Problem-Based Learning - It Might Improve Your Grades!

For this article, I thought I would explain what problem-based learning (PBL) is, how and why it works, and why it might improve your grades! I should caveat, however, that this is purely talking about the basic facts behind it and then my experience of it at the University of York. The PBL process may vary slightly between different institutions and may not be completely compatible with other universities methods of teaching. Despite this, I still feel that having knowledge of the PBL process can be an imporant skill, as it allows you to explore issues, which seem insignificant on the surface, in great detail and is easily transferable to many other professions and challenges you may come across in your professional life.

So, What Is PBL?

PBL is a method of teaching which involves instructions followed by group interaction to facilitate discussions, debate and, ultimately, the finding of a solution to the 'trigger material' (these being the instructions given at the start of the session). These sessions are then (in the context of law students at least, I personally do not know if this applies to STEM students) followed by a session several days later, during which the students share their research and findings, applying it to the problem and learning through others research, thus plugging the gap in their respective knowledge. The PBL process was originally developed for use in Medical Schools, but has since been utilised to teach other STEM field students, as well as Law students. With PBL, the focus is on two main end goals; firstly, the development of key skills and desirable attributes in the workplace, such as research efficiency and relevant material retrieval, collaboration and communication, critical thinking, reflection and reasoning, and soforth, and secondly it allows a student to view a problem from multiple perspectives as they improve their thinking and reasoning skills, whilst also benefitting from hearing how other students view the issues at hand. There are several types of PBL learning, however the 'Maastricht seven-jump' process seems to be the most popular and was used at York (I believe this is also the case with Exeter's LLB degree).

How Does This Differ From Other Ways Undergraduate Law Degree's Are Taught?

It is my understanding that most universities in the UK teach law degree's by seperating the learning into two categories; lectures in which the relevant laws are explained and then follow-up sessions in which students talk about these laws, the research they've done since and how the laws would be applied to a case. This is the complete opposite way to how PBL is taught. In PBL learning, you are not told which laws are relevant, you aren't told what areas of law you are looking at, nor what solution you should be looking for. There are seperate lectures, however these focus on providing 'springboards' to further your understanding of laws you will have already independently researched. By this, I mean that the lectures rarely go in depth with what the laws say, which specific cases will be relevant etc., instead they provide some ideas for what types of thing to be looking for, even if it's just as vague as explaining that it's a Public and EU Law related problem and why this is the case. Of course, this does mean that PBL learning is more research intensive, as well as being more costly and resource consuming for the university, but overall it does seem to be able to unlock knowledge in students in ways which other learning formats are not able to do. I should also say that PBL learning can technically be done on your own, as once you know how to do it efficiently and effectively it becomes a great tool to deconstruct cases you may be given to work on on your own for an assessment.

What Does This Look Like In Practice Then?

I will now take you through the steps, suggesting tips to streamline the process, culminating in showing you a sample set of research questions and the answers I gave from my research, so that you can see what is normally expected research and contribution wise in the follow-up feedback sessions. I haven't included reading the problem materials and highlighting as a step, as the latter is subjective to what each student feels is important and the former is a given with any work you do at university, regardless of the learning method.

The steps involved are;

1) The Parties involved and their interests

2) Chronology of the facts

3) Summary of Facts

4) Naming the problem

5) Brainstorming

6) Highlighting and Grouping brainstorming ideas

7) Formulating research questions

1) The Parties Involved And Their Interests

Very simply, this part of the process requires you to bullet point the main parties involved in the problem and what they seek to end up with. For example, you may have the following:

  • Mr. Smith - Wants his money back

  • Mrs. Khan - Wants the contract to be enforced and Smith's payment to her honoured

  • Smith's Sister - Wants to keep item Mr. Smith bought for her, irrespective of Khan not being paid

  • Khan's Daughter - Wants to sue Mum for selling item she believes belonged to her

The key here is to try and keep the interests description as brief as possible. It doesn't have to cover every point, nor does it have to be something which would ever stand up in court (often a party will want something despite there being no legal basis for it), it just has to be plain and simple so that you can refer back to it quickly. Also, don't worry too much if you list irrelevant parties at first, most students seem to take a while to get the hang of it and realise that not very person or company is actually involved in the case, many are red herrings or would be part of a seperate proceeding.

