Problem-based learning in advanced project management education


Satu Huikuri, B Sc.
University of Oulu, Finland
Department of industrial engineering and management

Jaakko Kujala, Dr., Professor, (corresponding author)
University of Oulu, Finland
Department of industrial engineering and management


Project management educators often fail to provide project managers with the adequate skills and expertise they need in an increasingly complex work environment. In this paper, we analyze how problem-based learning (PBL) approaches can be used to increase the effectiveness of advanced project management education. We use PBL in the design and implementation of an advanced course in project business and discuss the benefits of the approach. In addition, we identify the potential challenges related to the implementation process. Our research findings suggest that PBL provides substantial benefits and can be integrated with more traditional teaching methods. Some of the main benefits include: the active use of information from different sources to solve complex real-world problems, increased knowledge retention and improved recall when practical situations call for the application of theoretical concepts, a focus on practical relevant knowledge, and the development of teamwork and social skills. In addition, students are motivated to learn, when theoretical concepts are used to solve practically relevant problems faced by project-based companies. The main challenge in the implementation process is that it requires a change in the roles and attitudes of educators and students. Students are required to take an active role in the learning process and the role of the educator is as a resource.


Interest in project management is growing fast, and as a consequence there is a need to educate project management professionals with adequate skills and competences. Bodies of knowledge concerning project management (PMI, APM, PRINCE2) and related certification schemes have a strong influence on the training and development of project managers (Crawford et al., 2006). However, there has been increasing criticism that project management education fails to teach the topics that are required for project managers in their jobs (Crawford et al., 2008; Jaafari, 2003). In their research, Thomas and Mengel (2008) conclude that many education providers fail to provide the competences that are adequate for project management students to deal with the increasing complexity they will face in their working environments. Rather than training students to apply tools and techniques, we need to prepare them to diagnose situations, adopt the appropriate tools and techniques, adapt the tools and techniques as necessary, and continue to learn.

Existing research has focused on analyzing basic project management education and/or methods of teaching project management for practitioners (Thomas and Mengel, 2008; Berggren & Söderlund, 2008). In this paper, our focus is on advanced, project management education for master level students. We address the question: What is the best way to teach advanced project management skills to students with limited practical experience? Often, these students have completed advanced technical courses in various fields, and understanding most of the tools and techniques used in project management is rather simple, as was described by a student taking an advanced course in project business: “Interesting, but there was nothing new in the lecture beyond common sense – like it is in most courses in industrial management. “(Excerpt from a learning diary of a student enrolled in the advanced course in project business after the introductory lecture.)

Project management instructors face the same challenges as most management educators, it is difficult to make the connection to the practice and teach students to deal with the complexities of real-world problems (see e.g. Behrman & Levin, 1984; Porter & McKibbin, 1988; Smith, 2005). While a course that is heavily focused on theory would be challenging enough for master level students, it may complicate the goal of creating a practically relevant course. The focus should instead be on teaching students the following skill set: how to identify project management related challenges/problems, how to acquire additional information/tools/techniques to solve these problems, and how to use new information to come up with the best solution.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered teaching approach, which aims at putting the onus on students when it comes to finding the relevant information needed for solving complex, real-world problems. In this paper, we examine the benefits of applying PBL in advanced project management teaching. The study was done by first analyzing existing research on PBL and its applications to management education. We then studied how PBL was applied to teach advanced courses in project management business to master level students in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management at the University of Oulu.

Problem-based learning

PBL has been used in higher education for more than 40 years as a method of teaching the practical application of knowledge in a real-world setting. PBL originated in Canadian medical schools,. starting with McMaster University, Ontario, in 1969. McMaster University developed its entire curriculum around PBL. By the 1980s, the method spread to medical schools in North America, Europe and Australia. By 1990s, it was adopted as a teaching method in schools of engineering, management, and law, for example (Barrows, 2000; Boud & Feletti, 1997; Hansen 2006, Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Smith, 2005; Torp & Sage, 2002; Fosters 1997). The challenges related to the implementation and potential benefits of PBL teaching approaches in the context of management education have been discussed, e.g., Gilbert and Foster (1997), Chaharbaghi and Cox (1995), and Smith (2005). Because the case method is widely used in management education, business schools have played a leading role in the development of the PBL approach (Gilbert & Foster, 1997). The case method and PBL approaches are connected, but it has been argued that the case method is only a diminished form of PBL (Barrows, 1986). Traditionally, the case method approach is instructor-driven and makes use of large-group discussions, while in PBL problems are introduced to engage students in a self-directed learning process.

