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Problem-Based Learning


This excerpt comes from Inman, T. F. (2011). The effects of problem-based learning in math and science on high potential elementary school students (pp.40-43). (Doctoral dissertation).

A strategy shown to have promise with gifted or high ability students is Problem-Based Learning (PBL). When Savery was asked to give an overview of PBL for the inaugural edition of The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning (2006), he defined PBL this way:

PBL is an instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem. Critical to the success of the approach is the selection of ill-structured problems (often interdisciplinary) and a tutor who guides the learning process and conducts a thorough debriefing at the conclusion of the learning experience. (p. 12)

Banta, Black, and Kline (2001) defined it more simplistically: Students develop problem-solving skills and gain knowledge by solving problems. Barrows, often credited as the first to use PBL in an educational setting (Drake & Long, 2009; Savery, 2006; Savin-Baden & Major, 2004), simplified it even further: "the learning that results from the process of working toward an understanding or resolution of the problem" (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980, p. 18).

Regardless of the semantics, the PBL model exemplifies constructivist learning theory and the principles of instruction (Savery & Duffy, 1995):

Some of the features of the PBL environment are that the learners are actively engaged in working at tasks and activities which are authentic to the environment in which they could be used. The focus is on learners as constructors of their own knowledge in a context which is similar to the context in which they would apply the knowledge. Students are encouraged and expected to think both critically and creatively and to monitor their own understanding i.e., function at a metacognitive level. Social negotiation of meaning is an important part of the problem-solving team structure and the facts of the case are only facts when the group decides they are. (p. 13)

In addition, Schmidt and Moust (2000) argued that through PBL students create theories about the world. Because they work on the problems collaboratively with others and in specific contexts, they actually construct new knowledge. PBL's roots lay in constructivism.

The goals of PBL are simple. Hmelo-Silver (2004) explored the nature of learning of PBL and attributed the following goals to this experiential learning concept: "It is designed to help students 1) construct an extensive and flexible knowledge base; 2) develop effective problem-solving skills; 3) develop self-directed, lifelong learning skills; 4) become effective collaborators; and 5) become intrinsically motivated to learn (Barrows & Kelson, 1995)" (p. 240). In essence, then, PBL is not just about acquiring a base of content knowledge pertaining to an issue or problem; it is also equally concerned with the development of problem-solving skills (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980).

At the heart of PBL is the ill-structured problem. Problems prove to be ill structured when there is no one way to solve the problem nor is there necessarily one right answer (Jonassen, 2000). In addition, these problems call for domain specificity; therefore, they must be in an authentic context. They also possess unknown elements. Solutions are not predictable or convergent. Oftentimes, disciplines must be integrated in order to pose probable solutions (Jonassen, 2000). Both judgment and personal opinion are needed. Many of PBL's features revolve around the ill-structured problem (Tat, Preechaporn, & Kin, 2010). First, the problem has to be identified, often not a simple feat. Information then must be compiled pertaining to the problem. Typically more information must be obtained in order to find the solution (Tat et al., 2010). Students debate potential solutions until they decide upon one solution.

PBL and traditional curriculum differ in multiple areas. Newman et al. (2003) explained that the organization of the curricula, the learning environment, and the outcomes of PBL varied greatly from the traditional approach. Instead of a subject or discipline approach, the curriculum centered on problems that were interdisciplinary. The emphasis was on thinking and process skills over content knowledge. Instead of individual students getting direct instruction from the teacher, the learning environment stressed active learning where small groups were facilitated by a tutor or teacher (Newman et al., 2003). In lieu of content attainment as the sole outcome, learning outcomes focused on skill development such as problem solving, research, and collaboration. The goal is life-long learning.

Banta, T. W., Black, K. E., & Kline, K. A. (2001). Assessing the effectiveness of problem-based learning. Assessment Update, 13(1), 3,7,11.

Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning: an approach to medical education. New York, NY: Springer.

Drake, K. N., & Long, D. (2009, Winter). Rebecca's in the dark: A comparative study of problem-based learning and direct instruction/experiential learning in two 4th-grade classrooms. Journal of Elementary Science Education, 21(1), 1-16.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.

Jonassen, D. H. (2000). Toward a design theory of problem solving. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(4), 63-85.

Newman, M., Ambrose, K., Corner, T., Evans, J., Morris-Vincent, P., Quinn, S., . . . Vernon, L. (2003, April). Evaluating educational impact: The approach followed by The Project on the Effectiveness of Problem-Based Learning (PEPBL). Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference, Chicago, IL.

Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1), 9-20.

Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (1995). Problem-based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35, 31-38.

Savin-Baden, M., & Major, C. H. (2004). Foundations of problem-based learning. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Schmidt, H. G., & Moust, J. H. C. (2000). Factors affecting small group-tutorial: A review of research. In D. H. Evenson & C. E. Hmelo (Eds.), Problem-based learning: A research perspective on learning interactions (pp. 19-52). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence, Erlbaum.

Tat, T. B., Preechaporn, W., & Kin, L. C. (2010, August). Problem-based learning in the 4 Core Areas (PBL4C) in the search of excellence in mathematics instruction. Paper presented at 5th EARCOME Conference, Tokyo, Japan. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/55251050/Problem-Based-Learning-the-4-Core-Areas-PBL4C-in-Mathematics-Education

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 Last Modified 3/1/18