The students looked confused. They apparently disliked being divided into teams to solve an instructional problem. This community college journalism class, composed entirely of adults 25 or older, was about to undertake an adventure in problem-based learning.
After they had a chance to look over the paperwork and heard that I wouldn’t be conducting every class as a traditional lecture, they still appeared puzzled. Finally, one student, a male in his forties, caught on and said, “We do this at work.” A dozen smiles appeared.
What is Problem-Based Learning?
It’s a learner-centered educational method used primarily in higher education as well as in some advanced secondary- and middle-school classes. It began in medical and law schools.
According to the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, educators give learners progressively more responsibility for their education. As a result, students become increasingly independent of the teacher or instructor.
The goal of problem-based learning is to produce independent individuals who are learners in their careers and who continue to learn independently throughout their lives. Although problem-based learning is sometimes referred to as project-based learning, these are two different educational concepts.
The modern history of problem-based learning dates from the 1970s at the medical school of McMaster University, a Canadian institution, The National Teaching & Learning Forum reports. This instructional method has gradually spread from medical and professional schools to the sciences and humanities.
How It Works
In contrast to traditional methods of teaching, problem-based learning orients students toward achieving a meaningful outcome instead of just collecting facts. Working in teams, they learn to adapt to new situations quickly. Educators divide a class into groups of five to seven students for the duration the class works on the problem, usually a term.
Problem-based learning students define the learning issues they think are linked to each problem. They then decide as a group how to divide their work to resolve each one. Challenges to the educator include knowing how to work with groups and getting students to work with each other, knowing how to guide with the right posture to avoid disclosing the answer to the problem, and simply being available enough of the time.
The hallmark of problem-based learning is basing the experience on real world problems. Many educators formulate problems by reviewing their own exams and working backward. Word problems and essay questions are ideal places to start.
The learning process begins when students encounter their problem and try to solve it with information they already have. Once the group has assessed the results and identified what they need to learn, students begin self-directed study to research printed and electronic information. They also contact individuals who are experts in the area to which their problem relates.
The next step is turning the group’s attention back to the problem to apply what they’ve learned and perhaps understand the issue in more depth. Once they’re finished working with the problem, they perform assessments on themselves and on other group members.
Role of the Educator
The main role of an educator is to act as a facilitator or coach. Within the problem-based learning lexicon, the role is often referred to as “tutor” to the group.
The teacher guides the learners in the process. As group members become more proficient with problem-based learning, the educator becomes less active.
While problem-based learning helps students gain valuable self-directed learning skills and find ways to boldly engage life’s problems, it has disadvantages.
This type of learning can be very expensive due to the small size of groups and the number of tutors required. Not all students can adapt to working well in groups. Natural leaders tend to lead, while more retiring students sometimes want to just fade into the woodwork.
Some students simply don’t do well with self-directed learning. They need more structure and do far better in a fact-based environment.
Despite these potential disadvantages, The National Teaching & Learning Forum believes problem-based learning is here to stay. Due to the explosion of information available electronically, learning today often involves collaboration. Problem-based learning encourages different approaches to solving problems, cooperation among students and a sense of responsibility.