School of Biological Sciences - problem-based learning (PBL) approach

School of Biological Sciences - problem-based learning (PBL) approach

Tara Marshall, School of Biological Sciences, tells us about how she uses a problem-based learning (PBL) approach in one of her courses. 

Below, hear how Tara responds to some questions about how students and staff benefit from a PBL approach


What did you do? For 11 years I have used problem-based learning (PBL) to deliver a 4th year course titled Sustainable Management of Marine Resources (ZO4540). The course normally has around 30 students in their final semester before graduation. They have just completed their independent research projects and I wanted to further develop their excellent critical thinking skills in preparation for entering the real world. PBL is an ideal way of achieving this goal.

Why did you do it?



Students need to gain skills and knowledge that are highly relevant for the workplace. I particularly want them to apply their skills in researching complex topics that do not have clear answers. Because group working is a skill that employers value highly students tackle the problem by working in small groups, each having its own distinctive professional perspective. In 2019 groups tackled the impacts of climate change on different marine ecosystems around the world.

How did you develop the idea?



I was familiar with the concept of PBL through a friend who is teaching at a university where PBL is used to deliver entire degree programmes. I attended a half-day workshop on PBL that the precursor to Centre for Academic Development offered. I also undertook some pedagogical research into the topic.

What were the challenges?




Groups develop their problem-solving strategy through discussion and brainstorming. Supporting each group through so as to minimise confusion and uncertainty is key to managing their learning. It is also challenging when there are problems related to underperforming individual group members. This is fortunately rare as level 4 students are usually motivated to do well. I also need to emphasise the transferability of skills to any situation as students are often unaware of the processes they are actually learning (problem solving, group working, writing, presentation) in addition to content.

What were the benefits to you?




Over the past 11 years we have tackled a diverse portfolio of real-world problems. For example, in 2018 we tackled the implications of Brexit for marine governance. I have become knowledgeable about topics outside my research interests that have greatly expanded my teaching competencies. Luckily, we have a wide range of expertise in this part of Scotland and I can generally tap experts in business, industry, government or science to contribute exceptionally relevant guest lectures and answer questions from the different groups. In this way the content is different every year and I learn along with the students. I have had several examples of graduates from the course returning several years later as experts on the PBL topic being addressed.

What was the impact on student learning?




Students recognise that PBL is more relevant to working and greatly enjoy this type of training. They often find group working more rewarding in this course, in part because all students are more strongly committed to learning and achieving goals. They also enjoy contributing class discussions that take advantage of their expanding knowledge base on a variety of interesting topics.

How did your students evaluate the experience?


I keep track of responses in the course manual so that current students can benefit from the experiences of students who have completed the course and can share tips.

What did your students say? (feedback/comments from students to share?)

“I liked the complexity of the topic and to see that with time it was possible to make sense of all the aspects”

I would argue, more so than any other course, this has left me with the tools to progress not only throughout the rest of my academic career but also beyond.

What hints/tips do you have for others in the future?


Additional information?

Students are capable of tackling extremely complex problems (climate change or even Brexit) with appropriate support and guidance. Problems that are relevant to their lives are particularly successful.

Students enjoy writing up their findings as short briefing notes as they see that as a transferable skill.

Small groups (3 students) is the most effective. Each member has to pull their weight with nowhere to hide.

For further information contact:

Tara Marshall (