Last week, DigiKnow started into a series of blog posts to help build up a Teachers Toolkit for Engagement. We have been posting more frequently than normal for this series and we do hope you are enjoying it thus far.

On Monday, we looked at Using Index Cards in teaching, both for in-class and online alternatives. Today, we turn our attention to Problem-based Learning (PBL), an intro. Let’s get started!

What is problem-based Learning?

How can you teach learners to problem-solve? Often in teaching, content is just presented. This poses a problem in itself! Focusing only on content doesn’t lead to deeper thinking. Nor will it engage learners.

The use of the problem-based learning isn’t to fixate on problems. It’s for students to better understand problems and investigate solutions. Many problems won’t have a single solution.

Problem-based learning encourages other skills such as knowledge acquisition, communications and improved group working.

When it comes to the pedagogy of PBL, it is student-centred and uses the constructivist teaching methodology. These real-world problems generate learning and skills for future practice.

Credit: Erico Marcelino
Credit: Erico Marcelino
Problem-based learning background

Problem-based learning originated in the 1960’s and was used in medical schools. The concept was that medical students would use patient problems as a learning ground for diagnosis of patients’ conditions. This helped develop skills for their future practice.  

Critical thinking and problem-solving techniques are honed. Problem-based learning is a great activity for engaging students in learning whilst teaching content knowledge.

Problem-based learning encourages ongoing learning, teamwork, information retrieval and critical appraisal of information. It is versatile. It’s not only used in the medical arena, it has also been used in on-the-job training.

Using problem-based learning activities

When it comes to solving problems, PBL works well in small groups. Students take on different roles within the group and these roles can change from case to case throughout the course.

In problem-based learning, students are responsible for their own learning. Students establish their learning needs, plan objectives, identify resources, decide upon and apply suitable learning approaches and appraise learning outcomes.

Ill-defined problems can be presented for students to work through. Students construct learning through using skills of reflection and reasoning. Students identify what they know now, where to access additional information and how to apply that information to resolve the problem.

Credit: Alice Dietrich
Credit: Alice Dietrich

The teachers’ role, in this instance, is to facilitate student learning. This might be mini-lectures and guiding students to appropriate resources whilst correcting misconceptions. This helps increase students understanding whilst building confidence levels. Teachers will monitor the student learning journey.

It’s not the teachers’ role to provide answers! Learning happens within the group through exploration of content, presenting and discussing findings, hypothesis testing and application of knowledge.

Problem-based learning is founded in real-world problems. Individuals by themselves don’t solve problems. However, individuals in a group bring different strengths. They contribute in different ways. Students are held accountable for making contributions and completing tasks.

When a problem-based scenario has been resolved, students can formally present their findings for assessment and evaluation. This is an opportunity to talk about and reflect upon how to problem-solve, the approach used and what resources were necessary for successful resolution.

Student benefits

Problem-based learning motivates students. It challenges and encourages learners to delve into real-world problems. As a teacher creating PBL activities, consider how you transform a lecture into a problem for learners to solve.

By moving from lecture to problem-based learning, this results in motivated and engaged learners who benefit from learning by actively problem-solving.

Other benefits of PBL include:

  • It is student focused.
  • The focus is on understanding the problem.
  • PBL develops other skills, i.e., problem-solving, communications, self-directed learning, critical thinking, collaboration, etc.
  • Problem-based learning prepares students for future practice.

Naturally, there are disadvantages:

  • It is time-consuming to prepare course materials and assess solutions.
  • The teacher role changes. Teachers need to question student’s knowledge and principles whilst only giving suggestions to guide student research and correct misconceptions.
  • Cognitive load. Novice PBL learners may have trouble processing large amounts of information in short time-frames and scaffolding is required.

Compared to a passive lecture, problem-based learning activities are challenging and engaging to students. Student learn more from real-world examples and exploring the problem.

In PBL, student groups learn through constructing knowledge. Assessing what they currently know. Exploring different resources and testing theories. Discovering what works and what doesn’t.

The skills developed from problem-based learning activities will assist today’s students in their future practice.

Next time

On Friday, we will look at Role Play as a tool to add in to the Teachers Toolkit for Engagement. We are looking forward to you joining us to learn more. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @MDBSelearn.


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