Bill Lucas and Janet Hanson
Along with project-based learning and approaches sometimes characterised as enquiry-led, problem-based learning is increasingly being seen as a valuable pedagogy in FE and work-based learning (and, to a lesser extent, in some schools). Problem-based learning (PBL) began in medical and health education as a means of ensuring clinicians were better prepared for dealing with patients in the real world (as opposed to the imagined settings of their text books).
The problem drives an inquiry process in which learners use self-directed learning and problem solving skills, often in groups, to identify solutions to a problem (Hood-Cattaneo, 2017). The curriculum context in which the PBL is used is often interdisciplinary and requires learners to integrate knowledge from different disciplines, with the aim of promoting life-long learning (Savery, 2006).
One definition of problem based learning notes that it ‘places the learner at the centre of the educational activity where a problem stimulates information retrieval and the application of reasoning mechanisms’ (Jerzembek and Murphy, 2013, p.206). Others build on earlier definitions from seminal works by Savery (2006) and Barrows (2000) to recognise the importance of it being a student-oriented approach requiring learners to do research, combine theory and practice, find practical solutions for a defined problem and bring together their knowledge and skills from different experiences and disciplines (Demirel and Dagyar, 2016).
In higher education, where most of the research into PBL is located, the approach has been found to be more effective than traditional lecture based programmes for skills development and long term retention of knowledge, while being less effective for short term content acquisition (Wilder, 2015). These findings have been fairly consistent across a range of subjects including computing, engineering, teacher education and nursing, as well as medicine (Walker and Leary, 2009).
At secondary level the evidence is also less compelling for short-term content acquisition but more secure for capabilities and personal skills development, which makes it a promising approach for developing employability skills but less promising for passing exams requiring short term memory recall (Jerzembek and Murphy, 2013).
Although there is almost no robust research into the use of PBL in further education as yet, the indications from the research in other sectors suggest that PBL would fit well with work-based learning in FE, particular when problem scenarios are created in collaboration with employers.
Wilder (2015) describes the structure of PBL as including six distinct steps:
- Students collaboratively consider the posed problem, clarify all unfamiliar concepts, and then define the problem
- Students brainstorm ideas while incorporating prior knowledge and hypothesize the solutions
- Students elaborate on the proposed solutions and formulate learning objectives
- Students exercise self-directed learning guided by the learning objectives and share the findings with the group
- The step-by-step format of this process allows for a PBL problem to be solved over several class sessions, and the steps may be repeated, if necessary, multiple times
- Once the solution is finalized, the students share their findings with their teacher and other groups.
So when delivered rigorously following this structure, several myths about PBL can be dispelled:
- Students do not just do anything they want, nor are they left to their own devices.
- Teacher input is required from the beginning, not just at the end.
- There is no place for students to ‘hide’ in the group learning situation, providing the assessment strategy is robust.
The challenge for teachers is to recognise that it requires them to play a different role with learners.
Key lessons when using PBL
- Where possible work with learners and employers to identify an authentic problem
- Spend time understanding the problem
- Explore what learners already know about the problem
- Be clear what knowledge and skills students will need to be able to tackle the problem and, where necessary, specifically teach this if it is not yet present
- Think about the different group roles needed and prepare students to be able to play these
- Encourage group critique of work in progress
- Create support structures for learners who may find some aspects of this less structured learning challenging
- Provide multiple opportunities for reflection
- Think creatively about how students can share their findings as authentically as possible
- Ensure the summative assessment process matches the intended learning outcomes and allows students to demonstrate the full extent of their learning
- Play the role of an informed facilitator and coach throughout the process.
Prof Bill Lucas and Dr Janet Hanson of the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real-World Learning are currently exploring problem-based learning with the support of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Comino Foundation.
Barrows, H. (2000). Problem-based learning applied to medical education. Springfield, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Demirel, M. and Dağyar, M. (2016). Effects of Problem-Based Learning on Attitude: A Meta-analysis Study. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 12(8).
Hood-Cattaneo, K. (2017). Telling active learning pedagogies apart: from theory to practice. Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research. 2017, 6(2), 144-152.
Jerzembek, G. and Murphy, S. (2013). A narrative review of problem-based learning with school-aged children: implementation and outcomes. Educational Review, 65(2), 206-218.
Merritt, J., Lee, M.Y., Rillero, P. and Kinach, B.M. (2017). Problem-based learning in K–8 mathematics and science education: A Literature review. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 11(2), 3.
Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: definitions and distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem Based learning, 1(1).
Walker, A. and Leary, H. (2009). A problem based learning meta-analysis: Differences across problem types, implementation types, disciplines, and assessment levels. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1), 6.
Wilder, S. (2015). Impact of problem-based learning on academic achievement in high school: a systematic review. Educational Review, 67(4), 414-435.