Understanding Problem-Based Learning

Consider you need to teach someone how to light a match.

You can show them pictures of people lighting a match, or even better – a video of a match being lit. You can create a series of slides in PowerPoint providing the steps it takes to light a match. You can show a good example vs. a bad example, and point out the differences between the two. How about hiring a match specialist; who can give a live demonstration showing the proper way to light a match.

How about just giving them a match?

Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a learner-focused pedagogy in which learning occurs through the experience of real-world problem solving, realizing that problems may have more than one defined solution and those problems will often increase in difficulty. Referring back to the match example, why would we go through all the constructs of traditional teaching methods when the learning solution could be as simple as handing them a match, providing minimal instruction, and giving feedback?

Much research in the field of learning and behaviorism has proven that learners learn more when they perform real-world tasks, solve relatable problems, and then receive appropriate feedback during that same application. Even more so, learners retain more when they are encouraged to integrate their new knowledge into their own life through discussion, debates, and presentation of the new knowledge. [ITDL, May 2011, pp.3-7]

So what’s the ‘problem’?

The issue is that with the majority of learning experiences, both academic and eLearning – the learner is not the center of attention. They are a passive audience. Even if they are interested in the topic, their focus isn’t on the content. It’s on how they are able to relate that portion of learning to the content (i.e. Constructivism). This is the portion where instructional analysis shines, because you can determine which learning styles work for your environment, your audience, and other factors.

For example, let’s say we have a “Customer Service” eLearning course. In this eLearning course, there is a single lesson called “Filling out the Paperwork”. Not the flashiest of topics and it will surely put some learners to sleep. Let’s see how different learning pedagogy’s affect this eLearning lesson.

With “Traditional Learning”, the learner will first be introduced to the topic and then hear about the instructional objectives for the purpose of this lesson. Moving to the next slide, they will learn about why this is important to learn, and the reasoning behind it. Then they will move on to the content where it might show a video, an interactive element of drag and drop, or some images. After they view the content, they will be assessed with questions about the knowledge they just, hopefully, gained. Once they submit their questions, the learner has completed the lesson – or in more ideal examples, is provided at least some remediation.

Using “Problem Based Learning”, the learner is introduced to the lesson (no objectives), and immediately given a trivial problem. If the problem is too difficult, resource and content material is provided to assist. This material can be a document, a link to a website, a video, etc… The learner will be asked to fill out a form, much like how they would be asked to in their job environment. After completing the problem, the learner will be given a new problem with increased difficulty or complexity. The learner will complete problem after problem until they have worked through some of the most challenging components in completing the task. By doing so, they have already gained practice, confidence, and knowledge of application in the environment.

In the Traditional Learning example, the learner is semi-active through the interactive parts, and then only active at the end when they are completing questions. In the Problem Based example, the learner is active throughout the entire lesson either completing the problem, or guiding their own learning by seeking the answers themselves.

Having the focus be on what is best for the learners is often the better solution. Concerns of an overwhelming cognitive load may negate the advantages of PBL in many cases so consideration of the audience demographic and experience, as well as the complexity of the overall tasks, must be taken into account. When appropriately applied, however, PBL is a learning method that can promote the development of critical thinking skills. [Computers & Education 53 (1), pp.132–141]

– co-authored by Justin V. (Instructional Designer)