Problem-based learning utilizes ill-structured problems to facilitate student learning. Illstructured problems typically require more information than initially given to solve, have no correct sequence of steps to get to the necessary information or solve the problem, are dynamic in nature because the possibilities change with the addition of new information, and require that decisions are made in the absence of absolute certainty. PBL integrates knowledge of content and skills, context, collaboration, and learner-centered responsibilities to create a constructivist learning environment for students and may take a variety of forms.
In one of the most common implementations of PBL, students are provided with a description of an event or scenario that is relevant to learning goals. For example, students studying to become teachers may analyze videos of teachers in their classroom or law students may analyze courtroom scenarios. PBL may utilize real problems or situations that have occurred in the past, that are occurring in the present, or that are carefully fabricated to portray real life.
Students can compare their solutions to those made by others, act on their solutions in the case of current problems, and/or compare and contrast their solutions with peers and experts. The best-known application and most thorough use of PBL is in medical schools, but PBL has also been used in education, law, business, and architecture.
Strategies for Using PBL
Problem-based learning may be used for a variety of reasons and may reflect differences regarding what is to be learned, how it is to be learned, and who the learners are. Five strategies have been identified related to using problems in instruction (Duffy and Cunningham 1996):
1. The problem as a guide: This approach involves the use of the problem as a way to focus learner attention. This strategy is typically focused and directed and includes assigned readings designed to clarify the case and transfer predetermined content knowledge. This use is similar to providing guiding questions before assigning a chapter for homework.
2. The problem as an integrator/test: Used following assigned readings so that students can apply what they’ve read to the problem. This strategy is designed to facilitate knowledge transfer and expose misconceptions and remediation needs. This is similar to using review questions at the end of a reading assignment.
3. The problem as an example: Used to emphasize a particular point or principle from assigned readings.
4. The problem as vehicle for process: Used less as a vehicle to teach prespecified content and more as a vehicle to facilitate critical thinking skills, self-regulated learning, and collaboration.
5. The problem as a stimulus for authentic activity: Used as a mechanism for facilitating transfer of concepts, knowledge, and skills to other situations. Thus skills are developed in the context of the problem.
Steps in PBL
The first three strategies represent a more traditional way of approaching the use of problems in instruction, whereas the last two strategies deviate from traditional instructional practices and require alternative teaching strategies. A teacher using these more sophisticated strategies typically guides students through five recursive steps when implementing problem-based learning (Wilson and Cole 1996):
1. Problem formulation: Students explore the situation, generate important facts, note additional information needed, identify the problems, and generate hypotheses.
2. Self-directed learning: Students collaboratively generate a list of things needed to test the various hypotheses and make a plan for how to obtain and explore this information.
3. Problem reexamination: Students combine their initial thoughts with what they’ve learned through the self-directed learning process.
4. Abstraction:Students compare and contrast the problem they are working on with other problems, thus setting the stage for knowledge transfer.
5. Reflection: The class debriefs on the experience, shares solutions, and identifies areas for improvement in self-learning and collaborative learning. During this process the teacher serves as a facilitator or coach rather than as a transmitter of knowledge. She asks students guiding questions, verbalizes internal knowledge, encourages students to justify their solutions, ensures that all members in the group are engaged and participatory, and helps them recognize weaknesses or inconsistencies in their thinking. By serving in this role the teacher encourages active learning, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and student responsibility in the learning process. However, such instruction requires a teacher well versed in the PBL methodology, content, and context of the problem who is willing to devote instructional time to the process.
Using Technology to Facilitate PBL
Technology-based programs that use groupware, the World Wide Web, hypermedia, and databases have been designed to reduce some of the cognitive overload associated with PBL. These programs provide a means to organize a searchable archive of potential solutions, collect and analyze similar cases, facilitate student communication outside of class time, allow students to access a wider variety of resources, enable coding and compiling of student notes, and allow the teacher to more effectively and efficiently monitor individual and group projects.