to 10 key references that the paper will be informed by and/or draw/build upon. The editorial team will review the proposals and identify abstracts that are suitable for being developed into full papers.

Please send the abstract to Nikolaj Stegeager:

Full manuscripts should be prepared in accordance with the journal's author guidelines and submitted via the journal’s manuscripts system.

Manuscripts for the special issue must be between 4,000 and 7,000 words in length (Please note that the word count is inclusive of the title, author details, approx. 150 words abstract, keywords and reference list as well as any tables and appendices that the manuscript may contain).

Manuscripts must be original and may not have been previously published, nor may they be under consideration for publication elsewhere at the time of submission to JPBLHE and throughout the duration of the review process. Each full manuscript will be subjected to double-blind peer review.

For full details of the editorial criteria and comprehensive instructions on how to submit a paper, please consult the journal's author guidelines. For further information, please visit the journal web page:

Queries and requests for further information may be directed to the editors-in-charge of this special issue of JPBLHE:


About the Journal of Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education (JPBLHE)

ISSN: 2246-0918
First published in 2013
JPBLHE has been launched to provide an opportunity for scholars to publish:

  • High-quality research articles that contribute to the current and future development of problem-based learning in higher education.
  • Review articles examining the development of problem-based learning in higher education.
  • Articles examining the intellectual, pedagogical and practical use-value of PBL or which extend, critique or challenge past and current theoretical and empirical knowledge claims within PBL in higher education.
  • Articles examining theoretical, pedagogical and practical aspects of how networked technologies or ICTs can be used to support or develop problem-based learning.
  • Articles on PBL research relating to the concepts of problem-based learning in any other wider social and cultural contexts.


Editorial board
●  Prof. Anette Kolmos (UNESCO Chair in Problem-Based Learning), Aalborg University, Denmark
●  Prof. Erik De Graaf, Delft University, Netherlands & Aalborg University, Denmark
●  Prof. Lars Bo Henriksen, Aalborg University, Denmark
●  Prof. Madeleine Abrandt Dahlgren, Linköping University, Sweden
●  Prof. Yves Mauffette, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Canada
●  Prof. Thomas Ryberg, Aalborg University, Denmark
●  Lecturer Terry Barrett, University College Dublin, Ireland
●  Associate Professor Khairiyah Mohd. Yusof, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Malaysia


Baden, M. S., & Major, C. H. (2004). Foundations of Problem-based Learning. Maidenhead: Society for Research into higher Education & Open University Press.

Barrows, H. S. (1986). A taxonomy of problem‐based learning methods. Medical education20(6), 481-486.

Barrows, H. S. (1996). Problem‐based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New directions for teaching and learning1996(68), 3-12.

Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education (Vol. 1). Springer Publishing Company.

Condliffe, B. (2017). Project-Based Learning: A Literature Review. Working Paper. MDRC.

Dahl, B. (2018). What is the problem in problem-based learning in higher education mathematics. European Journal of Engineering Education43(1), 112-125.

De Graaff, E., & Kolmos, A. (2007). Management of Change: Implementation of Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning in engineering. Rotterdam: Sense publishers.

Dolmans, D., & Schmidt, H. (2010). The problem-based learning process. In Van Berkel, H., Scherpbier, A., Hillen, H. & van der Vleuten, C. (Eds.). Lessons from problem-based learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 13-20.

Du, X., de Graaff, E., & Kolmos, A. (Eds.) (2009). Research on PBL Practice in Engineering Education. Brill: Sense.

Hadgraft, R. G., & Kolmos, A. (2020). Emerging learning environments in engineering education. Australasian Journal of Engineering Education25(1), 3-16.

Illeris, K. (1972). Problemorientering og deltagerstyring: Oplæg til en alternativ didaktik. Odense: Fyns Stiftstrykkeri.

Jensen, A., Stentoft, D., & Ravn, O. (2019). Interdisciplinarity and Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education. Spring Book Series: Innovation and Change in Professional Education18.

Kjær-Rasmussen, L. K., & Jensen, A. A. (2013). Visions, challenges and strategies: PBL principles and methodologies in a Danish and global perspective. Aalborg: Aalborg Universitetsforlag.

Kolmos, A., & de Graaff, E. (2014). Problem-based and project-based learning in engineering education. Cambridge handbook of engineering education research, 1, 141-161.

Moallem, M. (2019). Effects of PBL on Learning Outcomes, Knowledge Acquisition, and Higher‐Order Thinking Skills. In M. Moallem, W. Hung & N. Dabbagh (Eds.). The Wiley Handbook of ProblemBased Learning. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell. pp 107-133

Neville, A. J. (2009). Problem-based learning and medical education forty years on. Medical Principles and Practice, 18(1), 1-9.

Permatasari, B. D. (2019). The Influence of Problem Based Learning towards Social Science Learning Outcomes Viewed from Learning Interest. International Journal of Evaluation and Research in Education8(1), 39-46.

Ravitz, J. (2009). Introduction: Summarizing findings and looking ahead to a new generation of PBL research. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning3(1), 4-11

Savin-Baden, M. (2014). Using Problem-based Learning: New Constellations for the 21st Century. The Journal on Excellence in College Teaching25(3&4), 197-219.

Servant-Miklos, V. (2020). Problem-Oriented Project Work and Problem-Based Learning:" Mind the Gap!". Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning14(1).

Servant-Miklos, V. F. (2019). Fifty years on: A retrospective on the world's first problem-based learning programme at McMaster University Medical School. Health Professions Education5(1), 3-12.

Sluis, A. E. (2020). Project-Based Learning in Art History: A Study of the Effects of PBL on Cognitive Developmental in a Higher-Education Humanities Classroom.

Xian, H., & Madhavan, K. (2015). A Scientometric, Large-Scale Data, and Visualization-Based Analysis of the PBL Literature. In Walker, A., Leary, H., & Hmelo-Silver, C. (Eds.). Essential readings in problem-based learning: Exploring and extending the legacy of Howard S. Barrows. Purdue University Press, 281-301.