Problem Based Learning

Problem Based Learning: "Problem Based Learning"

Problem Based Learning

If asked, most educators would agree that one essential goal of education is the development of students who are effective problem solvers for the Information Literacy Age. Most reports, such as the national SCANS (Survey of Necessary and Comprehensive Skills) and Goals 2000 documents, recommend such instruction. Most school goal statements allude to the need for critical thinking and problem solving skills. Recent California Frameworks in Mathematics and Science reflect consensus on this educational goal. But often such instruction in problem solving takes the approach of teaching models to students to apply to neat case studies rather than the messy problems of a real world.

Research indicates that critical thinking and problem solving skills are not typically addressed in the classroom. A number of studies indicate that in the typical classroom, 85% of teacher questions are at the recall or simple comprehension level. Questions that elicit synthesis and evaluative skills of thinking are rarely asked. The media portrays teachers as asking such simple, mindless questions in movies such as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Dead Poet's Society".

In Problem Based Learning (PBL) environments, students act as professionals and confront problems as they occur - with fuzzy edges, insufficient information, and a need to determine the best solution possible by a given date. This is the manner in which engineers, doctors, and, yes, even teachers, approach problem solving, unlike many classrooms where teachers are the "sage on the stage" and guide students to neat solutions to contrived problems.

What is Problem Based Learning?

Problem Based Learning is a curriculum development and delivery system that recognizes the need to develop problem solving skills as well as the necessity of helping students to acquire necessary knowledge and skills. Indeed, the first application of PBL was in medical schools which rigorously test the knowledge base of graduates. PBL utilizes real world problems, not hypothetical case studies with neat, convergent outcomes. It is in the process of struggling with actual problems that students learn both content and critical thinking skills.

Problem based learning thus has several distinct characteristics which may be identified and utilized in designing such curriculum. These are:

1. Reliance on problems to drive the curriculum - the problems do not test skills; they assist in development of the skills themselves.
2. The problems are truly ill-structured - there is not meant to be one solution, and as new information is gathered in a reiterative process, perception of the problem, and thus the solution, changes.
3. Students solve the problems - teachers are coaches and facilitators.
4. Students are only given guidelines for how to approach problems - there is no one formula for student approaches to the problem.
5. Authentic, performance based assessment - is a seamless part and end of the instruction.

(Adapted from Stepien, W.J. and Gallagher, S.A. 1993. "Problem-based Learning: As Authentic as it Gets." Educational Leadership. 50(7) 25-8 and Barrows, H. (1985) Designing a Problem Based Curriculum for the Pre-Clinical Years.

Problem Based Learning assists students to solve problems by the process of continually encountering the type of ill-structured problems confronted by adults or practicing professionals. As with information literacy, PBL develops students who can:

* Clearly define a problem
* Develop alternative hypotheses
* Access, evaluate, and utilize data from a variety of sources
* Alter hypotheses given new information
* Develop clearly stated solutions that fit the problem and its inherent conditions, based upon information and clearly explicated reasoning

Students with such ingrained skill are well prepared for occupations which rarely have a supervisor who has time, inclination, or knowledge to tell the worker what to do. They are also well prepared for the explosion of knowledge which gluts the world today.

Stages in Problem Based Learning

In the PBL curriculum, one may note three distinct phases of operation by students. Whether gathering knowledge through a variety of sources on the Internet, through print sources, or by speaking with experts, these stages explicated below are characteristic of PBL. Each step in the process is "hot linked" to a sample lesson developed by a SCORE Teacher on Assignment.

Stage 1: Encountering and Defining the Problem

Students are confronted with a real world scenario through authentic looking correspondence. Students may be asked to present to the Ancient World Architectural Review Board regarding their perspective about how and why great ancient monuments were built. They may ask some basic questions such as :

* What do I know already about this problem or question?
* What do I need to know to effectively address this problem or question?
* What resources can I access to determine a proposed solution or hypothesis?

At this point, a very focused Problem Statement is needed, though that statement will be altered as new information is accessed and understood.

