Problem-based Learning Helps Bridge the Gap between the Classroom and the Real World

Bridging that gap between the classroom and the real world is one of my main goals as a faculty member. When I first started teaching, fresh out of the professional world, I struggled with having my students only receive a textbook education. I wanted them to not only learn the concepts relevant to their field, but I wanted them to be able to experience it as well. I was growing tired of hearing that our graduates were struggling with applying the information they had received in school. It seemed the same topics such as writing, communication, and critical thinking, were constantly being mentioned as areas of improvement for our students from professionals in the field.

Knowing that this wasn’t a problem solely with my students and that others faced similar challenges, I went to my colleagues and asked them the following, “How do we get our students to understand what ‘the field’ is really like? How can we help them realize that they not only need to understand the information we are teaching, but that they need to be able to apply the information that we are teaching.” The responses I received led me down the path of problem-based learning strategies. According to Wlodkowski (2008), “problem-based learning is characterized by the use of real life problems as a means for people to learn critical thinking, collaboration, and the essential concepts and professional skills of a particular discipline” (p. 276).

So, how do we create these learning activities and how do we assess them for understanding and proper application? It should be noted that as you are creating these learning activities, such as scenarios, you also need to create rubrics. It is important to ensure the learning activity is measurable. How will you know when the student completed the activity successfully?

Also, make sure the learning activity is something the student can effectively respond to and be successful in with effort. Do not put them in a situation where they are not able to work their way to a successful conclusion. Make sure you start with basic scenarios and as you progress through the academic term, build into more difficult scenarios. I would also encourage not assigning points to your scenarios early in the term. Let students have fun with the activities and allow them to make mistakes without fear of a bad grade. As the term progresses, assign points and work with them to ensure they understand what is expected from them.

Additionally, we should consider the following criteria when developing learning activities such as these:

  • Make the learning activity safe. We do not want students to experience embarrassment or ridicule from other students. A safe environment allows students to make mistakes and to learn from them.
  • Make the learning activity a successful experience. While we want to challenge our students, we need to remember they are still building their foundation. Success leads to confidence and a confident student is one who fully engages in their learning experience.
  • Make the learning activity interesting. What are some unique twists that you can apply to the learning experience to keep students engaged?
  • Make the learning activity personal. Allow the students to make choices and reflect with them on how their biases and beliefs affected what they did.
  • Make the learning activity relevant. Giving the students a chance to fully engage in a professional role allows them to fulfill that goal they are working toward. (Wlodkowski, 2008, p. 220-221).

Online classes are another venue where problem-based learning can be applied. Posting scenarios that relate to the weekly topic provides an opportunity for the students to travel further into the material. Students submit their methods for dealing with the scenario and their classmates are encouraged to ask them why they answered the way they did. This not only allows our students to defend their viewpoints, but it gives them the opportunity to see the variety of perspectives contained within their classmates. In my experience, my discussion boards came alive when the students had scenarios to process and defend.

In a learning environment where we are constantly trying to connect to our students and to ensure they understand and can apply the content we are providing, problem-based learning is a tool that allows us to bring our students, course material, and the real world closer together.

Wlodkowski, R. J. (2008) Enhancing adult motivation to learn: a comprehensive guide for teaching all adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Jason R. Weber is a faculty member of the Blackhawk Technical College, School of Public Safety and an evening administrator at the Monroe Campus.

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