Problem-Based Learning

Which type of theory or ISD model/strategy is it?
Problem-Based learning is an instructional model (Savery & Duffy, 1995) that can be used to structure the development in the curriculum level or course level. Finkle and Torp (1995) define problem-based learning as "a curriculum development and instructional system that simultaneously develops both problem solving strategies and disciplinary knowledge bases and skills by placing students in the active role of problem-solver confronted with an ill-structured problem that mirrors real-world problems."

What are the key concepts?
In PBL, class activities are constructed around a problem or problems. The instructor no long lectures. Instead, when the instructor integrates PBL into the course, students are empowered to take a responsible role in their learning. The instructor is not the authoritative source of information and knowledge. Students have to take the initiatives to inquire and learn; and the instructor must guide, probe and support students' initiatives. What students learn during their self-directed learning must be applied back to the problem with reanalysis and resolution.

Problems were used as a stimulus for students to start the learning process. Students reason through the problem and find out what they already knew and what they should know in order to solve the problem. It is through this active and reflective thinking process that students become responsible for their own learning. It is the application of their knowledge to the problem that students test and integrate what they learn. In general, PBL aims to motivate students to participate in the learning process and to help foster problem solving skills.

Howard Barrows (1996) lists the six original characteristics for the problem-based learning model employed in the medical school as follows:

  1. Learning is student centered.
  2. Learning occurs in small student groups.
  3. Teachers are facilitators or guides.
  4. Problems form the original focus and stimulus for learning.
  5. Problems are a vehicle for the development of clinical problem solving skills.
  6. New information is acquired through self-directed learning.

What phenomena does it attempt to explain?

The key features of the PBL program at McMaster are: the analysis of problem as a way of learning, the development of self-directed learning, the use of small tutorial groups, and a faculty tutor in each group. The major factors that initiated the implementation of PBL in the medical education at McMaster University include (Barrows, 1996):

  1. The dissatisfaction of the learners with the education
  2. The irrelevance of the learned information to the professional practice
  3. The learners' lack of reasoning ability to apply what they have learned to solve problems at the work place.

The proliferation of PBL rises along with changes of demands on college graduates. Because of the explosion of the information and the needs of professional practices, students are expected to develop reasoning and problem-solving skills, to have high level of communication skills, and to be able to work with others.

Savery & Duffy (1995) explicitly state that the learning goals of PBL are related to self-directed learning, content knowledge, and problem solving. Self-directed learning entails competence in essential skills of literacy and numeracy, information location and retrieval, goal setting, time management, question-asking behavior, critical thinking and comprehensive monitoring and self-evaluation (Candy, 1991). Self-directed leaning skills assist students to become sensitive to their learning needs and to enhance their abilities in locating and using appropriate information resources.

In order to solve a specific problem, students need to use and apply what they know about the problem and about the solution. The problem-based learning environment establishes the relevance between the knowledge and its use. The interaction between the problem and use of knowledge fosters a deeper understanding of the content knowledge. Moreover, through social negotiation with the group members, students have opportunities to compare and evaluate their understanding of subject matters with others' understanding. All these facilitate students' learning and understanding of the content.

Barrow and Tamblyn (1980) argue that professional practice required skills in problem solving. The design of PBL aims to enhance learners' problem solving skills. What are problem solving skills? Gagné(1985) claims that what the learners acquire during the process of problem solving in is a new higher order rule, which is a synthesis of other rules and concepts. In this sense, problem-solving skills include both subject knowledge and general analysis/synthesis skills. A good problem solver has to understand the concepts, rules and principles related to the problems, and the hypthetico-deductive inference skills to generate hypotheses and formulate solutions.

What are the theoretical principles? And how do they operate?
Learning principles of PBL are explained from both cognitive and sociocultural constructivistic perspectives.