2) Chronology Of Facts

As with before, it is vital that you keep this as brief as possible. Again, this should ideally be in bullet-point form, with short sentences and with any information which is not relevant cut from it. For example, it might be quite extraordinary that Mrs. Khan's purple cat is expensive for her to feed, but it is not relevant at all to whether the contract is enforceable, or whether a crime or civil wrongdoing is to be found in the case, so it ought not to be included in the chronology. As suggested by 'chronology', this list must also be in order of when each thing took place; there's no point listing things in a random order as you won't be able to make sense of it when you come to do your indepedent research.

3) Summary Of Facts

This step is sort of like the previous one, but is written as a short paragraph, rather than in bullet-point form. It should be much shorter than the chronology, ideally no more than two sentences. The idea here is to give yourself a punchly couple of sentences to know exactly what the crux of the issue is, meaning what the case is about at its core. This also makes it easier when it comes to brainstorming, as it gives a solid starting point from which to expand, so it is really important that the summary is succinct.

4) Naming The Problem

This one really is as simple as it sounds. It is important, however, as it makes it easier to remember when you look back through your files (imagine trying to revise for an exam with twenty unnamed cases listed, not knowing which one is the relevant one for your exam topic!). Do not dwell on this stage for long though, even if names aren't your or your groups strength, you can always come back and name it at the end. A word of advice here, please do not be immature enough as to give the problems really rude names, it doesn't look good when a marker is reading your reflective assessments and see's a list of rude names and innuendo's throughout it (not to mention some students get in real trouble for doing this). It can be humourous, but keep it short and fairly professional at least.

5) Brainstorming

If there are interactive whiteboards available, I would suggest using these for the brainstorming and subsequent step. If they aren't available, a word document on your computer, or even writing on a large piece of paper will suffice. Put the name of the problem in a cloud in the middle and simple draw lines off of it to suggest ideas and themes. There's no such thing as a silly suggestion here, so even if it ends up not being entirely relevant it doesn't matter (it may just be the thing which encouraged someone else to speak up, or may have reminded someone of a very important point, so always speak up when you have a thought, opinion or otherwise!). Below is a picture to illustrate what a brainstorming session should look like at the end (NOTE: this is a generic image, not a law related brainstorm, but it shows you roughly how to format a brainstorming session at least). Everything from vague ideas (public law, contract law, liability, etc.) to specific parts of legislation (SoG 1979 s21(1), for example) should be included.

6) Highlighting And Grouping

This stage isn't vital, but it certainly helps (especially at first when you might not as confident with which points are related to each other). You may choose to highlight with different colours to differentiate between areas of law, or between themes you may think combine to form a research question, or perhaps the colours just represent the order in which you think things should be researched. The big upside to doing this, other than focusing your attention on how the points are related, is that it'll help you to get rid of ideas which have ended up not being relevant. The idea is that not everything will end up being highlighted, and if you have highlighted it all it may be that you haven't focused on the issues at hand enough, so going back over it may well help to resolve this.

7) Setting Your Research Questions

Lastly, you will set your research questions. You will now understand why I said that PBL is like being taught in reverse order compared to the normal way of being taught, as you end up with your learning objectives at the end of the session, rather than at the start. You should aim to come up with a handful of questions, both normative and summative, which will direct your research so that you can find a solution to the problem you've been given. It is important for there to be normative and summative questions where possible (sometimes it's not needed and can distract from the issue at hand), so as well as questions like "How has Contract Law developed to view the idea of consideration?" and "What is the Communications Act 2003?", questions like "Should consideration be a pre-condition to an enforceable contract?" or "Why is English Contract Law based in the Lex Mercatoria (merchant's law), rather than in clearly defined legislation?" should be included in order to broaden your understanding of not only what the law is and how it applies, but also WHY this is the case and whether it makes sense being as it is.

