Friday, March 15, 2013

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)
-Posted by: Erik L.


  1. Yes,problem- based learning can be referred to as an approach that enables learners to learn in the context of a real problem. A problem-based approach develops the problem solving skills of the participants while giving them insights into their current knowledge and the knowledge they need to develop. Nice post!

  2. Great post. Most training and education is too lecture based. As a result we've created a society of great note takers but very few critical thinkers. A problem solving approach help develop critical thinkers.

  3. Is not the crux of PBL to define the real world activity that is appropriate for the learner's current skill level such that the problem servers as a motivator rather than one too difficult and leaves the learner thinking, "Well, this is why I am taking this class in the first place: To learn how to do this very thing! Are you not going to teach me how to do it?"
    Using the “lighting a match” scenario, I can light one with the thumb nail, the zipper of my pants, off a sufficiently rough rock: All techniques produce the desired outcome, yet each approach to solving that real world problem might be considered unsafe by some. Now, as an analogy, this would server, for me, as a great conversation starter as to why there are “objectives” for lighting a match (the rationale as to why using the strike strip is the “correct” way to strike a match. Further, the conversation can move to, but what if you don’t have a strike strip? What to do then? This might be a great way to help the assembled look at things from are more systems view (right time, right place, right people, right things) to accomplish a task.
    So having a PBL early on without little introduction/objectives allows the trainer to see, especially facilitating with an group of co-workers, to get insight on how each views the problem and where the natural tendencies are for each person: problem solvers to dive right in; assessor who get a lay of the land; collaborators interested in checking in with others on how their approach might benefit from/impact the work of others, etc..
    Presenting a PBL scenario early in training might be a great way for learners to do a "self-assessment" and recognize what they do know as well as the areas to focus on during the training. Further, lack of objectives might be “too out there” for some learners who prefer more structure.
    I guess I am saying this is one of many approaches a skilled trainer should employ to provide relevant, engaging, and value-adding experiences/learning. However, for me, PBL is not the singular approach that addresses the concerns for all.

  4. Good thoughts! As to the example, withouth getting to pedantic, the overal point being; whatever the goal to be achieved, 'PBL' offers an approach by simply attempting the obtain the goal 'by doing'. In failure, which may very well be the result, we now have a fairly distinct set of objectives to overcome (i.e. doesn't understand the concept of a match, doesn't have a strike strip, etc).
    So yes, agreed, "Presenting a PBL scenario early in training might be a great way for learners to do a "self-assessment" and recognize what they do know as well as the areas to focus on during the training."
    And also agreed PBL isn't a approach is. It's just another tool for the ID box.