  1. Hmelo and Evensen's statements about the function of the problems in the PBL approach (2000) that "problems…trigger the cognitive processes of accessing prior knowledge, establishing information into knowledge that both fits into and shapes new mental models" echoes Piaget's concept of equilibration, a dynamic process of self-regulated process. Underlying the concept are the assumptions that cognitive structures generate new possibilities when disturbed, and subsequent reflection brings about a structural change.
  2. PBL reflects Lev Vygotsky's sociohistorical development psychology. Learning results from the participation of the dialectical activity between the individual and society.

What are the philosophical/epistemological assumptions?
From the constructivistic view of learning underlying PBL, the knowledge is "temporary, developmental, nonobjective, internally constructed, and socially and culturally mediated. Learning from this perspective is viewed as a self-regulatory process of struggling with the conflict between existing personal models of the world and discrepant new insights, constructing new representations and models of reality as a human meaning-making venture with culturally developed tools and symbols, and further negotiating such meaning through cooperative social activity, discourse, and debate (Fostnot, 1996).

Who is responsible (primary, contributors) for the theory/models/strategy and what are its antecedents?
Problem-Based Learning (PBL) was first introduced as an innovative medical education curriculum. At the McMaster University Faculty of Health Science, the PBL approach was used throughout its entire three-year curriculum (Barrows, 1996). The curriculum has been organized in sequential units with early exposure to patients and case management. After McMaster's example, two medical schools, one Maastricht and the other in Newcastle, developed problem-based learning curricula.

What are the major literature citations exemplifying these ideas?
Barrows (1986) categories PBL methods combining major variables in PBL, the design and format of the problems, and the degree to which learning is teacher-directed or student-directed. His classification indicates how the problem can be presented in the case format indifferent PBL method varieties.

  1. Lecture-based cases: cases are used to demonstrate the relevance of the information in lectures.
  2. Case-based lectures: cases or case vignettes are presented before lectures to highlight material to be covered.
  3. Case method: students are given a complete case for study and research in preparation for subsequent class discussion.
  4. Modified case-based: this is the method often used in new medical schools that feature PBL. The problem formats are employed in small tutorial groups. Students do not have totally full and free inquiry, and there will be cueing in the problems. Also students are not required to actively to apply the results of learning.
  5. Problem-based: a full problem simulation that allows for free inquiry. Students establish the database relative to their hypotheses
  6. Closed-loop problem-based: After an episode of self-directed study is completed, students are asked to evaluate the information resources, and then return to the problem as it was presented originally. On the basis of what they learned in self-directed learning, students reanalyzed the problem to see how they might have better reasoned their way through it and gained a better understanding.

Justification for including this theory/models/strategy in knowledge base
Problem-based learning (PBL) has recently gained a lot of attention. Over the past three decades, PBL has been adopted in a variety of other professional schools, including architecture, business, law, engineering, forestry, political science, social work, and education (Camp, 1996). The various implementation of PBL in curricula results in some variation in what is labeled as PBL. The underlying development and design principles of PBL reflect how people solve problems in their everyday lives. When people confront a problem, they analyze the situation, identify what the problem is, inquire the information that they need to know, and come up with hypotheses and solutions. In education, PBL has the power to create a problem-anchored learning environment to take up this natural process of inquiry to pursue and use knowledge.

What effects had it had on teaching, learning or instruction and other aspects of the world?
Barrows & Myers (1993) propose a five-stage PBL process: starting a new class, starting a new problem, problem follow-up, performance presentation, and after conclusion of problem. The entire process focuses on setting up a learning context by use of real world problems for students to develop hypothetical-deductive problem solving skills. Through hypothesis generation, information gathering, testing and evaluation, students learn critical thinking and acquire knowledge of the essential concepts of the course.

