Problem-based learning

Problems drive the curriculum. They are used for teaching and assessment. The problems have multiple responses, and include aspects that are ill-defined. Students explore problem-based learning with the instructor acting as a resource and guide. Students are given guidelines and resources for solving the problem, and are required to work through a process that takes into account the complexity of real world problems.

Strengths of problem-based learning (PBL)

  • Motivates students by engaging them in the application of problem solving for real world problems
  • Facilitates content acquisition and improves retention of learning.
  • Immerses students in authentic activities that reflect the problems, processes, challenges, and situations of a particular discipline or profession.
  • Leads to skill development. This includes both discipline-specific and essential skills.
  • Fosters higher order thinking with a depth of inquiry and an interdisciplinary approach.

Reflection on practice

  1. How could PBL be incorporated into your current curriculum and teaching?
  2. What are authentic problems in your discipline and what instructional goals will they address?
  3. How might you structure the various aspects of PBL (i.e. problem, stages of problem-solving, students, resources, and evaluation)?

Preparing for problem-based learning

  1. Start by looking at your instructional outcomes. Working backwards from the most complex test and exam questions is one way of generating problems that integrate significant amounts of content and focus on higher-level outcomes.
  2. Place the problem in a real world context (i.e. case study). Current events, professional publications, and/or dialogue with professionals in your field can assist with this.
  3. Consider how you would work through the various stages of a similar problem. Structure the process for students to include apt instruction, learning activities, and accountability measures
  4. Develop a course plan that is built around the problem-solving process. Consider time frames
  5. Identify resources that students will need to work the problem and organize access to them.

Facilitating problem-based learning

Stage 1: Identifying and defining the problem

When beginning a problem-solving process, it is important that everyone who is working together understand the problem in the same way. This stage gets everyone seeking a common understanding of the problem.

  • Present students with the problem, and help them to ask meaningful questions about the problem. For a scaffolding resource on the problem-solving process,
  • Provide students with a structure for forming a “problem statement” and for generating the information they need to solve the problem.
  • If group work is involved, invest some time in developing collaborative learning skills.

Stage 2: Getting information

Consider how much time students can realistically spend on this. The instructor must help make this stage efficient. The main focus for students should be on using the information, not obtaining it.

  • Point out strategies that are more (or less) likely to work in getting the needed information as opposed to overtly directing the students towards information.
  • Encourage students to form new questions about the problem, for further research.
  • Help students remain critical about the accuracy, applicability, and appropriateness of information.

Stage 3: Generating and evaluating alternatives

It is important that learners generate multiple alternatives. Their tendency will be to generate only one idea. Set clear guidelines regarding a minimum number of alternatives to be considered.

  • Help students determine and use strategies (i.e. brainstorming, mind mapping, etc) to generate innovative solutions to the problem.
  • Have students evaluate various solutions before determining a course of action (i.e. identify pros and cons of each solution; compare and contrast alternatives).
  • Coach students on how to evaluate and determine criteria for selecting a solution.

Stage 4: The solution

The focus at this stage should be on providing a solid rationale for a particular solution and sharing that solution with peers.

  • Provide tools for self-evaluation to reduce grade anxiety.
  • Consider creative and/or meaningful ways to have students share their solutions and rationales with each other (i.e. demonstration, role-play, Blackboard).

Stage 5: Assessment

  • Consider a variety of alternatives for evaluating (i) content knowledge, (ii) reasoning and problem-solving skills, and (iii) relevant essential skills (team learning, communication, etc).
  • Develop a rubric that can be used for self, peer, and teacher assessment.