Twenty-first century skills necessitate the implementation of instruction that allows students to apply course content, take ownership of their learning, use technology meaningfully, and collaborate. Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is one pedagogical approach that might fit in your teaching toolbox.
PBL is a student-centered, inquiry-based instructional model in which learners engage with an authentic, ill-structured problem that requires further research (Jonassen & Hung, 2008). Students identify gaps in their knowledge, conduct research, and apply their learning to develop solutions and present their findings (Barrows, 1996). Through collaboration and inquiry, students can cultivate problem solving (Norman & Schmidt, 1992), metacognitive skills (Gijbels et al., 2005), engagement in learning (Dochy et al., 2003), and intrinsic motivation. Despite PBL’s potential benefits, many instructors lack the confidence or knowledge to utilize it (Ertmer & Simons, 2006; Onyon, 2005). By breaking down the PBL cycle into six steps, you can begin to design, implement, and assess PBL in your own courses.
Step One: Identify Outcomes/Assessments
PBL fits best with process-oriented course outcomes such as collaboration, research, and problem solving. It can help students acquire content or conceptual knowledge, or develop disciplinary habits such as writing or communication. After determining whether your course has learning outcomes that fit with PBL, you will develop formative and summative assessments to measure student learning. Group contracts, self/peer-evaluation forms, learning reflections, writing samples, and rubrics are potential PBL assessments.
Step Two: Design the Scenario
Next you design the PBL scenario with an embedded problem that will emerge through student brainstorming. Think of a real, complex issue related to your course content. It’s seldom difficult to identify lots of problems in our fields; the key is writing a scenario for our students that will elicit the types of thinking, discussion, research, and learning that need to take place to meet the learning outcomes. Scenarios should be motivating, interesting, and generate good discussion. Check out the websites below for examples of PBL problems and scenarios.
Step Three: Introduce PBL
If PBL is new to your students, you can practice with an “easy problem,” such as a scenario about long lines in the dining hall. After grouping students and allowing time to engage in an abbreviated version of PBL, introduce the assignment expectations, rubrics, and timelines. Then let groups read through the scenario(s). You might develop a single scenario and let each group tackle it in their own way, or you could design multiple scenarios addressing a unique problem for each group to discuss and research.
Step Four: Research
PBL research begins with small-group brainstorming sessions where students define the problem and determine what they know about the problem (background knowledge), what they need to learn more about (topics to research), and where they need to look to find data (databases, interviews, etc.). Groups should write the problem as a statement or research question. They will likely need assistance. Think about your own research: without good research questions, the process can be unguided or far too specific. Students should decide upon group roles and assign responsibility for researching topics necessary for them to fully understand their problems. Students then develop an initial hypothesis to “test” as they research a solution. Remember: research questions and hypotheses can change after students find information disconfirming their initial beliefs.
Step Five: Product Performance
After researching, the students create products and presentations that synthesize their research, solutions, and learning. The format of the summative assessment is completely up to you. We treat this step like a research fair. Students find resources to develop background knowledge that informs their understanding, and then they collaboratively present their findings, including one or more viable solutions, as research posters to the class.
Step Six: Assessment
During the PBL assessment step, evaluate the groups’ products and performances. Use rubrics to determine whether students have clearly communicated the problem, background, research methods, solutions (feasible and research-based), and resources, and to decide whether all group members participated meaningfully. You should consider having your students fill out reflections about their learning (including what they’ve learned about the content and the research process) every day, and at the conclusion of the process.
Although we presented PBL as steps, it really functions cyclically. For example, you might teach an economics course and develop a scenario about crowded campus sidewalks. After the groups have read the scenario, they develop initial hypotheses about why the sidewalks are crowded and how to solve the problem. If one group believes they are crowded because they are too narrow and the solution is widening the sidewalks, their subsequent research on the economic and environmental impacts might inform them that sidewalk widening isn’t feasible. They should jump back to step four, discuss another hypothesis, and begin a different research path.
This type of process-oriented, self-directed, and collaborative pedagogical strategy can prepare our students for successful post-undergraduate careers. Is it time to put PBL to work in your courses?
Barrows, H.S. (1996). Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. In L. Wilkerson, & W. H. Gijselaers (Eds.), New directions for teaching and learning, No.68 (pp. 3-11). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dochy, F., Segers, M., Van den Bossche, P., & Gijbels, D. (2003). Effects of problem-based learning: A meta-analysis. Learning and instruction, 13(5), 533-568.
Ertmer, P. A., & Simons, K. D. (2006). Jumping the PBL implementation hurdle: Supporting the efforts of K–12 teachers. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1(1), 5.
Gijbels, D., Dochy, F., Van den Bossche, P., & Segers, M. (2005). Effects of problem-based learning: A meta-analysis from the angle of assessment. Review of Educational Research, 75(1), 27-61.
Jonassen, D. H., & Hung, W. (2008). All problems are not equal: Implications for problem-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 2(2), 4.
Norman, G. R., & Schmidt, H. G. (1992). The psychological basis of problem-based learning: A review of the evidence. Academic Medicine, 67(9), 557-565.
Onyon, C. (2012). Problem-based learning: A review of the educational and psychological theory. The Clinical Teacher, 9(1), 22-26.
Vincent R. Genareo is a postdoctoral research associate at Iowa State University, Research Institute for Studies of Education (RISE). Renee Lyons is a PhD candidate at Clemson University, Department of Education.