Problem Based Learning, or PBL, is an active learning strategy. PBL is a student-centered approach to teaching and learning that requires students to integrate prior knowledge with new information to produce a solution to a real-world problem. Part of the success PBL strategies among students and educators is its real-world approach to learning. Students learn the skills they need to solve problems and assimilate new information and content as they apply these problem-solving skills to a relevant, engaging task. PBL is inductive where new information is learned in context and used to solve a problem. Whereas traditionally information is presented as a list of facts to be memorized, tested, and then applied. PBLs inductive learning results in better knowledge retention, comprehension, and student motivation.
In the classroom, Problem Based Learning differs from traditional lectures and other types of active learning. PBL's defining characteristic is the ill-defined problem: students are presented with problems that do not have one correct or obvious answer and are challenged to find a solution. The solution's consequences may lead to new and different problems that students will have to solve, just as many real-world problems do. Problems are multi-layered and often multi-disciplinary, which allows students to draw on prior knowledge from different fields.
In PBL, students work in small groups of about five, although some steps of solving a problem will require them to work in pairs or individually. Each group decides on a division of labor and on what types of information they need to solve the problem. To make PBL work, students must have access to a wealth of information from different disciplines via the internet and library. Students may use newspaper articles, books, textbooks, internet sites, journals, and even experts in different fields to find the information they need. Often the students will be required to print or copy information they find. The classroom teacher assumes a facilitator role, in which she acts as tutor and support for students in their quest for information and solutions. Facilitators do not propose solutions or provide information but rather ask questions that prompt students to ask the questions that will lead them to the information they need.
Problem Based Learning originally began in the 1970s as part of McMaster University’s medical education curriculum. PBL’s case-based learning technique quickly spread to other medical and professional schools and has been adopted by educational institutions of all levels and by educators in many fields. PBL can become the foundation for an entire course or curriculum or be used as one of many teaching strategies. PBL can be combined with short lectures, group work, and other types of collaborative learning within a course.
The form of Problem Based Learning can vary according to the needs of the instructor and students. For younger students, more directed questions and problems may be more appropriate than PBL’s more multi-layered and complex problems. This type of PBL requires students to find relevant information from material provided and use it to solve a problem. A stronger form of PBL requires students to find out additional information to solve a problem or a case. Students must decide what they need to know, research on their own, and apply the new information. A fully PBL-based course would use a case-study or a problem as the curriculum itself. This inverts the traditional curriculum, in which the subject discipline defines the course and problems or case-studies are used to support learning in that area.
The success of Problem Based Learning depends on the formation of the problem. A problem that is too self-contained, has one easy or obvious answer, or bears little resemblance to a real-world situation will not engage students fully. Critics of PBL question whether students can know what they need to learn in subjects or areas in which they have little or no prior experience. Some advocate using PBL after students gain initial competence with a subject or technique, particularly in the sciences and in mathematics. Another criticism of PBL is that PBL courses cannot cover the amount of information covered in traditional courses because of the amount of classroom time spent on group work and individual research. Students may also become discouraged when they cannot find a solution quickly, or when their solution creates additional problems to be solved.
Many teachers find that integrating Problem Based Learning into their curriculum energizes them and their students. The requirement that students be actively responsible for their own learning and work together to solve a problem can engage even those students who appear bored during traditional lectures or group work. The real-world application of knowledge helps students see how what they learn can be applied in their future endeavors. Teachers also find PBL an invigorating experience. After the initially difficult step of giving up some of the instructional control in the classroom, teachers are excited to see how engaged their students become with the problem and the innovative solutions they discover. The following resources will help teachers find out more about PBL and how they can implement it in their classrooms.