What is Problem-Based Learning?
Dr. De Gallow, Director, Instructional
Project Director, Hewlett
One of the primary features of Problem-Based
Learning is that it is student-centered. “Student-centered” refers
to learning opportunities that are relevant to the students, the goals
of which are at least partly determined by the students themselves.
This does not mean that the teacher abdicates her authority for making
judgments regarding what might be important for students to learn; rather,
this feature places partial and explicit responsibility on the students’
shoulders for their own learning. Creating assignments and activities
that require student input presumably also increases the likelihood of
students being motivated to learn.
A common criticism of student-centered learning
is that students, as novices, cannot be expected to know what might be
important for them to learn, especially in a subject to which they appear
to have no prior exposure. The literature on novice-expert learning
does not entirely dispute this assertion; rather, it does emphasize that
our students come to us, not as the proverbial blank slates, but as individuals
whose prior learning can greatly impact their current learning (Scardamalia,
Bereiter, 1991) . Often they have greater content and skill knowledge
than we (and they) would expect. In any case, whether their prior
learning is correct is not the issue. Whatever the state of their
prior learning, it can both aid and hinder their attempts to learn new
information. It is therefore imperative that instructors have some
sense of what intellectual currency the students bring with them.
One way to determine this is by being witness to how students go about
addressing intellectual challenges, especially those that seem at variance
with their current understanding. Active, interactive, and collaborative
learning, on which Problem-Based Learning is based, allows an instructor
the rare opportunity to observe students’ learning processes.
The context for learning in PBL is highly context-specific.
It serves to teach content by presenting the students with a real-world
challenge similar to one they might encounter were they a practitioner
of the discipline. Teaching content through skills is one of the
primary distinguishing features of PBL. More commonly, instructors
introduce students to teacher determined content via lecture and texts.
After a specific amount of content is presented, students are tested on
their understanding in a variety of ways. PBL, in contrast, is more
inductive: students learn the content as they try to address a problem.
The “problems” in PBL are typically in the form
of “cases”, narratives of complex, real-world challenges common to the
discipline being studied. There is no right or wrong answer; rather,
there are reasonable solutions based on application of knowledge and skills
deemed necessary to address the issue 1.
The “solution” therefore is partly dependent on the acquisition and comprehension
of facts, but also based on the ability to think critically. What
does “critical thinking” refer to? The phrase is often bandied about
but seldom defined. For our purposes, critical thinking refers to
the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information, as well
as to apply that information appropriate to a given context. It
is both critical and creative in that synthesis, in particular, requires
the learner to take what information is known, reassemble it with information
not known, and to derive a new body of knowledge. Note that we’re
not necessarily asking students to create new knowledge in the way a practicing
scholar does; instead, we’re asking students to create something that
is at least new to them. (It is not uncommon, for even undergraduates
to develop some pretty sophisticated and ingenious solutions.)
The instructor is not passive during student
learning, but neither does he take the traditional role of “sage on the
stage.” The instructor’s role can be to model different kinds of
problem-solving strategies, sometimes referred to as “cognitive apprenticeship”
learning (Brown, Collins, & Newman, 1989). Students also can
model for one another a variety of problem-solving strategies. The
most common instructor role is to question the students about their learning
process by asking meta-cognitive questions: “How do you know that?”
“What assumptions might you be making?” These questions are meant
to get students to become self-reflective about their learning processes,
thus another primary feature of PBL is that it is process-centered more
so than product-centered. This may seem contradictory as “solving”
the problem is an important and critical aspect of PBL—hence its name.
The point to be taken here, however, is that while content changes (especially
in a rapidly changing technological world), the ability to problem-solve
needs to be more portable. No one set of skills will suffice for
all time, either; but the ability to generate problem-solving strategies
is the skill “with legs.” Information trans-ferability is limited
by the information available; how to find and create information is limited
only by the learner’s willingness to participate. PBL, by having
students demonstrate for themselves their capabilities, can increase students’
motivation to tackle problems.
Problem-based learning is also experiential in
that participants experience what it is like to think as a practitioner.
How do biologists think? What distinguishes the way a criminologist
might address a problem as opposed to the way a mathematician might?
How might these two specialists work together on a problem, a question
more germane as disciplines become ever more inter-disciplinary? It is
also a question of great concern to employers. Three major complaints
from employers about college graduates are graduate’s poor written and
verbal skills, their inability to problem-solve, and their difficulties
working collaboratively with other profes-sionals. PBL can address
all three areas.
Defining Characteristics of PBL:
|Student-centered & Experiential
||Select authentic assignments from the discipline, preferably
those that would be relevant and meaningful to student interests.
Students are also responsible for locating and evaluating various
resources in the field.
||Relevance is one of the primary student motivators to
be a more self-directed learner
||Introduce content through the process of problem solving,
rather than problem solving after introduction to content.
||Research indicates that “deeper” learning takes place
when information is introduced within a meaningful context.
|Builds on/challenges prior learning
||If the case has some relevance to students,
then they are required to call on what they already know or think
they know. By focusing on their prior learning, students can test
assumptions, prior learning strategies, and facts.
||The literature suggests that learning takes
placewhen there is a conflict between prior learning and new information.
||Choose real or contrived cases and ground the count in
the kinds of challenges faced by practitioners in the field.
||Again, context-specific information tends to be learned
at a deeper level and retained longer.
|Problems are complex and ambiguous, and require meta-cognition
||Select actual examples from the “real life” of the discipline
that have no simple answers. Require students to analyze their own
problem solving strategies.
||Requires the ability to use higher order thinking skills
such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation of new knowledge.
|Creates cognitive conflict
||Select cases with information that makes simple solutions
difficult: while the solution may address one part of a problem, it
may create another problem. Challenges prior learning as noted
||The literature suggests that learning takes place when
there is a conflict between prior learning and new information.
|Collaborative & Interdependent
||Have students work in small groups in order to address
the presented case
||By collaborating, students see other kinds of problem
solving strategies used, they discuss the case using their collective
information, and they need to take responsibility for their own learning,
as well as their classmates’.
1 These "higher order" thinking skills are
attributed to the work of Benjamin Bloom and colleagues (1956) in Bloom's
Taxonomy, a hierarchical model of thinking skills.