Problem Based Learning

Interested in a new style of teaching? Let’s see if Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is right for you! The idea behind problem-based learning is to use real-world problems, generally in the form of case studies, as a teaching mechanism to get students interested and learning independently about a topic. Having a challenge that students need to use the course materials to solve is much more engaging than simply trying to memorize materials. There are some cases where problem based learning can be particularly useful.

  • In classes where there is a large amount of information that students need to absorb, problem-based learning can spark an interest for the subject in a student. This makes it easier for them to retain necessary information.i
  • Smaller classes (7-15 students) work particularly well for this, but larger classes can also be adapted.ii

Not certain if you’re class fits the criteria? It doesn’t need to. Problem-based learning is meant to develop analytical and critical thinking skills in all disciplines. You may be wondering though, how could you teach that? It’s a completely different type of teaching, and it’s not for everyone. Here’s a few ways to help you structure your classes.

  • It’s important to structure each problem around a topic or issue that you want to cover in the course. Case studies are particularly useful in this. If you can’t find any kind of real world example or problem, consider – is this information really relevant?iii
  • Be careful that when you create or find problems that you specify what you want the student to take away from this. Problem based learning relies heavily on students independently learning, and if you’re not careful, a student may begin to research in-depth in material that you didn’t intend to cover.iv
  • Having students work in groups on problems can be a great way to stimulate their thinking. Students can ask questions and bounce ideas off of each other. Just be sure that they stay on topic.v

Okay, you may say, this style of teaching sound interesting. It’s always important to develop students’ analytic skills, after all. However, how can you grade something like this? If you’re teaching a course with an emphasis on thinking critically, multiple choice final exams don’t really fit, do they? There’s a few different ways to assess students who take a problem-based learning style course.

  • Problem-based learning scholars Duch and Groh once said that the most important questions to ask before you decide how to evaluate this type of class are “What should the students know, value, and be able to take away by the end of this course?” and “What evidence will indicate that they have reached these goals?”vi
  • Many problem-based classes opt to have groups work together on a problem, and then present their solution(s) to the class, which are then marked. This can also be done individually, with students submitting written reports for evaluation.vii
  • If you chose to use group work, peer-evaluations are an important way of telling who is participating and who is not. By having multiple projects and giving students their peer evaluation scores, students who have not preformed well will be motivated to work harder for their next project and participate more actively.viii
  • If you use a final exam, try to incorporate an analytical problem similar to the type that you’ve done in class into the exam.ix

If you wish to learn more about how to use problem-based learning in your classes contact ctl@ualberta.ca

Sources

  1. Barrows, H. (1996) Problem Based Learning in Medicine and Beyond: A Brief Overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 68, 3-12.
  2. Duch, B. J., and Groh, S. E. (2001) The Power of Problem Based Learning. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, LLC
  3. Jones, E. A. (2002) Myths About Assessing the Impaxct of Problem-Based Learning on Students. The Journal of General Education, 51(4), 326-334.
  4. Murray, J. And Summerlee, A. (2007) The Impact Of Problem-Based Learning in an Interdisciplinary First-Year Program on Student Learning Behaviour. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education. 37(3). 87-107.
______________________________________
iBarrows, 1996, pg 4.
iiMurray & Summerlee, 2007, pg 103.
iiiBarrows, 1996, pg 8-9.
ivBarrows, 1996, pg 9.
vMurray & Summerlee, 2007, pg 104.
viDuch & Groh, 2001, pg 97.
viiMurray & Summerlee, 2007, pg 91-92.
viiiMurray & Summerlee, 2007, pg 92.
ixDuch & Groh, 2001, pg 100-103.

Problem Based Learning: Q & A

Problem based learning can be a great teaching style in small classes with large amounts of information to absorb, and even in larger classes to help students become interested in the subject. It can sometimes be a little confusing to implement though, so here’s a few of the more commonly asked questions.

Q: What is problem based learning?

A: The idea behind problem-based learning is to use real-world problems, generally in the form of case studies, as a teaching mechanism to get students interested and learning independently about a topic.  Having a challenge that students need to use the course materials to solve is much more engaging than simply trying to memorize materials.i

Q: I can understand using a few example case studies through the semester, but I can’t imagine teaching using only problem based learning. How do people do it?

A: For each topic or area that the course covers, you find a relevant problem, usually a case study, and apply it to the curriculum. This way, you have an example for each area, and the students learn the material that is related to this area in preparation for the case study. They learn on their own, and then you spend class time connecting their learning to a real world problem. ii

Q: But what if I can’t find a real world example for one of my topics?

A: Consider whether the topic is important.  If there are no real world issues, examples, or problems surrounding it, how relevant is it for students to learn this information? If it really is absolutely necessary that you teach this, create a hypothetical situation for the students to examine.iii

Q: What if a student starts to research tangent information that I didn’t intend to cover?

A: You need to be very clear about your learning expectations when assigning a problem based learning assignment to avoid this type of situation. Should it arise and the student is unaware that they are researching unnecessary information, first consider whether the fault lies with the student, or with ambiguous instructions before deciding whether to grant any kind of extension. iv

Q: Should I have the students work individually or in groups?

A: Working in groups can be a great way to help students learning. They can bounce ideas off each other, and they feel more comfortable discussing controversial topics among their peers than they would in a large classroom. However, you do have to go around the room and make certain that the students stay on topic. v

Q: How do I grade a problem based learning class?

A: There are a number of different styles of grading that work well with problem based learning.

i. Many problem-based classes opt to have groups work together on a problem, and then present their solution(s) to the class, which are then marked.vi

If you choose to use group work, you may want to strongly consider having peer evaluations as part of the students mark. By having multiple projects and giving students their peer evaluation scores, students who have not performed well will be motivated to work harder for their next project and participate more actively to get a better grade.vii

ii.  You can also have students each submit their own essay or report so that you don’t have to deal with the difficulties of marking group work.viii

iii. Traditional midterms and final exams are also a valid option. However, when structuring them, keep in mind the style of classes that you’ve been having during the semester and the skills that you’ve been developing. Try and have a problem based learning question on the exam, so that the students can demonstrate what they’ve learned during the semester.ix

Stenden University's description of Problem Based Learning PBL (Scroll down to the middle of the page)

Sources

  1. Barrows, H. (1996) Problem Based Learning in Medicine and Beyond: A Brief Overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 68, 3-12.
  2. Duch, B. J., and Groh, S. E. (2001) The Power of Problem Based Learning. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, LLC
  3. Jones, E. A. (2002) Myths About Assessing the Impaxct of Problem-Based Learning on Students. The Journal of General Education, 51(4), 326-334.
  4. Murray, J. And Summerlee, A. (2007) The Impact Of Problem-Based Learning in an Interdisciplinary First-Year Program on Student Learning Behaviour. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education. 37(3). 87-107.
______________________________________
iBarrows, 1996, 3-5
ii Barrows, 1996, pg 8-9
iiiBarrows, 1996, pg 8-9
ivBarrows, 1996, pg 9
vMurray & Summerlee, 2007, pg 104
viMurray & Summerlee, 2007, pg 91-92
viiMurray & Summerlee, 2007, pg 92
viiiMurray & Summerlee, 2007, pg 91-92
ixDuch & Groh, 2001, pg 100-103
 

-Rebecca Schaeffer, June 2011