PBL is identified as a constructivist learning environment. The instructional principles of PBL have been described in a constructivist framework (Savery & Duffy, 1995):

  1. Learners as constructors of their own knowledge: In PBL, students are encouraged and expected to think both critically and creatively with multi-directional interactions with the problem, the peers, the resources, and the instructor. Learning is no more a process of transmitting information from others to the learners themselves, but a process of immersing themselves into a problem situation to actively engage in and monitor their own understanding.
  2. Puzzlement as being stimulus and organizer for learning: In PBL, all the learning arises out of consideration of a problem -- discussing the problem in class, generating hypotheses, identifying relevant facts related to the problem, identifying learning issues based on their analysis of the problem
  3. Knowledge is socially negotiated: In PBL, social negotiation of meaning is an important part of the problem-solving team structure. Students' understanding of the content is constantly challenged and tested by others.
  4. Faculty as consultants and cognitive models to support scaffolding

The instructional principles of PBL have been based on the assumption that learners are constructors of their own knowledge. The learning environment should be developed to encourage learners to be active in their learning. In PBL, students are encouraged and expected to think both critically and creatively with interactions with the problem, the peers, the resources and the instructor. Schmidt (1983) summarizes PBL in terms of three essential principles:

  1. Activation of prior-learning via the problem: Problems function as stimuli for learning to activate prior knowledge and to determine the organization and nature of what is learned
  2. Encoding specificity: students can recall what they have learned better in the context in which it will be used. In other words, the resemblance of the problem to intended application domains facilitates later transfer: Understanding is in our interaction with the environment.
  3. Elaboration of knowledge via discussion and reflection to consolidate learning experience: Knowledge evolves through social negotiation. Moreover, elaboration of knowledge at the time or learning enhances subsequent retrieval (Norman and Schmidt (1992).

What is the evidence for or against the theory/model/strategy?
The focus of investigation about PBL has been mainly on its effects on students' learning outcomes and cognition compared with traditional lecture-based instruction (Hmelo, Gotter, & Bransford, 1994; Albansese & Mitchell, 1993; Vernon & Blake, 1993; Norman & Schmidt, 1992). Articles on the meta-analysis of PBL outcomes (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Vernon & Black, 1993) have confirmed some of the benefits of PBL in the medical education. They have found that the PBL students are more likely to study for meaning and understanding, and the results of the evaluation of clinical knowledge also favor the PBL students.

In the search of PBL literature related to the question about its epistemological impact on students learning experience, two research studies came across. One is Savin-Baden's study (1995) on staff and students' expectations and experiences of problem-based learning in four different professions and educational environments. The study indicated that the PBL experience involves a conflict with students' beliefs and values. The findings were discussed in three different stances: personal, pedagogical, and interactional. In the domain of personal stance, Savin-Baden described: "Learning through problem-based learning may challenge students' current sense of self, and their way of both seeing the world and acting within it." The other is Fenwick and Parsons' (1997) critical investigation of the problems with problem-based learning. They criticized "the ontologically narrow and epistemological inconsistencies" in a problem-based approach. They pointed out that PBL excluded "the perspectives, intentions, and priorities of the individual."

From whose perspective and what circumstances, the theory/model/strategy is for and against?
As carrying out actions for any kind of instructional interventions, an instructor has to examine the feasibility of the conditions to see whether the intervention is suitable for that particular course and class under design. A number of questions need to be asked and answered before an instructor takes any actions to utilize PBL into the classroom: Does the PBL approach help achieve the instructional goals of the course? Do I understand the underlying learning principles of PBL and am I comfortable with those principles? Will student be comfortable with the approach?
We suggest that an instructor have to put those issues under the microscope before undertaking a PBL approach:

  1. Demands of Instructional Goals
    PBL is designed to achieve instructional goals, such as promoting students' transfer of knowledge by using knowledge in context, helping students develop reasoning skills and self-directed learning skills, and increasing motivation for learning. Articles on the meta-analysis of PBL outcomes (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Vernon & Black, 1993) have confirmed some of the benefits of PBL in the medical education. They have found that the PBL students are more likely to study for meaning and understanding, and the results of the evaluation of clinical knowledge also favor the PBL students.

    Moreover, Gijselaers (2000) explicitly states that the ultimate goal of PBL is to produce graduates capable of managing academic or professional problems of those who seek their services in a competent manner. He also reiterates Barrow's statements of PBL goals (1996) as a claim that the emergence of PBL is a response to changing needs in the development of an integrated knowledge base, problem solving skills, effective self-directed learning skills and team skills.

