Is Problem-Based Learning Beneficial for Undergraduate Nursing Students?: A South African Perspective

Wednesday, 24 July 2013: 9:10 AM

Judith C. Bruce, PhD, RN, RM1
Melanie Lack, RN, MSc (Nursing)2
Norma Mtshali-Qamata, RN, MSc (Nursing)2
(1)School of Therapeutic Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
(2)Department of Nursing Education, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Learning Objective 1: Demonstrate an understanding of the benefits of problem-based learning for the development of students in a multilingual, multicultural learning context

Learning Objective 2: Show an appreciation for and an understanding of the differences in these studentsí abilities as a result of learning in PBL tutorial groups.


 The purpose of this research was twofold: to determine nursing students’ performance in problem-based learning (PBL) tutorials and to compare their self-directed learning readiness (SDL) against nursing students following a traditional Lecture-based Learning (LBL) curriculum. The study objectives were to:

  • describe student nurses’ performance in PBL tutorial groups with reference to self assessment and facilitator assessment
  • compare students’ readiness for self-directed learning with respect to their desire to learn, self management and self control.


A cross-sectional, comparative, design was used to meet the aim of the study. A computer-based Tutorial Performance Evaluator with 7 main items (constructs) and 34 sub-items was used to elicit data on students’ self - and facilitator assessment; a 40-item SDL Readiness Scale, was used to collect data from the total population of nursing students (N=201) at two South African universities; the response rate was 79.1%, resulting in a sample size of 159.


 The results show significant differences between facilitator and student assessment with poor performance in all PBL constructs measured - the lowest performance is in the first year (mean 27.49%).  There is a significant improvement in PBL performance in the remaining years with reference to problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, learning skills and personal growth. With reference to self-directed learning there was no significance in the differences between the two curriculum groups with respect to their reported self-management ability (p=0.82), their desire for learning (p=0.90) and self- control (0.17). Both groups had similar mean scores, with slight differences in their standard deviation.


These findings suggest that students struggle in PBL tutorials and that self assessment varies significantly from that of the facilitator. Furthermore, these results are educationally significant pointing to the recommended use of curriculum approaches that are non-traditional and that encourage ownership of learning and independence early in the curriculum.