February 9th, 2010

Problem-Based Learning: A Quick Review


I was looking something up and happened on this brief identification of the defining characteristics for problem-based learning (PBL). Not only does it offer a great review, but it reminds us why PBL is such a powerful pedagogical strategy.

  • PBL uses problems as the starting point in the learning process. Typically these problems derive from real-life situations and events, although they are usually edited for use in courses. PBL promotes learning by emphasizing the formulation of questions raised by the problem rather than definitive solutions to it.
  • The PBL problems may be constructed by the teacher or the students. Students new to PBL tend to do better when the teacher formulates the problems. However, with a set of guidelines and some teacher instruction, experienced students in upper-division courses can create PBL problems.
  • Experience plays a key role in PBL. Students start with their own experiences and build out from there. Linking the problem to individual experience positively impacts motivation. It’s the principle of connecting what is new to what is already known.
  • PBL relies heavily on active learning. Students work on the problem. They do research, make decisions, prepare reports, and give presentations or some combination of these activities. Because these activities force students to deal with content directly (as opposed to theoretically or abstractly), more deep learning results.
  • PBL work is usually interdisciplinary, even though the course may not be. Real-world problems do not generally fit within the boundaries of a single discipline. They cross fields, thereby encouraging students to integrate knowledge.
  • PBL work involves application. Although students gain a deep knowledge of the specific problem area, the goal is to solve the problem with an application of relevant content. What students have learned about the relevant fields in other courses or earlier in this course must be transferred and applied to the more narrowly defined content area typically associated with these specific problems.
  • PBL is a group, as opposed to individual, activity. Students work on problems in groups or teams, thereby gaining experience and skill in small-group dynamics.

Reference: Graaff, E. D., and Kolmos, A. (2003) Characteristics of problem-based learning. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19 (5), 657-662.