What is a good problem?

An interview with Ms Matleena Muhonen regarding the basics of problem-based learning (PBL) method


Text Iida-Maija Kalmanlehto

PBL challenges for students are the steak of the project PBL-BioAfrica. Teachers of the partner universities have participated in trainings for new pedagogical skills and a deeper understanding of student-centred learning and teaching.


Students around a table with pens and papers
Brainstorming in Kamwene, Kenya. © Felipe Da Silva

One of the key elements in the training programme is the integration of problem-based learning (PBL) into the curricula and teaching methods of the participating universities. But to implement PBL, good problems to solve are needed. Many participants of the training are asking what kind of problems can actually be used when teaching with PBL methodology.


I had a discussion with Ms Matleena Muhonen from Aalto University, Finland, one of the expert teachers in the project, and asked her to provide answers for some basic questions related to using PBL methodology.


Key components of a PBL problem


“A PBL problem can be one defined in cooperation with a local company, civil society, community, co-operative or a research group”, Ms Muhonen explains. “The key is that it is local and there is support available for the team researching the problem: a reliable contact person in the community or company in question (the project owner) is crucial for the success of the method. Also support from the university (teachers and other experts) is very important. The problem can be an everyday problem, or a bigger challenge faced.”

Matleena Muhonen
Ms Matleena Muhonen.

The industry challenges of PBL-BioAfrica are under preparation. They may include topics related to, for example, utilisation of side and by-products, developing new circular economy solutions and business models, laboratory or field testing of new technologies, analyses of business environment and production processes, or environmental and societal assessments.


PBL cases researched by the Aalto University student teams have been challenges related to access to water and developing tourism or recycling processes in certain communities. An overview of the problems with links to more information about the projects is found here: https://sgt.aalto.fi/projects/ and https://sgt.aalto.fi/sgt-projects-2020/.


Agreeing with the project owner


When a team has been connected with the project owner and it has been agreed that students will work on their case, it needs to be clear for both sides that students are not employees of the company.


“It’s best to have a written agreement specifying the challenge and what can be expected out of the exercise. The project owner also needs to understand how much guidance and supervision is expected: regular mentoring meetings and review sessions need to be scheduled with the project owner”, Ms Muhonen specifies.


Three people working with clay
Clay workshop in Katanga, Uganda. © Stephanie Kluz

The agreement also needs to encompass a clause on intellectual property rights (e.g. copyright or patent right), often regulated by the university and/or national legislation. Practical issues, like whether the project owner covers the possible cost of field trips, pays testing or other direct expenses, need to be put in writing.


Defining the goal


The main goals of a PBL exercise are to provide ideas, prototypes, scenarios and suggestions. The student work can show the right direction in finding the solutions, but the project owner is responsible for taking them forward and execution of potential plans. PBL means discussing in the student team, consulting teachers, debating with possible peer student teams and talking with the project owner – showing and presenting concrete ideas. If it is a product, making cardboard models; if it is a business plan, showing different outlines to possible solutions.


The result is the key – or is it?


The results of a PBL process depend on the problem and the expectations and wishes of the project owner.


“It can be business plans, education material (like card games) for schools, handbooks for users, water quality testing results, composting guidelines, urban scenarios, waste management systems”, Ms Muhonen gives examples.


For students, the process of searching for answers is equally important as solving the problem itself.


“This is why it is important for each student to reflect on the learning process through e.g. a personal diary”, Ms Muhonen explains. “Team discussions for sharing the feelings about the process are also important. It’s crucial for the students to learn to look at the topic from a different perspective, to feel empathy towards another person’s point of view. This capacity to feel empathy helps to develop skills both in problem solving and teamwork.”



There are different tools and exercises to practice this aspect, and different kinds of mood meters can be a good tool to follow the enthusiasm levels throughout the process and making the process visual and visible for all involved.


Application of the method


PBL principles can be used in an exercise given during a classroom session or a bigger team assignment. The principles can be used for individuals or the whole class. Teams of five students usually work the best in team assignments, especially when the process is expected to be longer and demanding with work on the field.


PBL methods can be used also in open distance learning if the needed tools and connections are available. Basically, applying PBL methodology requires only a team that works together and a good problem with relevant support available.


“PBL is an effective tool in teaching as it combines research/theory and practice”, Ms Muhonen concludes. “It can motivate students due to its connection to real-life cases and in the end, lead to discovering new points of interest, getting new opportunities and making significant career choices.”