What is Problem Based Learning?

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a type of non-traditional classroom learning wherein instructors use open-ended problems so that students can work through the topic to arrive at solutions. Unlike traditional educational techniques, problem-based learning does not involve lectures, exercises and assignments. Instead, students learn the subject by discovering answers and working with the content provided by instructors to solve the problem. This helps students acquire problem solving skills, independent thinking and other necessary skills.

Origins of Problem-Based Learning

The problem-based learning technique has been traced to the late 60s at the Canadian medical school McMaster University. PBL is related to constructivist and social-cultural theories of learning and is based on the educational theories of Dewey, Vygotsky and others. Three other medical institutions followed the footsteps of McMaster University – namely, The University of Limburg (in Netherlands), University of Newcastle (in Australia) and University of New Mexico (in the United States).

Since then, various adaptations of the McMaster model of PBL was adapted on various disciplines, such as business, law, education, dentistry, engineering, health sciences and other subjects at various educational levels.

Benefits of Problem-Based Learning

Unlike traditional learning that uses lectures, reading and exams to assess a student’s ability of the subject, instructors who use problem-based learning assess a student’s ability to learn by going through a problem solving process.

Research shows that problem-based learning provides students with long-term benefits compared to traditional learning. According to universities that used this method, graduates of PBL courses have increased lesson retention, helped students in transferring knowledge to new situations and developed creative, critical and lateral thinking, effective problem solving skills, networking skills and communication skills. The PBL lectures also increased motivation of students and since most problems are based on real-life situations, students genuinely enjoy the learning process.

PBL instructors benefit from this teaching style because class attendance increases; it encourages students to study more, and provides an intrinsic reward to students. Meanwhile, institutions that use problem-based learning show that it values teaching and it makes learning a priority.

How is a PBL Program Developed?

Since PBL is a student-centered program, instructors carefully design a problem-based lecture by exposing only the necessary information and skills. It usually involves a statement of the problem, questions to consider when solving the problem, and required time to spend on the project/lesson. The problems are usually specific to a student’s level of study, discipline and context. Open-ended problems come without one ‘correct’ answer. Once the problem has been introduced to a class, students collaboratively solve them, usually within a small group of five or less. Instructors serve as facilitators, as they guide the learning process and ensure students discover meaningful solutions.

In problem-based learning, instructors encourage students to take responsibility for their groups and direct the learning process themselves. Students face real-world problems and understand different options to its resolution, weigh variables, share viewpoints and decide on the most suitable answer to the problem.

Instructors use different strategies with PBL. One of them involves using the problem as a guide, wherein students are provided with assigned readings similar to teachers giving questions to be used for a chapter as homework. Another approach involves using the problem as a test, wherein students apply what they’ve understood in assigned readings – a technique similar to using review questions after a reading assignment. Some instructors use the problem as an example to emphasize a point from assigned readings, while others use the problem as a way to develop problem-solving skills, collaboration and self-regulated learning instead of focusing on just the content.

Problem-Based Learning Steps

PBL is implemented in various ways, but they follow similar steps, which can be repeated and recycled in any given course.

1) Problem introduction – The teacher introduces a problem to students, who will then discuss the problem among themselves and discover its significant points. The challenging part here is to solve the problem without much information. Students will be responsible for gathering information, principles, new concepts, and any other skills as they discover throughout the problem-solving process.

2) Weigh Knowledge and Skills – When discussing the problem within a group, students determine what information they know and what strengths each member has in solving the problem. List down input or hypotheses needed from each team member and make a realistic plan on how to obtain or research this information.

3) Understanding the Problem – Students will then collaborate in developing and writing the problem in their own words based on what each team member knows. They compare the current problem with other problems that already know. In this stage, a group needs to develop a written statement agreed by everyone on the team. Sometimes, the instructor provides feedback on the group’s problem statement. As new information is discovered, the problem statement can be edited or discarded to be replaced with a new one.

4) Finding Solutions – In finding a solution to the problem, students list down possible solutions, usually in an order from strongest to weakest. After discussing and choosing the best solution that would likely to succeed, the group needs to research more information in books, websites, experts and other resources to support their chosen solution. If the research supports the team’s solution, they can write the documentation. If not, the team needs to go back in understanding the problem and finding other possible solutions.

5) Writing the documentation – In planning and writing the documentation, the team should include the process used and outcome. The typical documentation includes problem statement, questions raised, data gathered and their respective sources, process used and options considered, analysis of data and recommendations based on research and data analysis.

6) Presenting Conclusions – When presenting the team’s conclusions to the instructor or in front of the class, team members must defend their conclusions by stating the problem, conclusion, summarizing process used, and convincing others of their conclusions. During the presentation, the teacher serves as a facilitator to ensure everyone on the team participate in the discussion and justify their solutions, as well as help the team recognize inconsistencies with their findings. When questions are raised, one of the team members must answer clearly. If no one can answer, acknowledge the question and state the group will consider it for more research. This step helps in encouraging critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving.

Downside of PBL

Problem-based learning has many advantages over traditional learning, but it does come with a downside. Since students will shoulder most of the learning, the teacher must be extremely well versed in the PBL methodology and serve as an effective coach or instructor. He/she must be able to provide a carefully planned problem without giving too many information.  The problems must be able to challenge the learner’s thinking with an authentic task. Teachers must provide support and encourage the class to reflect on the content learned and skills developed through the learning process.

With a competent instructor and a good PBL course, students can become independent thinkers, great problem-solvers and team players by learning through real-world situations in a collaborative environment.

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