A copy of our guide to PBL called "PossiBiLities" can be found here.
The following content on this page features extracts from PossiBiLities.
What is Problem Based Learning (PBL)?
Problem Based Learning can be described as: "An instructional strategy in which students confront conceptually ill-structured problems and strive to find meaningful solutions."
In a PBL environment, students are encouraged to solve problems, which are set in a real world framework. The main components to a PBL strategy are as follows.
Group Work. Students work together in small groups (usually of four to twelve). Groups provide a framework in which students can test and develop their level of understanding. They also model real working environments. The complexity of the problems will be such that members of the group will have to divide up tasks to make progress. The students have a responsibility to the efficient working of the group as well as the development of their individual learning. Problem Solving. The problems given in a PBL environment are often complex in nature and will in general require thought and enquiry. In many ways, these problems are indicative of the types of problems faced by physicists engaged in research in industry and Universities.
Discovering new knowledge. In order to find a meaningful solution, students will have to seek new knowledge. From the very beginning, the students must decide what they know and what they need to know in order to continue. Group discussions connect this new material to the framework of understanding which they are trying to build.
Based in the real world. The main emphasis is to encourage students to start thinking like physicists early on in their careers, thereby easing the transition from University to the work place. For example rather than just having students perform spectroscopy to verify an end result, in a laboratory PBL session, they might be asked to use spectroscopy to resolve a disputed insurance claim. In many of the problems, both theoretical and practical, students will find that there is not necessarily a single correct answer.
Project- or Problem-Based Learning?
Project Based Learning and Problem Based Learning are often used interchangeably. In our view, the main difference in approach is that project-based learning focuses on the endpoint. In Problem-Based Learning, the output, if any, is just one piece of evidence for achievement of the learning outcomes.
"Facilitating Problem-Based Learning (2003) Savin-Baden, M. Open University Press" discusses a number of further differences.
What is a PBL problem?
A problem is the basic structural unit of PBL. A problem has a start point (a hook, a trigger, a scenario and/or a problem statement, see below) and a process usually leading to an output from the group (which can be as simple as a single learning outcome, or can be a product such as a report, a poster, a set of experimental results, and so on). Often, there is no one `answer' (in which case the problem is `open-ended' to some extent); sometimes there is a defined answer but many possible paths leading to it.
A problem is designed to cover one or more learning outcomes, which may be facts, concepts, technical or personal skills, professional practices, ideas, and so on. Materials designed with the problem (for example facilitators' notes) may detail learning outcomes in categories such as core and optional, and how they relate to the overall syllabus for the course.
Problems can also include stages, where information is released to the students bit-by-bit, and assessment schemes if these differ from problem to problem. A complete set of problem documentation may contain:
syllabus or learning outcomes
assessment scheme and materials
facilitation notes (content and process expectations)
What is a hook?
A hook is an object which engages students in the context of the problem. It might be a newspaper story with a provocative headline, an intriguing image, or a poem. Often, the hook does not contain the problem itself or clues to directions to take within a problem.
What is a trigger?
A trigger is an object (usually text) which contains indications of how to attack the problem by suggesting possible lines of enquiry or research methods.
What is a scenario?
A scenario sets the context for the problem. Often, it tells the students what role or stance they should take when solving the problem (e.g. you are a group of research chemists, you are theatre critics, you are an environmental pressure group).
What is a problem brief?
The problem brief is text and objects given to students at the beginning of a problem which contains within it, either explicitly or implicitly, the `problem' (issue, dilemma, or puzzle) which the students should explore. The problem brief includes an appropriate combination of hook, trigger, and scenario materials.
Some models of PBL exclude an explicit statement of the problem, believing that the first action the students should undertake should be identification of the problem.In other models, more guidance is given about the direction that groups should take.
Some practitioners advocate making learning objectives known at the beginning of the problem, but most let students identify learning needs during the problem, guiding the students where necessary to cover content.
What are learning objectives?
Learning objectives or outcomes are distinct from a syllabus in that they define what students are able to do rather than what the instructor will have `covered'. Learning objectives are statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand, and be able to demonstrate after completing the module. The module assessment should be designed to measure the extent to which the learning objectives have been achieved.
"There is no greater joy than spending time teaching people and seeing benefits. The motivation for the staff, I think, is a wonderful thing." -- Paul van Kampen, School of Physical Sciences, Dublin City University.
"Practical learning: it really helped me to understand and apply the theory ... I understand a lot more." -- Leicester Physics student
"One of the benefits to the staff is that, by having the students actually involved in the class, it's just much more satisfying to them than having students sitting passively, perhaps listening to what they're saying." -- John Berlinsky, Chair of Physics and Astronomy, McMaster University, Ontario
"We felt we needed preparation for PBL but, actually, PBL was a preparation for now" -- A 3rd year Physics student after two years experience of PBL
"The problem-based learning students were much better at being able to explain how they learn, why they learn, and under what conditions learning suits them." -- Brian Bowe, School of Physics and Learning and Teaching Centre, Dublin Institute of Technology
"You have to learn it for yourself ... you have to have the experience before you can see how good it is" -- Leicester Physics student