21 Problem-Based Learning

Problem Based learning (PBL) is a student centered approach to explore content and concepts through the challenge of a specific problem. The terms Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning are often used interchangeably, but there are distinctions.  Problem Based learning can be considered a sub-set of Project Based Learning approaches.

There are many variations of the steps of effective PBL. Here is an example from John Larmer of the Buck Institute for Education. Problem-based learning typically follows prescribed steps:

  1. Presentation of an “ill-structured” (open-ended, “messy”) problem
  2. Problem definition or formulation (the problem statement)
  3. Generation of a “knowledge inventory” (a list of “what we know about the problem” and “what we need to know”)
  4. Generation of possible solutions
  5. Formulation of learning issues for self-directed and coached learning
  6. Sharing of findings and solutions

According to Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, a PBL approach fosters skills and aptitudes that can support student success in the school and post-graduation. Citing Linda Nilson’s 2010 book; Teaching at its Best, PBL project provides students with the opportunity to develop skills and experience with:

  • Working in teams and working independently
  • Managing projects and holding leadership roles
  • Oral and written communication
  • Self-awareness and evaluation of group processes
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Explaining concepts
  • Self-directed learning
  • Applying course content to real world examples
  • Researching and information literacy
  • Problem solving across disciplines

Through well designed PBL, learners are challenged to think in systems and connectivity, and engage in higher order thinking skills such as perspective taking, decision making, and goal setting.  By exploring specific problems, students begin to recognize that problem solving is a complicated process and requires abundant background knowledge and deep consideration of context. Nothing exists in isolation and each problem requires us to think deeply and flexibly about possible solutions. Every possible solution has impacts.  Learners have to be informed and perceptive to see implications of each solution and evaluate the soundness of proposed solutions.  This changes the motivation for being informed. Problem based learning has been shown to increase student engagement and improve retention of key concepts as it help bridge the gap from theory to practice (Ahlfeldt et al.).


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First Year Seminar Readings by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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