Problem Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning

By Barbara Duch, Math & Science Education Resource Center
Reprinted from About Teaching, Vol. 47, January 1995

Problem-Based Learning (PBL), at its most fundamental level, is an instructional method characterized by the use of “real world” problems as a context for students to learn critical thinking and problem solving skills, and acquire knowledge of the essential concepts of the course.  Using PBL, students acquire life long learning skills which include the ability to find and use appropriate learning resources.  The process used in PBL is the following:

  1. Students are presented with a problem (a case study, research paper, or videotape, for example).  Students work in groups to organize their ideas, access previous knowledge related to the problem, and attempt to define the broad nature of the problem.
  2. Through discussion, students pose questions, called “learning issues,” on aspects of the problem that they do not understand.  These learning issues are recorded by the group.  Students are continually encouraged to define what they know—and more importantly—what they don’t know.
  3. Students rank, in order of importance, the learning issues generated in the session.  They decide which questions will be followed up by the whole group, and which issues can be assigned to individuals, who later teach the rest of the group.  Students and instructor also discuss what resource will be needed in order to research the learning issues, and where they could be found.
  4. When students reconvene, they explore the previous learning issues, integrating their new knowledge into the context of the problem.  Students are also encouraged to summarize their knowledge and connect new concepts to old ones.  They continue to define new learning issues as they progress through the problem.  Students soon see that learning is an ongoing process, and that there will always be (even for the teacher) learning issues to be explored.

What is the instructor role in PBL?  The instructor must guide, probe and support students’ initiatives, not lecture, direct or provide easy solutions.  The degree to which a PBL course is student-directed versus teacher-directed is a decision that the instructor must make based on the size of the class, the intellectual maturity of the students, and the instructional goals of the course.  When instructors incorporate PBL in their courses, they empower their students to take a responsible role in their learning, and as a result, instructors must be ready to yield some of their own authority in the classroom to their students.

Note:  The following website provides further information about Problem-Based Learning:
This site features articles, sample PBL problems, UD courses and syllabi, and offers a link to other PBL sites.

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