Student-centered learning process

PBL is based on a fundamentally different learning process than traditional classroom teaching in which an instructor transfers his or her knowledge to students (Peterson, 2004). PBL is a student-centred learning process where students learn through problem solving. PBL has been defined as “the learning that results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem” (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1985). The problems are real-world problems, and students need to identify what knowledge is required to solve the problem. (Boud & Feletti, 1997; Peterson, 2004). The problems should be designed in a way that is complex and ill-structured so that students cannot solve them right away; the students need to find new information to analyze the situation and come up with possible solutions (Hansen, 2006; Milne & McConnell, 2001).

PBL is based on the assumption that students learn best in teams, engaging in cooperative and self-directed learning (Kloppenborg & Baucus, 2004; Hansen 2006). Problem solving as team work, especially in a case of a challenging and complex problem, requires all team members to participate in discussions, engage in information sharing, and be involved in the research of literature or other sources (e.g., through interviews of practitioners or discussion with faculty members). This process can be quite frustrating for students because they need to take an active role in a learning process in which they face a lot of uncertainty (Peterson, 1994). However, if successful, through the PBL process, students gain a deeper understanding of the subject and, afterwards, will remember what they learned (Bridges & Hallinger, 1997; Woodward 1997).

There are many variations of the PBL process (e.g., Bigelow, 2004; Boud & Feletti, 1997), but in the end the PBL core process is quite simple (Hansen, 2006; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). It has been applied in different levels ranging from a system level application, in which a whole program of study is based on PBL, down to the individual course level or specific learning events within a course (Kloppenborg & Baucus, 2004). Figure 1 presents the main steps of the PBL process.

Problem-based learning process

Figure 1. Problem-based learning process.

At first, the problem is presented to students by a faculty member. In some cases, the problem may be fuzzy and complex, and thus additional questions and discussions are required to even identify the problem. The students analyze the problem in groups and identify the facts that are provided in the problem. It is at this point possible solutions are generated. Finally, the possible solutions are evaluated and the best solution is decided upon (Hansen, 2006; Hmelo-Silver, 2004).

Benefits of PBL in advanced project management education

The application of PBL can be seen as a response to criticism that management education is disconnected from practice and students have difficulties in applying theories and concepts to complex real-world problems (Smith, 2005; Kloppenborg & Baucus, 2004). In addition, PBL has numerous other potential benefits that have been widely researched (e.g., Bridges & Hallinger, 1997; Blumberg, 2000; Duch et al., 2001; Woodward, 1997). These benefits are summarized in Smith's (2005) research in which he compared the potential benefits of PBL in the context of medical training to management education. The potential benefits listed by Smith (2005) and the discussion of how they relate to our course design are presented in Table 1.

For management education, the most important PBL benefits, introduced in Table 1, are: the educational focus is on practice-relevant knowledge; knowledge can be drawn from multiple disciplines that increase a student's ability to combine knowledge from different business areas; problems are solved in teams, which develops students’ teamwork, leadership, and interpersonal skills; students are motivated to learn (Smith, 2005).

Table 1. Ways to achieve the benefits of PBL in the advanced course in project business.

