Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem. This problem is what drives the motivation and the learning.
Why Use Problem-Based Learning?
Nilson (2010) lists the following learning outcomes that are associated with PBL. A well-designed PBL project provides students with the opportunity to develop skills related to:
- Working in teams.
- Managing projects and holding leadership roles.
- Oral and written communication.
- Self-awareness and evaluation of group processes.
- Working independently.
- Critical thinking and analysis.
- Explaining concepts.
- Self-directed learning.
- Applying course content to real-world examples.
- Researching and information literacy.
- Problem solving across disciplines.
Considerations for Using Problem-Based Learning
Rather than teaching relevant material and subsequently having students apply the knowledge to solve problems, the problem is presented first. PBL assignments can be short, or they can be more involved and take a whole semester. PBL is often group-oriented, so it is beneficial to set aside classroom time to prepare students to work in groups and to allow them to engage in their PBL project.
Students generally must:
- Examine and define the problem.
- Explore what they already know about underlying issues related to it.
- Determine what they need to learn and where they can acquire the information and tools necessary to solve the problem.
- Evaluate possible ways to solve the problem.
- Solve the problem.
- Report on their findings.
Getting Started with Problem-Based Learning
- Articulate the learning outcomes of the project. What do you want students to know or be able to do as a result of participating in the assignment?
- Create the problem. Ideally, this will be a real-world situation that resembles something students may encounter in their future careers or lives. Cases are often the basis of PBL activities. Previously developed PBL activities can be found online through the University of Delaware’s PBL Clearinghouse of Activities.
- Establish ground rules at the beginning to prepare students to work effectively in groups.
- Introduce students to group processes and do some warm up exercises to allow them to practice assessing both their own work and that of their peers.
- Consider having students take on different roles or divide up the work up amongst themselves. Alternatively, the project might require students to assume various perspectives, such as those of government officials, local business owners, etc.
- Establish how you will evaluate and assess the assignment. Consider making the self and peer assessments a part of the assignment grade.
Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.