Problem Based Learning

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time. What has this old Chinese proverb and the teaching methodology of Problem Based Learning got in common? In its simplest explanation problem based learning is a training method whereby a problem is set for the student and the learning comes from the way the student researches, discusses, evaluates and finally presents their findings. So instead of the trainer giving out all the information in a traditional lecture the student is asked to work it out for themselves. It is designed to leave the students with real world abilities to perform the role as opposed to spoon feeding the information which may begin to dissipate the moment they walk out of a class room.

This training method was originally used to teach medical students in the 1960’s and the parallels with investigators are many. Both are faced with a problem to solve. For a doctor it presents as symptoms and for the investigator an incident. What is the cause or the truth of the matter is the investigative process. This is why learning the skill to work through a real life problem in a safe educational setting is seen as highly beneficial. It often incorporates the student having to research and think about multi-faceted information and its affect. Often there is no exact wrong or right approach to the problem as long the outcome can be justified. To use another saying Dzthere is more than one way to skin a catdz but it will be up to the student to articulate how they came up with their action plan in response to the problem.

Here is an example of a typical problem used with this method:

You are working as a local laws officer when you receive anonymous information that a person is tipping chemicals into a pond at a local council park. There is a children’s play ground in this park. When you arrive you find a large chemical drum with what appears to be the chemical PCB written on the side. You observe a number of children and their parents in the playground nearby. You also see a dog that has jumped into the pond for a quick swim and what appears to be the owner nearby. The park is an Dzon leashdz park and dogs are not to be in the pond. What is your action plan?

When receiving a problem like this, there are many things to consider such as:

  • What if anything has taken place?
  • Are there any immediate risks?
  • Is this my matter to investigate?
  • How do I manage this incident?
  • Who should I speak with?
  • Who can I ask for assistance?


One of the first things that will happen is this problem will be looked at by a group of investigators who may all have different opinion. So why not collect everyone’s idea. Same philosophy used with brain storming. It would also be a good idea to work out what is known and what needs to be established. How will you establish it? For example witnesses, legislative or policy research, supervisors and colleagues. You will then need to decide what you are going to do next and why you have made that decision. If you had 3 different ways of tackling one issue why did you choose the one you did and reject the other 2? You may determine that you have to learn a bit more about some aspects of the problem that you are not sure of or have little knowledge of. If this can be learnt in class by the student then this is a preferred method or alternatively the trainer may be asked to help fill some gaps in knowledge. The students may also draw on knowledge from relevant prior investigations.

Once the required information is received the student will make a determination on the appropriate way to solve the problem. This is normally done in consultation with the group which will agree on the appropriate course of action.This is often referred to as the action plan.

Finally, and with the facilitation of the trainer we can evaluate the processes leading up to the action plan. In a scaffolding problem based scenario once the students have decided what they want to do (their action plan) then more information is added to the problem which requires further problem solving. In the example set this may come in the form of witness statements for example.

Problem Based Learning can be as simple or as complex as the problem set and the time any particular student cohort have to work on it. It is designed to replicate the work place as the processes used to come up with solutions are the same that would be used in a real investigation. The role of the trainer is to bring best practice techniques, direction and coaching to assist the students realise their own potential as well explore new knowledge and skills.