Potential benefit of PBL (Smith, 2005) …and how to achieve these benefits in the context of an advanced project management education
Problem solving skills A student-centered process that involves solving complex real-world problems is an integral part of the course design.
Knowledge retention and recall Students have limited practical experience and they will not be able to use acquired knowledge in their work. Students learn to recall and apply learned concepts and approaches when they face similar situations during the course (and hopefully in future work).
Understanding of material Study material is used mainly in solving complex problems, which cannot be analyzed based only on “common sense,” which leads to a more in-depth understanding of the relevance of the study material.
Thoughtfulness Students have more responsibility for both creating relevant questions/problems and providing answers those questions, have increased thoughtfulness – a tendency to deliberate, question and critically reflective on the course content.
Focus on practice-relevant knowledge Discussions and problems that are presented during the course need to be up-to-date and well connected to practice either through faculty member interaction, visiting lecturers from industry or student assignments to solve real-world problems in companies.
Knowledge integration In the course, topics related to different disciplines are presented and students are encouraged to apply all available materials to understand complex problems.
Teamwork, leadership, and social skills Problems are solved in groups, and students have to take full responsibility for how their groups function.
Life-long learning skills Students are not given all of the materials needed to solve problems, but they are required to gather relevant additional knowledge and material by themselves.
Motivates student learning Problems solved during the course are practical and consist of complex problems that project-based firms are facing or have recently faced.

Although the PBL approach benefits a management education, there are characteristics of management that are not suited to PBL; decision making and problem solving are important when running an organization but a manager's job is also maintenance oriented. Students have to learn how organizations function and they need to develop situational awareness. When solving problems, managers also base decisions on experiential knowledge and on the information they have gathered from other people. The PBL process focuses on the collection of information from the literature and other formal sources (Perrenet et al., 2000; Smith, 2005).

PBL is a tool in management education, which should be used alongside other educational methods to gain the best possible educational solution (Gamble et al., 2008). It is also argued that students should be taught to be effective problem solvers, and this can be done by teaching students to use different methods. (Gullason, 2009; Sherwood, 2004; Smith, 2005)

Application of PBL in advanced course of project business

In the following, we describe the application of the PBL approach in an advanced master level course on project business completed by approximately 35 students per year. The course is offered by the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management in the Faculty of Technology at University of Oulu. The department consists of four professors and instructors and 30 research personnel. In addition, the department welcomes approximately 30 new students annually. There are four different programs that are offered–project and quality management, technology management, industrial management, and work sciences; the research is also focused on these areas.

The course has an important role as one of the first advanced courses taken during the master level studies; furthermore, it is also the first opportunity for many students to become familiarized with academic research. Students’ academic backgrounds vary and include management sciences and engineering. Hence the implementation of the course requires teaching methods that meet the needs of a heterogeneous group and, more importantly, encourages students to broaden their project business knowledge in the future. The course is implemented using a format that is rather similar to the previous year. Based on encouraging feedback that was received last year, when the course was offered the first time, we decided to continue to develop the course using PBL. Our analysis and course description is based on the course implemented during the fall of 2009.


The planning of the course started in spring 2009, six months ahead of the start of the course. The objectives of the course were very similar to those of PBL and thus PBL was selected as one of the main instructional methods for the course. The PBL elements of the course were designed to appear both at the task and system levels, from individual cases solved in groups to a learning chain, which is repeated, iterated, and extended to cover the entire course. Furthermore, another important aim was to combine both individual and group learning perspectives in our application of PBL.

Different from traditional course arrangements, one member of the teaching personnel was an undergraduate student who had completed the course successfully the previous year. By bringing a student perspective into the planning and implementation of the course, it was shaped so that more attention was paid to the primary customer – the student. In order to measure the success of the course, students were asked to give free, qualitative written feedback. They were advised to specifically comment on the different working methods that were used in the course: the learning diary, case studies, lectures, free discussions, and literal group work for companies. The students were asked to comment on how these methods helped them to learn and how effective and useful they were. The student feedback was gathered at end of the course, and issues related to the design of the course were analyzed by the instructors.