    Any planning has to start with the statements of the purposes or missions. The actions entailed in the plan are meant to meet the intended purposes and missions. If the instructional goal is not to promote understanding but to train students to be proficient with certain routines, drill and practice surely have their value in learning. Therefore, before you make any decisions on constructing a PBL environment for your course, it is important to first be clear about your instructional goals, and be certain that those instructional goals can be best facilitated in a PBL environment.

  2. Instructor's teaching philosophy
    The psychological basis of PBL entails a lot of different instructional practices, especially in terms of the role of the instructor and the tasks that the instructor partakes. The construction of PBL environments surely will challenge your way of thinking about how to teach and will demand more of your time committed to teaching and preparation. Therefore, it is important to examine your teaching philosophy before you jump into using this particular instructional approach for your class. Teaching philosophy answers a direct question, i.e. what is teaching and learning to you (Coppola, 2000). Your ideas of how to know things definitely influence your ways of how to teach students. If you consider employing PBL, recognition of the gaps between your beliefs about how to learn and teach, and the ones underlying PBL is a must. Not until you know the differences and believe that PBL can optimize learning, will you be able to devote yourself in the PBL approach and use it in an effective way.

    PBL provides a learning environment with an emphasis on problem-initiated, self-directed and collaborative learning. If you have different ideas about how the class should be structured to create the best learning environment for learners, your adaptation of PBL may suffer. As an instructor, if you do not believe students can be responsible for their own learning, it may be difficult for you to step down from the podium and to be a guide on the side. Also, if you are not ready to give out the power of controlling students' learning and classroom activities to students, letting students determine their own learning issues is definitely out of the question.

    Resemblance between learning environment and the environment in which knowledge is applied, activation of students' prior knowledge, and provision of the opportunities for students to elaborate what they know are the major conditions to facilitate learning in PBL (Schmidt, 1983). If you do not think these are the ways for students to optimize their learning, you may find PBL unsuitable for your teaching.

  3. Students' Readiness for Problem-based learning
    In PBL, students are not passive information receivers any more. They are expected to more actively engage in their learning process. Therefore, you should take into accounts of students' motivation, background and learning habits before you think about employing PBL into the classroom. Since the PBL approach put the responsibility of learning into the hands of students, students who are used to the structured and sequenced information presentation from the instructor may fail to make progress in learning and resent the self-learning challenge.

    Research on students' perception of PBL has reported that students' concerns about PBL include the unfamiliarity of PBL formats, dramatic differences between competitive and collaborative learning, demands on time and self learning, and ambiguous learning situations with direct instruction. Kingsland (1996), in his evaluative study of the architecture program at the University of Newcastle, reports students' reactions to the time issue in the problem-based learning:

    "Architecture 1 students maintain Reflective Design Journals to aid in the development of design and critical analysis skills. Comments in these journals highlight times of high stress due either to the accumulation of assignment or to time management problems."

    MacPherson-Coy, Sullivan and Story (2000) listed students' response to the question " What did you like least about the PBL program?"; stress over lack of time to complete everything and stress over getting familiarized with the PBL format are on the top of the list.

    In order to resolve students' resistance to PBL, enhancing students understanding of and positive attitude toward PBL process can help prepare students to face the challenges of PBL. If instructors perceive that students will have difficulties in self-directed learning, they may either provide more support during the process or accommodate students' different learning styles by balancing the learning activities via lectures, group discussions, and self-directed inquiry.

    Also, PBL relies on collaboration between students to bring in different perspectives and knowledge bases on problem solving. However, students' prior experience and skills in teamwork may either facilitate or impede students' learning in PBL. Therefore, the instructor should be open to any questions and concerns about the collaborative process. Nelson (1999) suggested to give an overview of the basic ideas and ideas about the collaborative problem solving process helping students understand what they will be engaged in and why.


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