Education Update

As News Blog readers know the CLAHRC WM Director summarises an empirical finding from the experimental educational literature in each fortnightly post. In this issue our focus turns to university education [1] and to just one aspect of it – the perennial question of Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Nine meta-analyses have evaluated this method, and most constituent studies were carried out in universities rather than in schools. Most studies were carried out among medical students. It turns out that PBL is effete – the summary measure of effect is nugatory (0.08 of a standard deviation). It is one of the smallest effect sizes of any pedagogic method evaluated across the entire corpus of the experimental education literature. Moreover, it is actually harmful in some situations – namely those where PBL precedes learning the basic content. PBL is most likely to be effective where the intellectual scaffold has already been built and the student now has to learn to apply the new knowledge.

Consider a patient with pyrexia of unknown origin. Working back to the causes of a temperature when one does not know the causes does not create an intellectual scaffold from which forward reasoning can work. Rather start with the potential causes and then narrow them down as information accrues.

— Richard Lilford,


  1. Hattie J. The applicability of visible learning to higher education. Scholarship Teaching Learning in Psychology. 2015; 1(1): 79-91.

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