Problem-Based Learning (PBL): let students take the driver's seat

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! As I just started my new job at Maastricht University, I think this week is a good moment to focus on the signature pedagogical approach of my new academic home: Problem-Based Learning (PBL). As usual, we’ll first look at what the method entails and why it is useful, then I’ll provide some tips on how to design assignments using PBL and offer some external resources for those of you who want to go more in-depth into the topic. As I will be learning more about the method in the next months I would like to share this with you and start a discussion about how we can support students in their learning while letting them take the drivers’ seat and how we can assess and provide feedback on their performance. Hope you enjoy this introduction and I am looking forward to your comments and ideas. Have a nice week!

What is Problem-Based Learning and how can students benefit from it?

Problem-Based Learning is an active learning, student-centred approach whereby students are engaged in solving real-life complex problems. The learning experience is quite different from traditional teaching: students work in small groups, supported by a tutor (so the role of the teacher changes, more about this below), and they are in charge of their own learning, from setting the goals to delivering the output. This setup allows for both a deeper understanding of the content and the opportunity to develop transferable skills that are very valuable during the studies and in the future career.

By using PBL, students:

  • Actively engage in their learning, which leads to a better retention of knowledge as well as enhanced motivation;

  • Learn how to build a web of interconnected knowledge which allows them to navigate complex environments;

  • Work collaboratively on a real-life problem, which trains them to: organise the team work, balance the various individual contributions, communicate clearly and effectively;

  • Think critically about the problem at hand and develop a plan on how to tackle it, by maximising the use of the group skills and resources;

  • Use their creativity to connect the various outputs of individual research and solve the problem as a team;

  • Learn how to use technology meaningfully in order to retrieve and connect information and communicate among themselves and with other actors.

How to use Problem-Based Learning

PBL is a rather versatile method which can be used either for the duration of a course, repeatedly in each session, or simply in one or two sessions only. Some universities, like Maastricht University, use PBL as the main instructional model across all disciplines and in all the programmes.

At a micro-level, PBL involves seven steps that you can follow in groups of 10 to 15 students. This is the ideal setup, but the method also works with slightly larger groups, by splitting students in smaller sub-groups. The initial five steps are covered in the first tutorial/ session/ seminar. The students then work individually or in small sub-groups on their part of the problem, and come together in the second tutorial/ session/ seminar to discuss the results as a group. Practically, depending on the complexity of the problem, you could run such a task in two consecutive sessions, giving students one week to do their research, or you could run it within one session, with less time for research; even this time-limited version can provide the students with the benefits mentioned above and it might be a good way to try out the method without putting too much weight on it within your course.

The seven steps are:

  1. Discuss the case provided by the tutor and make sure everyone understands the problem;

  2. Identify the questions that need to be answered to shed light on the case; here students need to come up essentially with one or more research questions;

  3. Brainstorm what the group already knows and identify potential solutions;

  4. Analyse and structure the results of the brainstorming session;

  5. Formulate learning objectives for the knowledge that is still lacking; after having done an inventory of what they know, students now need to set up their goals for acquiring the knowledge that is missing but necessary for solving the problem; also at this stage they organise the team work by dividing the tasks among individual members (or sub-groups);

  6. Do independent study, individually or in smaller groups: read articles or books or attend lectures to gain the required knowledge; this is an individual research task;

  7. Discuss the findings; at this stage students come together to listen to each other’s research findings and put together the pieces of the puzzle to solve the problem.

Things to consider when using PBL

  • Role of the teacher: from the description above you might have already realised that your role is somehow different in a PBL setup; unlike in the traditional classroom, you are not there to convey knowledge, but to facilitate the learning process, support and provide feedback to the students. It does mean taking a step back, which is not always easy, but it’s also a very important role as you have to make sure the overall objectives of the course are followed through and that students’ work stays on track;

  • Roles of the students: as they direct their own learning, students in the group take up various roles, such as group leader (proposes meeting agendas, suggests division of labour and develops the overall plan), recorder/scribe/ note-taker, etc.

  • Designing the PBL assignment: designing a good PBL assignment is not very easy and it doesn’t come naturally, it can take some practice; you can find some guidance in the resources below; one very important thing to keep in mind is to always think of authentic problems, issues your students can connect to; if you create an artificial context for the purpose of the course it will make it more difficult for students to engage with it;

  • Even if the approaches sound very similar (and use the same acronym!), Problem-Based Learning is not the same as Project-Based Learning! The main difference is that in the case of Problem-Based Learning students are asked to solve a problem and not necessarily to create a concrete product or service, which is the case in many project-based courses. There are quite a few similarities between the two models though, mainly having to do with the setup: small group work, teacher as facilitator and of course, the active learning approach.

Technology-enhanced PBL

Technology can enable students and tutors to work through the PBL process in an effective and meaningful way, including elements of reflection and a formative feedback loop. A virtual collaborative space can be used both in an online and a blended learning version of PBL and integrates the following five core processes:

  • Learning: task instructions, scaffolding, support and feedback;

  • Collaboration: project planning, including milestones, roles distribution, a system of shared documents and folders, social annotation tools;

  • Communication: various synchronous and asynchronous channels, with a focus on accessibility;

  • Reflection: space for individual and group reflection, both on the content/ final outcome and on the learning and collaboration process;

  • Social connectivity: non work-related activities and interactions, very important for nurturing a positive group dynamic.