Course description

The learning objectives of the advanced course on project business was to understand the specific features of project business and how they need to be taken into account in the application of various tools and approaches to manage a project business. The course consists of seven, three-hour lectures and a four-hour closing seminar built around project business themes familiar in the literature and working life (see the course description and content in Appendix 1). In addition, students visit the professor and the teaching assistant outside of the lectures when planning and composing students’ group work, which is based on company interviews of project-based firms (see Appendix 2 for a brief description of each group work assignment). Furthermore, students are also encouraged to ask for guidance via email or visit with instructors to discuss their work whenever they feel it is necessary. What is important is that the professor and the teaching assistant have only a supportive, back-up role; the students seek the company partners themselves, define the research problem with the companies, and make a research plan in their groups. The function of the supportive discussions is to change conceptions while keeping the theoretical background in mind.

Detailed design of the course

As described in the previous section in the description of the feedback, the course is built around five main working methods: (1) lectures given by the professor in charge and by visiting professionals, (2) business case studies that involve solving specific problems, (3) discussion during class time, (4) a scientifically oriented learning diary, and (5) literal group work based on company interviews. The learning diary is the fulcrum. It has two phases, a pre-lecture literature review on the lecture topic and post-lecture conclusions, which are separated by the lecture, case studies, and group discussion. As a diary entry is written for every lecture, the learning chain is repeated several times during the course. Furthermore, the students are given qualitative feedback weekly and each learning diary is graded. The function of the feedback is to support and guide the student's learning process, not to test and judge what the student has learned. This iterative process is completed by literal group work, that is carried out after the lecture series. Hence the applied PBL approach includes both individual and group learning perspectives as well as problems of different depths. (See Figure 2.)

PBL and working methods on the project business course

Figure 2. PBL and working methods on the project business course.

The system presented in Figure 2 works in the following manner: a pre-lecture diary entry is based on reading material consisting of one to three relevant journal articles on the lecture topic. Students are asked to consider the topic, based on a question or two, that is set by the faculty member. For example, what are the special features of project business and what kind of challenges do they create from the management point of view? Or, what kind of approaches can be taken toward project marketing, and which factors should be considered when choosing the approach? In response, students attach a couple of questions for the lecturer to the end of their diary entries that they consider to be relevant based on the advanced reading. These questions are discussed in the lecture apart from the formerly planned lecture content.

Most of the lectures contain a case study. The most popular case study among students was a contract negotiation regarding a housebuilding project. Some students acted as sellers who offered a prefabricated house to a family, and other students acted as potential buyers. The parties had to agree on price, schedule, and site location. The challenge lied in the different valuations and information sharing. There were four buyer-seller groups, and the extent of the provided preliminary data varied between these groups. The groups that had the most extensive knowledge of both their valuations and the other side's valuations, agreed easily. The others had to share information in order to enter into a contract. However, all of the parties had to formulate a negotiation strategy.

Other highly educational case studies included designing a project management office for a Finnish university and analyzing the business model of the KONE Corporation The first one represents an open problem that has not yet been solved by the professionals or the university administration.– The Finnish university system is in the middle of restructuring in which universities are becoming independent from state administrations and turning into public corporations or private endowed foundations. Case studies, as well as the other lecture content are closed in a discussion in the end of the lecture.

Writing in a diary after the lecture synthesizes the theory that was reviewed prior to the lecture and the practice that was experienced during the lecture. This synthesis aids in knowledge retention and recall, and is a function of the PBL method along with knowledge integration. Students are encouraged to use learning from other courses and work experiences in the learning diary. After repeatedly writing in a learning diary, the students eventually carry out a study, which requires interviewing companies. They analyze the material in groups, and finally present the results to others. In this way the course supports both individual learners and group workers, and offers diverse challenges for students with varying levels of previous knowledge.

In addition to various teaching and working methods, the course is also a very knowledge intensive package, which requires planning both in terms of managing factual contents and teaching methods. The group of 35 students is challenged during discussions and case solving, which is a very crucial part of PBL. However, the course content should remain meaningful for all students so they can draw inspiration from what they have learned and apply it toward future studies or integrate academic knowledge into reallife work situations. The most challenging aspect of the PBL method may be the goal of inspiring lifelong learning. The course content, and thus the application of PBL, is managed by splitting the factual content and work into alternating individual and group-learning phases as presented in Figure 2.

