A Guide to Problem Based Learning

Problem Based Learning, or PBL, is a student-centered learning process that challenges students to activate their prior knowledge and acquire new knowledge in order to solve a real-world problem. With PBL, students acquire new knowledge relevant to them in a real-world context. In the philosophy of PBL, students learn problem solving skills first and content second because content will change but problem solving skills will remain constant and can be applied across disciplines.

McMaster University Faculty of Health Sciences, in Canada, developed PBL as part of their medical education curriculum in the 1970s. Professors and administrators realized that traditional medical education, or years of content lectures followed by years of clinical experience, was not up to the challenge of creating compassionate physicians who listened to their patients and applied their knowledge to solve their problems. Traditional medical education segmented fields of learning into separate courses and lectures, but did not give students the opportunity to use that knowledge in context. To diagnose a patient, students would need to activate their knowledge of many fields. In McMaster’s PBL program, medical students work together in small groups on real patient case studies. Other medical schools in the United States and Canada adopted PBL in the 1980s and 90s and PBL became a standard part of medical education.

PBL has since expanded into university coursework and primary and secondary schools. Educators are incorporating PBL into their curricula to engage their students in active learning. Students who exhibit classic signs of boredom in traditional learning environments are engaged and energized during PBL activities because they perceive the content as relevant to their needs. Solving problems gives students a sense of accomplishment, which encourages them to be life-long learners. Problem Based Learning, how it works, its results for learners, and who uses it and how will be examined below.

What is Problem Based Learning?

PBL is an inductive approach to learning. Students learn new content in context and use it to solve a problem, whereas in traditional learning they learn content first and then apply it. Students learn how to research a problem, how to combine theory with practice, and how to take ownership of their learning process.

In Problem Based Learning, students direct the learning process and teachers become “tutors”, or educational guides. Students choose the problem to be addressed, although teachers may help in this process to different degrees, depending on students’ ages and familiarity with PBL. The problem is a real-world problem: it is multi-layered, inter-disciplinary, poorly defined, and does not have one “correct” answer. The problem should be similar to a problem or situation that a professional in the field would face. Problems that are too well-defined or have one correct answer do not motivate students to conduct vigorous inquiry. Students are responsible for their own learning in PBL and use their research skills to acquire new content.

After they define the problem, learners collaborate in groups to find a solution. Small groups of three to five students are ideal, although some PBL activities may begin with groups of up to 35 students. Learners first determine what they know about the problem and determine what information they need to find out in order to come to a solution. Learners then direct their own research using journals, texts, newspaper articles, internet materials, and experts in the field to acquire the necessary information. Students then return to the problem with the new knowledge and combine it with their prior knowledge to create a solution to the problem. By working in groups, students own their learning process and are responsible for directing their own research and for synthesizing it and reporting back to the group. Tutors will ask questions of all learners to determine if they are sharing knowledge. Tutors also conduct a post-problem debriefing in which learners articulate how they arrived at their solution.

Problems suitable for PBL are complex and do not have one correct answer. Students may find that their solution only addresses part of the problem or that it creates a new problem. The teacher will ask open-ended meta-cognitional questions to encourage learners to reflect on their learning process, such as “How do you know this?” These questions should push students to look at new aspects of the problem and to evaluate their own problem-solving skills. At the end of the activity, students evaluate their own skills and those of their peers to promote awareness of their own learning skills and to teach them how to evaluate the skills of their peers in a productive manner.

Who is Working with Problem Based Learning?

Problem-Based Learning is most prevalent in medical education and professional schools. University professors in the sciences are beginning to adopt PBL. Some humanities professors are also beginning to adopt PBL. High school and elementary school teachers are also beginning to incorporate PBL into their curricula. PBL is used in economics, business education, many sub-fields of medical education, engineering, and architecture. Many teachers find the transition to PBL challenging. The conversion from teacher to tutor requires special training and practice. Students also need training to convert from traditional teaching methods to PBL. Students new to PBL require more help from their instructors in order to develop problem-solving skills, collaborative learning skills, and proficiency in self-directed learning. PBL tutors can provide this scaffolding but do not provide the content knowledge necessary to solve a problem.

PBL is adopted as the basis for curriculum and instruction and not as an add-on to an existing didactic curriculum. Instructors and administrators who cannot implement a fully Problem Based Learning curriculum may choose to adopt other student-directed learning approaches to move them toward a PBL curriculum. In Case-Based Learning, students analyze case studies to develop higher-order problem solving skills. Instructors use case studies to test students’ content mastery or when real-world practice of content and skills is impossible or inefficient. In Project-Based Learning, students collaborate to complete a project. Project-Based Learning teaches students efficient procedures to achieve their goal and challenges them to overcome obstacles in the process creatively. Case- and Project-Based Learning are different from Problem-Based Learning because the outcome or goal of the learning experience is defined by the instructor and not by the students.

Advantages of PBL include increased student motivation and engagement. PBL promotes creative problem-solving and helps students activate prior knowledge, which helps improve content retention. PBL also encourages life-long learning and prepares students for problem-solving in their future careers. Disadvantages of PBL include difficulty in implementation, particularly across disciplines in a traditional school. The difficulty of assessing student knowledge through traditional exams and standardized tests also present challenges to the adoption of PBL. The steep learning curve for both teachers and students can make initial adoption a rocky process. Students can become frustrated and angry as expectations of them change and can be frustrated about group dynamics. PBL requires extensive preparation by teachers to ensure students have access to primary and secondary source material. Effective PBL also requires large amounts of time, which is at a premium in most schools.

What are We Learning About Problem Based Learning?

Two meta-analyses of PBL evaluation studies spanning 20 years, Albanese and Mitchell in1993 and Vernon and Blake in 1993, found that traditional instruction and PBL instruction in medical schools produced equivalent student test scores. The PBL students’ problem-solving skills were superior to those of traditional learners. More recent meta-analyses (Newman, 2003, and Sanson-Fisher and Lynagh, 2005) note a lack of well-designed studies on the effectiveness of PBL and do not find clear evidence of any advantage to PBL over traditional curricula in medical education.

Incidentally, PBL practitioners find that their students prefer PBL to traditional approaches. Many primary and secondary schools have difficulty adopting a PBL approach because of how their school day is structured around different subjects taught by different teachers in different rooms, and the requirement to meet mandatory state testing standards that test content but not PBL encouraged skills. It is difficult to measure PBL’s outcomes because traditional content exams do not cover the skills PBL teaches, such as problem-solving, teamwork, self-evaluation, critical thinking and reasoning, and communication skills.

Leaders in industry and business routinely cite lack of internal motivation and problem-solving skills as problems in high school and college graduates entering the work force. These leaders also want employees who are adaptable self-starters who can define a problem on their own and design a creative solution to solve it. PBL teaches students these skills, which they can then apply in their own lives and careers to acquire the content knowledge they need to succeed.

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