- What is Problem-Based Learning?
- How did PBL get started?
- What actually happens in a PBL class?
- What are the advantages of implementing PBL?
- Do students learn the same amount in PBL as in traditional courses?
- Is PBL the same as group work?
- How can instructors help students to gain the most from a PBL course?
- Does PBL discourage students from working independently?
- PBL encourages students to engage in small group, self-directed learning. Will they absorb a lot of incorrect information in the process?
- How does PBL differ from Project-based Learning?
- How does PBL differ from problem solving in class?
- If I want to start implementing PBL in my course, what would be my first step?
- Will PBL involve me in a lot more preparation for classes?
- Given that students in HK are generally rather passive, will they be willing to learn on their own?
- I already have a lot of material to cover in my course. How will the students get through it all in a PBL course?
- I teach a large class. Can I still implement PBL with its emphasis on small group work?
If you can't find your question in the list above, please email it to Nick Noakes.
Traditional education delivers information to students in lectures, supported by tutorials and laboratory sessions where students can meet to discuss, carry out practical work and work on problem-solving exercises. The basic format is that the instructor provides students with the information that they need to work on applied activities.
In Problem-Based Learning the students work in small groups under the guidance of an instructor or tutor to find for themselves the knowledge they need to solve real world problems.
The introduction of a curriculum based on PBL began in 1969 at McMaster University in Canada. McMaster's medical school structured the curriculum around actual clinical cases from the outset instead of teaching the traditional areas of medical study such as anatomy. This model was soon adopted by a number of medical schools and was taken up by other professional schools such as engineering, health sciences and business. It is now used in a wide range of disciplines worldwide.
Students are given the problem and then go through well-defined stages in the process to solution:
- determining what the problem is about;
- making an exact statement of the problem;
- identifying the information needed to understand the problem;
- identifying resources to be used to gather information;
- generating possible solutions;
- analyzing the solutions;
- presenting the solution, orally and/or in writing.
These stages will usually take place over several sessions with students working individually on their assigned tasks outside of class time.
PBL courses can enhance student learning in several ways: improving the ability of students to analyze and solve problems, to think critically, to find and use appropriate resources, to communicate effectively, and to work collaboratively in teams. As well, many instructors who work with PBL classes report a renewed interest in teaching and the satisfaction of seeing their students actively engaged in learning.
Most studies show that PBL students acquire about the same amount of knowledge as students taught by the traditional lecture method. But PBL students also show improvement in problem solving and group communication skills. They frequently report that they are more motivated to learn as well.
PBL students work in small groups but PBL has some other important characteristics as well: students must take an active role in analyzing the problem, in finding information relevant to the problem and co-operating fully in finding a solution. Hence not every group experience is the same as PBL by any means.
Many students who are used to the instructor supplying them with knowledge have difficulties in adjusting to PBL classes where they must take an active role in finding knowledge for themselves. It's important that students do not feel that their instructor has abandoned them and they will often need an initial orientation to this method of study and on-going support and guidance from their instructors.
Students can be rewarded for independent work as well as group work and a balance needs to be struck between the two in the course design and assessment.
PBL groups do not work in isolation. They are monitored and guided by their instructor or tutor at all stages of the problem-solving process. It is the instructor’s role as facilitator to ensure that they are on the right track and to bring them back when they digress to unproductive and fruitless areas of enquiry.
The kinds of problems used in PBL are derived from real world examples, are open-ended and often require an inter-disciplinary approach to come up with a solution. Student projects can also be of this kind, but often they are more tightly structured and rely on information that the student has already been given in class and needs to be able to synthesize.
Students are frequently asked to solve problems in class, based on information already given and limited to a specific aspect of the topic. Such exercises can confirm that the student understands the information and can apply it to a problem in a different context. PBL differs from this in that problems are open-ended and the students must find out the information they need for themselves.
Make sure you know WHY you want to implement PBL. Talk with colleagues in your discipline who have already implemented PBL to find out what are the advantages and difficulties as they see them.
As with any new teaching approach, instructors find they have to put in a lot more time and effort the first time it is launched. Devising suitable problems is time-consuming. In addition more attention needs to be given to making sure students will have access to all the resources they need. Finding a suitable teaching space for the groups can also be problematic.
There are already several PBL courses operating successfully in HK. It seems that with appropriate support and guidance HK students turn out to be not so passive after all.
To be really successful, implementation of PBL usually requires some reduction in course content. This is because students need more time to develop the skills that PBL is uniquely designed to teach them - finding relevant information, performing well in a group situation, analyzing the problem and so forth - as well as learning the course content. In most fields knowledge is changing so rapidly that the actual content may be less important than acquiring the skills for finding and evaluating new knowledge and applying this in everyday professional life.
Apart from the time saved in not giving lectures, instructors have found several ways of dealing with the problem of running a number of small classes with few staff to cover them such as use of floating facilitators who move around among groups. Use of peer tutors or TAs is another option. The instructor's role is to make sure that the tutors are properly briefed and to monitor the activities of the groups on a regular basis.