Problem-based learning (PBL) is an active instructional approach that uses real-world problems to drive teaching and learning activities for the content being covered. Problems are typically human related, open-ended, and high in risky challenges and unknown circumstances. Often there are many possible outcomes that have different levels of success related to the chosen solution.
PBL is different from traditional instruction in that instead of starting with providing students with information, they are first provided with the problem and must then find and apply relevant information that helps solve the problem. Because students must do outside research, PBL projects often take considerable time, with students typically working in teams, following a series of steps to solve the problem, then presenting the solution as an oral or written presentation.
Good PBL problems have the following key characteristics:
- Problems are realistic.
- Problems present opportunities for students to analyze and synthesize information.
- Problems contain an element of uncertainty and risk.
- Problems resemble problems that students will experience in their careers.
How to use of PBL
According to Nilson (2010), PBL is applicable in any discipline or profession that presents unclear and uncertain challenges, such as:
- social sciences
- educational administration
- clinical fields
- biological and physical sciences
The following are some of the ways this teaching approach is used to engage students:
- Research projects in any of the above listed subject areas
- Engineering design projects
- Medical students discuss, research, and diagnose hypothetical medical cases
- Business students determine how to save a failing business and make it profitable again
Impact on Learning
According to Nilson (2010), using PBL as an instructional approach can impact learning through:
- Providing opportunity for students to work in teams.
- Incorporating project management and leadership.
- Including oral and often written communication.
- Practicing emotional intelligence.
- Building tolerance for uncertainty.
- Promoting critical thinking and analysis.
- Improving conceptual understanding.
- Encouraging application (transfer) of content knowledge.
- Incorporating the application of metacognitive strategies.
- Employing research and information-seeking skills.
- Improving retention of knowledge.
- Requiring decision making.
- Practicing problem solving.
- Activating and applying prior knowledge.
- Motivating student learning.
As with any group project, you will need to give careful consideration regarding the balance between group and individual grading and clearly communicate the parameters to students before the beginning projects.
Determine in advance the specific criteria that will be assessed and create a rubric for students to use as a guide before starting projects. An example of a problem solving rubric is available from the Penn State Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at: http://www.schreyerinstitute.psu.edu/pdf/ProblemSolvingRubric1.pdf.
PBL in Canvas
In Canvas, PBL can be supported through discussion, multimedia projects, and videoconferencing.
Students can participate in PBL through the use of discussions. Canvas provides an integrated system for asynchronous online class discussions. Instructors and students can start and contribute to discussions. You can learn more about using Discussions in Canvas from the Canvas Community at https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-3188 or from the Penn State Canvas Learning Center at https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1741795/pages/4c-create-and-manage-discussions?module_item_id=20342417.
VoiceThread: In Canvas, instructors and students can use VoiceThread to create and share multimedia projects with the class. VoiceThread is an online communication and presentation tool that can be used to create stories that easily share images, videos, voice comments, documents, and written comments. Penn State provides students and faculty access and support to using VoiceThread at voicethread.psu.edu.
Wiki pages: In Canvas, students can complete PBL assignments by creating a page as a wiki and allowing it to be edited by anyone in their group. Instructions for creating a page are available from Canvas at https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-1842.
Videoconferencing: Students can work together on PLB projects in real time through videoconferencing in Canvas by using Conferences, which even allows sharing computer screens. With Conferences you can broadcast real-time audio and video, demo applications on your desktop, share presentation slides, or demo any online resources. You can learn more about Conferences from the Canvas Community at https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-1952. Zoom is another service that provides access to videoconferencing and screen sharing for free.
The following are a few technologies that can be used for PBL:
Discussion boards or Yammer can be used for students to discuss their PBL group projects. Yammer can also be used to share share files among group members.
Google Docs can be used by student groups to collaborate on written documentation or presentation slides for PBL projects.
Student groups can meet virtually through Google Hangout or Zoom.
Things to Consider
For successful implementation of PBL, you should consider the following strategies:
PBL requires students to be able to solve problems but does not inherently teach them problem solving skills. Students may need additional instruction on critical thinking if they are not skilled problem solvers.
After guiding students through the basic steps used in PBL, instructors should allow student groups to work as independently as possible.
Student groups should each determine organizational and decision making rules, fostering buy-in and ownership.
Outside research is essential to the PBL approach.
Be sure to provide sufficient structure and scaffolding to promote success.
Ham, Marcia. “Problem-based Learning Online? You’re Kidding!” Distance Education Learning and Teaching Academy, Ohio State University. Last modified on August 28, 2015. http://u.osu.edu/delta/2015/08/28/problem-based-learning-online-youre-kidding/.
Nilson, Linda B. “Problem Based Learning.” In Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors 2010, 178-191. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. http://www.pharmacy.cmu.ac.th/unit/unit_files /files_download/ 2014-05-02Teaching-at-its-best.pdf.
“Problem-Solving Rubric.” Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, The Pennsylvania State University. http://www.schreyerinstitute.psu.edu/pdf/ProblemSolvingRubric1.pdf.
Woods, Don. “Problem-Based Learning (PBL).” McMaster University. http://chemeng.mcmaster.ca/problem-based-learning.