Student feedback and evaluation of the course

Based on our own analysis as well as feedback and discussion with students, the course design was quite successful. Passing the course required a lot of work, but the students were quite motivated to work hard during the course. From the instructor's perspective, the course has been very inspiring, as we have been able to discuss and test the latest research findings with our students. The problems presented and discussed with the students are similar to those we are tackling within our research projects. In this way we have also been very motivated to dedicate more time to support our students with their case study assignments. The course also meets one of the core objectives of the university system by providing the highest quality education that is based on the latest research.

Based on student feedback received in the learning diaries, nearly all of the students were satisfied with the course and their own performances in it. Some students said the course was the most educational one in their studies so far, with a quantum of “the real academic spirit.” However, the course was found to be challenging because of the workload that the learning diary imposed. When students were unfamiliar with reading scientific articles, the pre-lecture literature review could take hours. On the other hand, the students believed the effort was worth it: “Even though the conduct [the learning diary process] has been pretty laborious and time-consuming, I have really gotten insight into this vast field of research and practice. And particularly, the learning here means the real understanding of the issues, not just rote learning.” (Student 2) The pre-lecture part of the learning diary in particular (in which students were asked to analyze questions related to pre-reading material) was considered important for preparing for the discussion: “The pre-lecture diary made me get familiarized with the literature on lecture topic. This helped me to understand the issues in the lecture.” (Student 8)

The students also put high value on problem solving and discussions taking place in the lectures: “The free discussion in the lectures was a way to test the things I had learned [in the learning diary process and the given lecture] in practice.” (Student 11) The following comment by student 14 supports the idea that students can be motivated by handling practical but complex cases and by issues that are borrowed from real-life working situations: “I think it is great that we were given exercises that were related to the practice of working life; they do motivate!”

The continuous assessment was also well received by the students: “Completing the course with continuous assessment instead of exam is a good procedure nearly without exception. Especially I found the learning diary through which I got familiarized with the lecture topics beforehand, a very good working method. Without this requirement of pre-reading materials coming from outside, I wouldn't have worked so much and thus the offering of the lectures would also have remained not so significant for me.” (Student 18) In addition, Student 26 discovered that his “literal outputs improved during the course because of the continuous assessment and feedback.

The students with an engineering background and less knowledge of project business issues were able to expand their picture of the field of industrial engineering and management throughout the course and were positively surprised by how researchers and professionals defined and solved real-life work situations. From the course organizers’ point of view, all the students learned to write scientific text with appropriate references and thoughtful content, defined the problem at hand as research questions and then gave suggestions for a solution.


Management students are often not challenged in traditional classroom settings (Kloppenborg & Baucus, 2004), and, in cases when they are, it is difficult to bring up theoretical concepts that motivate students to learn, because they lack the experience to connect the concepts to real-life situations. Peterson (2004) suggests that learning only happens when students are both excited and uncertain. PBL aims to create this situation by introducing students to complex, unstructured real-world problems without providing a clear process or any material that is required to solve those problems.

Benefits of applying a PBL course design

Our experiences and the student feedback we received after applying a PBL approach in the design and implementation of the advanced course was similar to the results that were discussed earlier in the literature (Kloppenborg & Baucus, 2004; Smith, 2005). In Table 2, we summarize benefits of applying PBL in the course and which issues in the course design most contributed to which benefit.

However, we should note that the course was not fully designed to comply with the principles of PBL. For example, part of the lectures could be described more as a traditional faculty-lead teaching approach. PBL is a learning-centered approach, which gives students a lot of responsibility in the learning process. Students have to take an active role, which may be quite difficult as their experiences during their undergraduate studies were mainly restricted to being a passive recipient of information that was offered by a faculty member. Some of the researchers have warned that application of PBL may decrease student satisfaction at the beginning, because they are not used to this type of teaching approach (Peterson, 2004). Based on our experience, we suggest that the use of PBL by introducing students with challenging real-world problems, combined with traditional faculty-lead sessions within lectures, leads to improved student acceptance and satisfaction. We fully agree with Gample et al. (2004) that there has to be balance between traditional and PBL teaching approaches.

Table 2. PBL benefits appeared on the course.