Below is an example of the types of questions and answers expected for a PBL problem in the first year of the degree (the cases become more complex and the expectations higher each year, as one might expect). I can't remember the case entirely, but it was about an old lady called Jessica who suddenly came into a lot of money and wanted to set up a trust. This trust was for the specific purpose of providing funds to train and support nurses for the NHS. As such, the questions revolved around types of trust, charities, requirements and whether Jessica's wishes could be realised. The research I did was more lengthy than is allowed in the second and third years, as by this point it is expected that you will bring succinct research to class only, however it does give an idea for the quality expected from a new student.

Old Biddy Wins Tree-Fiddy!

What is a trust? Why have one?

“A trust is a way of managing assets (money, investments, land or buildings) for people. There are different types of trusts and they are taxed differently.

Trusts involve:

  • the ‘settlor’ - the person who puts assets into a trust

  • the ‘trustee’ - the person who manages the trust

  • the ‘beneficiary’ - the person who benefits from the trust

Trusts are set up for a number of reasons, including:

  • to control and protect family assets

  • when someone’s too young to handle their affairs

  • when someone cannot handle their affairs because they’re incapacitated

  • to pass on assets while you’re still alive

  • to pass on assets when you die (a ‘will trust’)

  • under the rules of inheritance if someone dies without a will (in England and Wales)

They may benefit from:

· the income of a trust only, for example from renting out a house held in a trust

· the capital only, for example getting shares held in a trust when they reach a certain age

· both the income and capital of the trust”[1]

There are Charitable trusts, in which the trustee’s can only use the capital and/or income from the trust for charitable purposes that are recognised as charity in UK Law.

There are also private trusts in which the trust is set up to benefit a single person, family etc and is for personal use only, unlike a charitable trust that benefits the public. “Every private trust consists of four distinct elements: an intention of the settlor to create the trust, a res or subject matter (such as a house, bonds/stock, money etc), a trustee, and a beneficiary. Unless these elements are present, a court cannot enforce an arrangement as a trust.”[2] In addition to this, there are many sub categories and specific types of trusts for different purposes, many of these are as follows:

“Bare trusts

Assets in a bare trust are held in the name of a trustee. However, the beneficiary has the right to all of the capital and income of the trust at any time if they’re 18 or over (in England and Wales), or 16 or over (in Scotland). This means the assets set aside by the settlor will always go directly to the intended beneficiary.

Bare trusts are often used to pass assets to young people - the trustees look after them until the beneficiary is old enough.


You leave your sister some money in your will. The money is held in trust.

Your sister is entitled to the money and any income (for example interest) it earns. She can also take possession of any of the money at any time.

Interest in possession trusts

These are trusts where the trustee must pass on all trust income to the beneficiary as it arises (less any expenses).


You create a trust for all the shares you owned.

The terms of the trust say that when you die, the income from those shares go to your wife for the rest of her life. When she dies, the shares will pass to your children.

Your wife is the income beneficiary and has an ‘interest in possession’ in the trust. She does not have a right to the shares themselves.

Discretionary trusts

These are where the trustees can make certain decisions about how to use the trust income, and sometimes the capital.

Depending on the trust deed, trustees can decide:

· what gets paid out (income or capital)

· which beneficiary to make payments to

· how often payments are made

· any conditions to impose on the beneficiaries

Discretionary trusts are sometimes set up to put assets aside for:

· a future need, like a grandchild who may need more financial help than other beneficiaries at some point in their life

· beneficiaries who are not capable or responsible enough to deal with money themselves

Accumulation trusts

This is where the trustees can accumulate income within the trust and add it to the trust’s capital. They may also be able to pay income out, as with discretionary trusts.

Mixed trusts

These are a combination of more than one type of trust. The different parts of the trust are treated according to the tax rules that apply to each part.

