Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based Learning in the Classroom

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered, pedagogical approach that involves students actively working together to solve real-world problems. Problem-based learning gained its momentum in in 1980s in medical school curriculums. Medical students were taught clinical reasoning by collaborating with other students on case students. Research has consistently shown that PBL leads to higher level learning and thinking and improves problem-solving abilities. Therefore, problem-based learning is becoming increasingly common on undergraduate campuses in a variety of disciplines.

The instructional strategy is to divide students into groups and provide them with a messy, ill-structured problem that does not have one single right answer. The problem itself becomes the organizing center and the context for learning. Students will approach the process by working together to answer three questions: What do we know? What do we need to know? How do we find out? The students will research and use the tools available to them to find a solution and will present their findings the class. The end result is that students have taken a problem, gathered information and data, worked collaboratively to find a solution, and communicated that solution. This approach to instruction encourages students to use higher order thinking and hone their problem-solving abilities. Problem-based learning requires to students to utilize skills to learn and solve problems in much the same way that they will be expected to do their future careers, leading to students that are better prepared to enter the workforce.

Advantages of problem-based learning include:
• Encourages higher order critical thinking and de-emphasizes memorization.
• Learning is relevant to the real world.
• Increases motivation to learn in order to arrive at a solution.
• Provides additional opportunities for students to work collaboratively and practice communication and social skills.
• Learning is student-centered. The instructor acts as a facilitator or learning coach.
• Students learn how to learn.

Disadvantages of problem-based learning include:
• Lack of traditional instruction and progression through material.
• Objective evaluation may be difficult. May be difficult to fail a student.
• Need more teachers/facilitators - ideally 1 for each 6 students.
• Range of topics that can be covered is a limiting factor.

Problem-based Learning Example and Process:

The Problem: Mrs. Jones is a 75 year old woman who presented to the emergency room with chest pain and shortness of breath. She had been relatively healthy until last week when she took a hard fall after spraining her ankle. Physical examination does not show a fever or other signs of respiratory illness and the chest x-ray is normal.

The Process: Students will meet in a group over the course of several class meetings and will follow the steps in the flow chart below to arrive at a solution. Rubrics are an effective tool for evaluation and assessment of the work done by the student group.

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Suggested Readings

  • Albanese, M. A., & Mitchell, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: A review of literature on its outcomes and implementation issues. Academic medicine.
  • Boud, D. (1998). The challenge of problem based learning. Routledge.
  • Hung, W., Jonassen, D. H., & Liu, R. (2008). Problem-based learning. Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, 3.
  • Sockalingam, N., & Schmidt, H. G. (2011). Characteristics of problems for problem-based learning: The students' perspective. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 5(1), 3.
  • Stepien, W. J., Senn, P., & Stepien, W. C. (2008). The internet and problem-based learning: Developing solutions through the web. Prufrock Press, Inc.
  • Vernon, D. T., & Blake, R. L. (1993). Does problem-based learning work? A meta-analysis of evaluative research. Academic medicine: journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 68(7), 550.
  • Wijnia, L., Loyens, S. M., & Derous, E. (2011). Investigating effects of problem-based versus lecture-based learning environments on student motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36(2), 101-113.
  • Yew, E. H., & Schmidt, H. G. (2012). What students learn in problem-based learning: A process analysis. Instructional Science, 40(2), 371-395.

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Resource Links

PBL Network: Introduction to Problem-based Learning - A complete overview of problem-based learning and its advantages, as well as discussion on making PBL effective and how to engage a variety of learners.

PBL Resources - The most comprehensive list of PBL resources including PBL overviews, research, sample projects, assessment tools, checklists, teaching modules, technology tips and so much more.

Problem-based Learning (PBL) Tutorial - PowerPoint presentation - This powerpoint presentation provides basic information about PBL, its advantages and disadvantages and application in the classroom.

Edutopia: Project-based Learning - This website provides information about project-based learning which is using student projects to create a problem-based learning environment. Videos, articles, blogs, sample projects and other links are just some of the resources available on this site.

Project-based Learning Explained - An introductory video that discusses the benefits of using projects in problem-based learning approach in the classroom.


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