Benefit of PBL, Smith (2005) ... and how these benefits were achieved in the advanced course in project business
Problem solving skills Students were presented with complex problems before each lecture, in the case studies during lectures and in the company group work assignment.
Knowledge retention and recall Theoretical concepts and literature were tied to practical situations in project-based organizations (e.g., as a salesperson for a contractor: how to use the Negotiation Analytic Approach (reference removed) to evaluate and improve your negotiation position.
Understanding of material Problems presented during the course could not be easily analyzed and were based on common sense, but the application of theoretical concepts and literature was required.
Thoughtfulness Students were always challenged to understand the situation and to identify the relevant contextual factors that influence the situation. For example, how does project complexity and uniqueness influence the type of marketing approach to use. They were challenged to critically analyze simple “off-theself” solutions and ask questions that were required to come up with better answers.
Focus on practice-relevant knowledge Both faculty members and visiting lecturers had a close connection to industry; the major part of the course was a group work assignment to identify and solve a practical problem in a company.
Knowledge integration Topics related to different disciplines are presented and students are encouraged to apply all available materials to understand these complex problems.
Teamwork, leadership, and social skills A group assignment is done in groups of six or seven students independent of the class. Groups are responsible for finding the case organization, defining the problem, gathering relevant information to solve the problem, and presenting a solution.
Life-long learning skills In order to complete a group assignment, students need to gather relevant information based on the existing literature, company interviews, and discussions with faculty members, who did not have a “correct answer.” The role of the faculty was not to be an expert, but rather a resource for students (Peterson 2004).
Motivates student learning Problems solved during the course are practical and complex issues that project-based firms are facing or have recently faced.

A three-level PBL application developed for the course

It has been previously suggested that PBL can be applied at the system level when designing an entire education system or study program or in individual courses (Kloppenborg & Baucus, 2004). In our case, we applied PBL to a single course, or more specifically, in different levels of the course: (level 1) cases studies and discussions that took place in lectures, (level 2) a learning diary written before and after each lecture, and through the repetitive learning chain, and (level 3) group work done for the companies in which the students integrate all the knowledge they had gathered. These elements combined formed a three-level PBL application (see Figure 3).

Three-level PBL application

Figure 3. Three-level PBL application.

Case solving in groups and synthesizing discussions in lectures are the most popular form of PBL in management education, but these can be considered only a weak form of PBL (Barrows, 1986). However, the learning diary process built around pre-reading materials and related to questions, lectures, and reflections brings the method to the next level, which is completed largely individually. This phase is designed to produce knowledge so students can follow the content of the lecture, take part in discussions and analyze cases. Finally, these working methods, including both the individual and group dimensions, become integrated through the repeated learning chain (presented in Figure 2), and group work done for the case company in which they define the problem to be solved, gather the required information it and finally present and discuss their solutions during the final seminar. These learning processes closely follow a generic PBL process: a problem is presented to students, they use different materials to analyze it, and come up with solutions that are presented and discussed (e.g., Hansen 2006).

One of the main differences in the generic PBL process is that our application the learning diary process, was done individually. However, the case studies presented during lectures as well as the assignment involving companies were carried out as group work. This design was based on the idea that to have a relevant discussion about the lectures and encourage students to participate in them, the students needed to have a basic understanding of the theories that might be used in the analysis of the situation.


We need to develop project managers that are capable of dealing with an increasing level of complexity and uncertainty in the project environment (Thomas & Mengel, 2008). In this study, we presented the application of PBL to overcome some challenges related to the relevance and the practical value of advanced project management education. Our findings suggest that PBL teaching approaches can be quite easily integrated into course design and can bring substantial benefits. Some of the main benefits include: the active use of information from different sources to solve complex real-world problems; better knowledge retention and recall as theoretical concepts are related and applied to practical situations; a focus on practical, relevant knowledge; and the development of teamwork and social skills. PBL seems to be applicable for teaching advanced topics to a student with limited practical experience.

