Problem Based Learning

© Annette Devilee
Masters of Learning Science and Technology, University of Sydney

What is Problem Based Learning and why should we use it?

The term "Problem-Based Learning" (PBL) was originally developed by Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) for medical education. It is based on the Constructivist Theory of Learning.

PBL is a pedagogical strategy that uses open ended / ill-structured problems that mirror real-world problems. The authenticity of the problems helps students to transfer their knowledge and skills beyond the classroom, preparing them for the workplace and life in a rapidly changing world. The open ended nature of problems gives students the flexibility to approach it from different angles, to take different thematic sidelines according to their personal interests. This gives them control of the learning process, capturing their interest and motivating them to learn.

Lewis et al. (1998) emphasises that the act of posing problems is integral to the process of solving problems. Finding or posing problems is a creative endeavour that can occur prior to, during, or after the act of problem solving. By keeping the problem definition open, the students can “frame and reframe” their perspective on a problem so they reach “goal clarity”. Educational psychologists have discovered that solving a problem is a back-and-forth (recursive) process, not a linear one (Pea, 1985). In this way the student takes ownership of the problem thus enhancing their engagement and responsibility for the learning process.

“Teachers organise instruction around learning problems that pique student’s interest, challenge their current understandings, set the intended curricular concepts in meaningful contexts and allow students to explore ideas, pose interpretations or hypotheses, test their ideas, apply them in other contexts, and reflect on their learning.” (Jonassen et al., 2003, p 13)

Slavery and Duffy (1995) suggested the following principles of PBL:

  • Anchor all learning activities to a larger task or problem.
  • Support the learner in developing ownership for the overall problem or task.
  • Design an authentic task.
  • Design the task and the learning environment to reflect the complexity of the environment they should be able to function in at the end of learning.
  • Give the learner ownership of the process used to develop a solution.
  • Design the learning environment to support and challenge the learner’s thinking.
  • Encourage testing ideas against alternative views and alternative contexts.
  • Provide opportunity and support for reflection on both the content learned and the learning process.

Gudzial et al. (1997) consider the two most important aspects of problem based learning to be the authentic real world problems and students reflection on their experiences.

The teacher's role changes from the provider of content to the facilitator of the learning process. Teachers present students with authentic problems and provide an environment where students can explore their ideas through research, discussion and reflection. The student has an active role identifying and locating resources, gathering and evaluating information. (458 words)

Learning Theories and Problem Based Learning

The Cognitive Theory sees learning as the formation of internal mental representations. These mental representations are structured into schemas and mental models. Learning occurs when these mental models change quantitatively and qualitatively (Winn, 2004). This is an individual process which fits well within the acquisition metaphor of learning.

Ecological psychology recognises the role of the external environment in the learning process. In addition to our perceptions made directly via the senses, mediated perception is made indirectly with the use of tools such as media (pictures, text or video) that represent something in reality (Gibson, 1979). In addition to our internal mental representations, we can store our memories externally in non-biological systems such as diaries, books, diagrams, databases etc. This is referred to as distributed cognition. Files on a hard drive, records in a database, notes in a diary or web pages on the Internet can act as external cognitive artefacts which "compensate for the limitations of our working and long-term memories" (Norman, 1993). This idea of externalisation, or outsourcing, can be applied to processing information as well as storing information: e.g. performing a query on a database, creating a spreadsheet to automatically calculate business expenses or profit. The outsourcing of cognitive tasks frees up the mind to work on more complex tasks. This is the concept behind the Cognitive Load Theory and the use of Mindtools.

The Activity Theory of learning portrays learning as the process of actively interacting with the environment. Tools are used to mediate between the student and their learning goals. This is a collectively shared process with social, cultural and historical dimensions (Barab et al., 2004). This theory fits within a "learning-as-participation" metaphor. Technology can be used to support the changing nature of knowledge: e.g. wikis for collaborative writing. Wagner (2004) refers to this as "dynamically changing knowledge".

The Constructivist Theory also views learning as an active process, but it maintains that learners must use their existing cognitive structures to select, transform and organise information and experiences (Bruner, 1966). "Learning is a process of constructing meaningful representations, of making sense of one's experiential world." (Murphy, 1997) The student changes from being the passive receptacle of knowledge to the active constructor of their own meaning and understanding; learning with the teacher not from the teacher, self-directed not directed solely by the teacher. The student takes on the responsibility for setting goals, working towards those goals and collaborating with other students. These learning principles form the basis for PBL.

