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Problem-based learning

What is PBL?

PBL is a learning-centered pedagogy based on current theories of learning including constructivism, social constructivism and situated cognition. In PBL classrooms, students are presented with complex, realistic problems that have been carefully crafted to address course goals and objectives. Students work in groups, under the mentoring of a facilitator, to solve the problem. As they solve the problem, students learn group skills, problem-solving techniques, investigative techniques, disciplinary content, and begin to think like experts in the field.

What does PBL process look like?

The cycle looks something like this:

click to enlarge
Image courtesy of Eric Inglert, University of Cincinnati.

  • Presentation of the problem: Problems can be introduced in many ways. The key, however, is that the introduction be designed, whether through intriguing text or provocative activity, to engage students' interest and to draw them into the "action" of the problem from the beginning.
    Usually the problem is a written.  The instructor distributes the problem and asks the students to read the problem to themselves. Sometimes the problem is introduced as a video clip, newspaper article, piece of music, or an invited guest speaker. No matter what the format, the key to a good problem is its careful and thoughtful construction.
  • Group discussion: Following the introduction and individual reading, students read the problem text in their group and begin their group discussions. They identify what they already know that might help them with their problem-solving task. They then determine what they need to learn to be able to solve the problem (these “need to knows” are often called learning issues). At this stage, students may also generate preliminary hypotheses about problem solutions.
    With a large class and using the floating facilitator model (many groups with one instructor), often the facilitator calls all the small groups together to reform the entire large class.  The class as a whole reviews each small group’s learning issues.
  • Student roles: Instructors or group members may assign roles to students to facilitate the group's work. Roles include time-keeper, devil’s advocate, summarizer, and questioner.
  • Research: Students examine a variety of resources for information which may contribute to their solving the problem. Students can use assigned textbooks, perform independent literature searches, use quality websites, and/or seek assistance from reference librarians. The research is typically conducted on an individual basis, however, there may be situations in which group members conduct their research together.
  • Group discussion: Following this initial research phase, students meet with group members to discuss what they have learned. Information is analyzed and integrated as group members construct new understandings of the problem and possible solution hypotheses. As new questions arise, the cycle of conducting research and discussing findings may be repeated.
  • Solving the problem: Students' collaborative work results in a solved problem, completed task, and/or answered questions. In this phase students may submit a finished product for grading or may present their findings to the class.  They may also simply draw the problem to its conclusion and await to demonstrate their new knowledge on an exam.
    With a large class and using the floating facilitator model, once again the facilitator calls all the small groups together to reform the entire large class.  The class as a whole discusses various solutions to the problem.
  • Wrapping up: As part of the PBL process, many instructors choose to conclude work on problems with wrap-up activities such as mini-lectures or large group discussions. These experiences provide additional opportunities for students to think critically, that is, to apply, integrate, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information.
  • Self and Peer Evaluation: Reflecting on both one's learning and group experiences is an integral component of the PBL process. While reflection on content and process occurs throughout the PBL cycle, summative reflection on group member contributions enables students to develop their abilities to assess their own performance as well as that of their peers. Moreover, peer evaluations which affect one's grade may provide additional incentives for students to be active participants in the collaborative problem-solving process.

Typically, students are asked to rate group members' performance on specific criteria which are identified on the peer evaluation form. A student is given a summary of the comments made by group members; however, the evaluators' names may be removed.

Assessment in PBL

What are effective assessment strategies that support and potentially drive learning? Several different forms of assessment can be successfully used in PBL courses.

  • Peer evaluations are also a good way to invite the learner to participate in the assessment process.
  • Projects related to problems, assessed by a rubric, are a good course-embedded assessment.
  • Students can present their solutions to the problem. Again these presentations can be scored via a rubric.
  •  Typical quantitative tests, including multiple-choice, true/false, and short answer questions do not fit well with the learning-centered core of PBL.  However, they are a good way to test an individual student’s learning in a class.  Disciplines whose students must take licensing examinations may want to consider using quantitative tests that mirror licensing exams, even if they use PBL for teaching.

What to learn more?

Explore these websites:

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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