One of the main challenges in this approach is that PBL requires a change in attitude for both project management educators and students. Students need to take an active role as learners and faculty is to support this learning process, not to act as an expert in the field. Faculty members provide the environment for learning and act as a resource for students to use as part of their learning process. Some real-world situations, such as in the company case assignment, can be so complex and unclear that it is difficult to define the problem. In this type of situation, educators must have the courage to face the uncertain situations and learn together with their students. In fact, Petersen (2004) suggests that this type of learning motivates students best if they realize that it is not a game of trying to find a predetermined answer.

In this paper we provide one example of how to use the principles of PBL in the design and implementation of an advanced course in project business. We would like to emphasize a few points, which in addition to core principles of PBL, are most relevant for moving away from traditional teaching approaches and toward a fully student-centered learning process:

  • The importance of individual learning alongside group work: Students must be well prepared when attending case exercises and discussions during lectures. Individual learning assignments, such as a learning diary, help students to analyze advanced reading material as well as reflect what they have learned during the lectures.
  • Challenging problems that have no ready-made solutions make students feel they are equal to faculty members or other professionals when generating ideas for possible solutions and thus encourages students to suggest unobvious, innovative approaches.
  • Providing access to teaching personnel outside of the lectures, encourages students to have contact with the teaching personnel to discuss the course content and participate in students’ literal works as a coach or facilitator.
  • Advanced management education provides opportunities for teaching personnel to continuously learn and develop new ideas; if possible, connect course contents with your research interests and involve students with research.
  • Both teaching personnel and students must be familiar with PBL and understand the principles used in the course design, including the potential benefits and requirements needed to achieve those benefits.

Our research was done in the context of the Finnish university system to offer an advanced course in project business for master level students. Based on both our own evaluation as well as student feedback, the benefits of using PBL were substantial, and we will continue to apply a student-centered PBL process in the advanced project business course as well as in other master level courses. However, the learning process is context dependent, and there are multiple factors that influence the outcome of the process. Therefore, it is difficult to say to which degree our results are applicable in other settings. More research should be done to better understand which factors should be taken into account in the design and implementation of an effective PBL process in advanced project management education.


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APPENDIX 1: Course description

Advanced course on project business, Fall 2009

Course content: The special features of project business, business models of project-based firms, project marketing and sales, project network management and value creation, project portfolio management, and project management office.
Learning objectives: Upon completion of the course, the student can describe the management areas of project business. The student can compare the special features of project business in different environments and analyze the impact of contextual factors to the business model of a project-based company. The student can assess the role of a single project and its management in relation to achieving business goals.
Implementation: Seven lectures and a final seminar. A two-phase learning diary: in the prelecture phase a student becomes familiarized with the literature topic, in post-lecture phase he/she reflects on the practice that was learned and combines it with the theoretical background. Group work is to be done for a project-business company: the selected topic must be in line with a project business theme discussed in the course. No final exam.
Lecture contents: Lecture 1

▪ Project business as a research field

▪ Guest lecturer: Prof. Karlos Artto, Helsinki University of Technology

▪ Pre-reading material given before each lecture

Lecture 2

▪ The business model in a project business company

▪ Initial introduction of the upcoming group work

▪ Case: Business model of the KONE Corporation

Lecture 3

▪ Project marketing and sales

▪ Group discussion: Which factors need to be considered when inviting tenders and making an offer?

Lecture 4

▪ Managing the subcontractor network

▪ Project procurement and value creation

▪ Group discussion: What are customer and supplier value elements in research projects?

Lecture 5

▪ Financial and management accounting in project-based firms

▪ Guest lecturer: Senior Researcher Jari Paranko, Cost Management Center, Tampere University of Technology

Lecture 6

▪ Project negotiations and contract management

▪ The topic introduced by Legal Counsel Ms. Sanna Sipilä, Research and Innovation Services, University of Oulu

▪ Instructions for the group project are given

▪ Case: Contract negotiation in a housebuilding project

Lecture 7

▪ Project office management and project portfolio management

▪ Guest lecturer: Prof. Perttu Dietrich, University of Southern Denmark

▪ Case: Designing a project management office for a Finnish university

Closing seminar

▪ Case: Finnish marine industry (case given by Researcher Tuomas Ahola from BIT Research Center, Helsinki University of Technology)