Stage 2: Accessing, Evaluating and Utilizing information

Once they have clearly defined the problem, students might access print, human, or electronic information resources. In the case of the Southern Illinois Medical School, professors may be interviewed or medical texts examined. In the case of a city plan, calls to human resources such as the town manager or staff engineers might be of use. The Internet can be a focal point of research when a problem is constructed with that purpose. In the case of the sample problem, students may find a rich diversity of perspectives and resources preparatory to phase 3. Part of any problem is evaluation of the resource. How current is it? How credible and accurate is it? Is there any reason to suspect bias in the source? When utilizing the information, students must carefully appraise the worth of the sources they have accessed. If evaluating sites which theorize about these monuments and how and why they were built, students must carefully note and evaluate the accuracy and credibility of information posted at that site.

Stage 3: Synthesis and Performance

In this stage, students construct a solution to the problem. Students may create a multi-media production, a presentation to a body such as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights or the Ancient World Architectural Review Board, or a more traditional written paper focused around an essential question. In all cases, the students must re-organize the information is new ways. This is unlike an assignment which asks them to " make a report about the Palestinians and Israelis." This latter leads to use of the Internet as if it were a giant cyberspace encyclopedia. An assignment which asks students to propose a solution to the conflict between the Palestinian people and the Israelis involves a question which forces re-organization of information and consideration of perspectives.

Problems in Implementation

Cultural change is required to implement PBL. Students trained in the more traditional model of teaching, which features the teacher as "sage on the stage" and disseminator of knowledge, will experience culture shock of a sort. Students will wish to know expectations for a high grade. Though constructing a rubric with a teacher may allay fears, there is initial suspicion of the new approach.

Students must also learn to be part of the group. As with real life tasks, one person cannot conduct all research and make the entire presentation of the problem solution. Complaints about "hitchhikers" (those in the group who do not pull their own weight) will be heard from hard working students and their parents.

Teachers also experience major adjustments. More preliminary work must be done to design the problem and to ensure that there are enough materials available (in print, online, and through human resources) for this resource's ravenous approach. They must learn to construct problems that assist students to learn appropriate skills and knowledge. And they must learn to facilitate, rather than direct, student learning.

The Rewards

Though change from a teacher-centered to a problem and project based environment causes discomfort, those that have made the transition speak of new energy and enthusiasm for their classes. Students praise challenging tasks that prepare them for learning. For more information, see the Problem Based Learning online resources below:

* The University of Delaware has numerous articles about PBL including teaching art, science, and other courses. A good teacher resource.
* Howard Barrows, Southern Illinois School of Medicine (A medically focused analysis of PBL.)
* Illinois Math and Science Academy (Includes K-12 applications in various disciplines.)

If you have further questions about PBL, please email Bob Benoit of the Butte County Office of Education at Bob has directed a PBL project which included six high schools and 30 teachers over the last four years.

A Selected Problem Based Bibliography

* Barrows, H. (1994) Practice-Based Learning: Problem-Based Learning Applied to Medical Education. Springfield, Il: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine
* Barrows, H. (1985) Designing a Problem Based Curriculum for the Pre-Clinical years. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
* Boud, D., Felleti, G. (1991) The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. London: Kogan.
* Woods, Donald R. (1994). Problem-Based Learning: How to Gain the Most from PBL. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Donald R. Woods, Publisher.

Selected Articles

* Barrows, Howard. See Southern Illinois University School of Medicine Homepage for an extensive list of articles published in medical journals.
* Gallagher, S., Rosenthal, H., and Stepien, W. (1992) "The Effects of Problem-Based Learning on Problem Solving. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36(4), 195-200.
* Knoll, Jean W. (1993). "An Introduction to Reiterative PBL." Issues and Inquiry in College Learning and Teaching. Spr/Smr. 19-36
* Stepien, W. and Gallagher, S., and Workman, D. (1993) "Problem-Based Learning for Traditional and Interdisciplinary Classrooms." Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 16(d4), 338-357.
* Stepien, W. and Gallagher, S.A. (1993). "Problem-based Learning: As Authentic as it Gets." Educational Leadership. 50(7), 25-8