Settlor-interested trusts

These are where the settlor or their spouse or civil partner benefits from the trust. The trust could be:

· an interest in possession trust

· an accumulation trust

· a discretionary trust


You can no longer work due to illness. You set up a discretionary trust to make sure you have money in the future.

You’re the settlor - you may also benefit from the trust because the trustees can make payments to you.

Non-resident trusts

This is a trust where the trustees are not resident in the UK for tax purposes. The tax rules for non-resident trusts are very complicated.”[3]

What are the legal issues that arise when setting up a charitable and a private trust? How can Jessica’s wishes be given affect?

“Charities exist to benefit the public. Because of this, charities:

  • pay reduced business rates

  • receive tax relief

  • can get certain types of grants and funding

But charities are restricted in what they can do and how they work. For example, charities need to:

  • follow charity law, which includes telling the Charity Commission and the public about their work

  • do only things that are charitable in law (under Charities Act 2016 & 2011 Act ch1 s3 & public benefit under s4)

  • be run by trustees who do not usually personally benefit from the charity

  • be independent - a charity can work with other organisations but must make independent decisions about how it carries out its charitable purposes”[4]

Jessica’s charity would have to complete a governing document, setting out in law what the charity is, its purpose and how it will be run, it must include the following:

  • “its name

  • its charitable purposes (‘objects’)

  • what it can do to carry out its purposes (‘powers’), such as borrowing money

  • who runs it (‘trustees’) and who can be a member (if appropriate)?

  • how meetings will be held

  • how many trustees to appoint and how

  • any rules about paying trustees, investments and holding land

  • whether the trustees can change the governing document, including its charitable objects (‘amendment provisions’)

  • how to close the charity (‘dissolution provisions’)”[5]

Milroy v Lord - 1862

“Turner LJ concurred. Three ways to give something were (1) legal transfer of title to recipient (2) transfer of title to a trustee for a beneficiary (3) a self-declaration of trust.”[6]

How is each type of trust regulated? Can the person who set up the trust change the arrangements?

Variations of Trust Act – 1958

“Jurisdiction of courts to vary trusts.

(1) Where property, whether real or personal, is held on trusts arising, whether before or after the passing of this Act, under any will, settlement or other disposition, the court may if it thinks fit by order approve on behalf of—

(a)any person having, directly or indirectly, an interest, whether vested or contingent, under the trusts who by reason of infancy or other incapacity is incapable of assenting, or

(b)any person (whether ascertained or not) who may become entitled, directly or indirectly, to an interest under the trusts as being at a future date or on the happening of a future event a person of any specified description or a member of any specified class of persons, so however that this paragraph shall not include any person who would be of that description, or a member of that class, as the case may be, if the said date had fallen or the said event had happened at the date of the application to the court, or

(c)any person unborn, or

(d)any person in respect of any discretionary interest of his under protective trusts where the interest of the principal beneficiary has not failed or determined.”[7]

Trustee Act 1925

“Section 57 – (.3) An application to the court under this section may be made by the trustees, or by any of them, or by any person beneficially interested under the trust.

(.2) The court may, from time to time, rescind or vary any order made under this section, or may make any new or further order.

(.1) Where in the management or administration of any property vested in trustees, any sale, lease, mortgage, surrender, release, or other disposition, or any purchase, investment, acquisition, expenditure or other transaction, is in the opinion of the court expedient”[8] (practical but improper or immoral)

Settled Land Act 1925 – Tenant for Life, Leasing powers, Equitable Interests, Investment of Capital etc.

Charity Commission (Gov site & non-ministerial body)

CC3a – Being a Trustee

CC4 – What makes a Charity

CC14 – Charities and Investment Matters

CC21a – Setting up a charity

CC30 – Finding New Trustees

Look at Oppenheim Rule!!

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

I hope that this article has proven to be insightful and perhaps has given you further knowledge and understanding about the PBL process. It may become your new favourite way to learn and delve into cases, or just something to know about in case the day ever arrives during which this process becomes a necessary tool. In any event, I hope that having read this article, you may now have the ability to more effectively work on problems, perhaps even resulting in improving your grades!

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