▪ Students present the results of the group work

▪ Peer evaluation feedback also given for the group work

Learning diary: The learning diary should cover all seven lectures. The recommended length is two pages per lecture; one page before the lecture, one page after. The pre-lecture part should include a review of the essential contents of the provided pre-reading materials (journal articles), the key findings and insights, and questions set for the lecturer. The post-lecture part discusses the things learned during and after the lecture; it is a reflection of the lecture and theory. The pre- and post-lecture diary entries will be evaluated with a grade ranging from 1 to 5 for each lecture. Feedback given for the professor and the assistant should be included in the final diary entry.
Group work: The group work is carried out in groups of four to six students and should be done for a project-based firm. The students are advised to seek the company themselves and agree with company representatives on a topic that is related to the project business themes that are discussed in the course. The work is divided in two phases and deadlines: the theoretical part that includes a company interview and outline, and the empirical part including the actual interviews, conclusions, and the synthesis between theory and practice. In between the implementation of these parts, there is a feedback discussion in which students can get guidance from the professor and the teaching assistant.
Course evaluation: Learning diary 40% and group work 60% of the final grade. Both of them must be completed acceptably.

APPENDIX 2: Group work topics and companies

The general description of the group work as a study attainment is presented in Appendix 1. This part gives an idea about the seven group works carried out in our project business course. All the groups sought companies for interviews themselves as well as agreed on the group work topics independently with the companies.

Group 1 (consisting of 6 students)
Topic: Subcontractor selection criteria
Interviewed company: Wärtsilä Service
Company web pages:
As delivering power solutions worldwide, subcontracting is very essential to the project business company. The student group studied how Wärtsilä seeks, evaluates, and selects its subcontractors. In its manufacturing side, the selection criteria are pre-determined but project deliveries require a more individual approach.

Group 2 (consisting of 6 students)
Topic: Value creation in subcontractor network
Company: A large, global telecommunication company
Based on summer traineeships of two group members in the company, the students were very interested in the subcontractor management practices of the company. The company interview offered an interesting view on the practices of the global company with very well defined and sophisticated processes.

Group 3 (consisting of 6 students)
Topic: Strategic view on subcontracting activities
Company: SteelDone Group
Company web pages:
SteelDone Group, a marketing and project management company representing five Finnish metal industry companies, offered an interesting view on its project business network both through its internal and external stakeholders.

Group 4 (consisting of 6 students)
Topic: Finnish Road Administration as a project business organization
Organization: Finnish Road Administration
Organization web pages:
The student group decided to study how project business concepts, familiar in the industrial sector, would suit this public organization which actually represents the buyer side in the project business that the students has already gotten to know in their earlier studies.

Group 5 (consisting of 5 students)
Topic: Value creation through building services
Company: ISS Proko Oy
Company web pages:
ISS Proko Oy, a Finnish part of ISS Group, offers building and project management services. As project management services in construction business has grown rapidly in Finland during the past years, the student group decided to take a closer look at the business, and specifically at value creation strategies and practices in the interviewed company.

Group 6 (consisting of 5 students)
Topic: Tender preparation process
Company 1: Citec Engineering Vehicle Oy
Company 2: Pöyry Environment Oy
Company 1 web pages:
Company 2 web pages:
This student group had a chance to interview two companies, which are both engineering and consulting offices. The students decided to study how well the tender preparation processes of these two companies correlate with literature defining bidding procedures in project business. Furthermore, they could include a compare the companies and thus understand better the different contextual factors affecting the tender preparation process.

Group 7 (consisting of 6 students)
Topic: Subcontracting – value creation and risk management views
Company: CCC
Company web pages:
Because of the growing need for subcontracting and networking, CCC, delivering software projects both for industrial and public sector, allowed project business students to take a look at the company's processes and present their thoughts. The interview and literal work helped students to get new knowledge not only in the project business but also in the software business, which was not as familiar to them before this course work.

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