Social Development Theory as instigated by Vygotsky (1978) maintained that social interaction is an important part of cognition and learning; we can learn by observing and interacting with other people. Vygotsky's concept of the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD) states that through social interaction with an adult, or in peer collaboration, the learner can attain more than they can by working alone. The Social Constructivist Theory stresses the importance of discourse in the construction of meaning.

The Situated Learning Theory introduced by Lave and Wenger offers yet another perspective on learning. Lave argues that effective learning occurs from activity that is situated in a context and culture, not in some abstract, out of context classroom activity. The term ”legitimate peripheral participation" introduced by Lave & Wenger (1991) is about providing an authentic context for the learning process, a learning environments that encourages social interaction and collaboration.

Problem Based Learning is based on the: Constructivist Theory- Instruction starts from the students’ current understanding, building upon these foundations and challenging misconceptions. By reflecting on what they have learnt students engage in meaningful learning, building both individual and collective knowledge.

  • Activity Theory – Students are actively involved in the problem and the learning process; exploring ideas, posing problems, identifying resources, evaluating information, posing interpretations or hypotheses, testing their ideas, applying them in other contexts, and reflecting on their learning. (Jonassen et al., 2003)
  • Social Development Theory- Students work collaboratively in small groups, helping each other, negotiating meaning and solving the problem together.
  • Situated Learning Theory- Problem solving embodies some of the critical elements of situated learning framework. The problems are authentic real world problems. The learning process occurs within a situated context, defined by the problem. (699 words)

Three Metaphors for Learning

Learning theories can be considered within a structure of three metaphors: the "knowledge acquisition" metaphor, the "learning-as-participation" metaphor (Sfard, 1998:4) and the Knowledge Creation metaphor (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996; Paavola et al., 2004).

The Knowledge Acquisition metaphor includes the traditional school teaching approach where the teacher acts as the fountain of knowledge and the student is the empty vessel, a tabula rasa to be filled with knowledge. Thus the learner's goal is to gain this knowledge and the teachers’ goal is to transmit it.

The Learning as Participation metaphor includes the traditional master and apprentice model of learning in the work place but has gained recognition within schools; it gives the student a more active role in the learning process.

The Knowledge Creation metaphor is slow to be recognised in education. Some teachers instinctively use this approach. The students take more responsibility for their own learning and the teacher takes on a facilitatory role encouraging students to work together, come up with their own ideas, then research and test their ideas in a dynamic process of improving their knowledge and understanding.

Problem based learning fits somewhere across the participation and knowledge creation metaphors.

PBL and the Knowledge Creation Metaphor

Scardamalia and Berieter’s Knowledge Building model (1996) sees the creation of knowledge to be generated by ideas but requiring a sustained and progressive problem solving process.

Paavola et al. (2004) defined the characteristics of the Knowledge Creation metaphor. I shall argue that many of these characteristics are also be part of the PBL approach.

  • The pursuit of Newness- The ill structured open problems given to students allow them to peruse their own ideas and to come up with unique, new solutions.
  • Viewing Knowledge Creation as a social process- Collaborative work in a group wiki or in a discussion forum is a social process towards the solution of the problem.
  • Going beyond propositional and Conceptual Knowledge- Developing a solution to the problem and reflecting on this process requires higher order thinking.
  • Recognising Conceptualisations and conceptual Artefacts as important- Student ideas and hypothesis are a focus of PBL with testing and research around these ideas being a major part of the PBL process.
  • Interaction around and through shared objects. - Objects such as spreadsheets or forums for discussion become the shared objects that students share and interact with in the problem solving process.

Wagner (2004) identifies key team attributes that assist the emergence of knowledge. He refers to dynamically changing knowledge supported by technology. Open inquiry and ill defined problems of PBL allow for the framing and reframing of the problem, a back-and-forth (recursive) process that supports this dynamic changing view of knowledge. Wagner refers to distributed knowledge and how collective knowledge can be superior to the knowledge of any individual. The small group discussions in PBL pool individual strengths and resources. Wagner discusses errors and recovery or quality assurance that can be done by the group members as they can fix the mistakes of individuals. Finally, he talks of publication overhead suggesting that the knowledge content should be the primary concern, not the technology. This relates to the intuitive nature of the user interface. The easy to use Web 2.0 tools for PBL can provide this low publication overhead.

“...research has demonstrated that authentic tasks with real audiences have resulted in increased learning, stronger writing, and longer retention of learning and even increased performance on standardised tests of writing. But more than test score results, students engaged in building knowledge products for others develop a sense of purpose and value. They contribute to their community.” (Riel, 2000,cited in Wagner, 2004) (607 words)


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