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Problem Based Learning

Tracy E Simmons IDT 550 12/6/2011

This paper is an overview of Problem Based Learning (PBL). Provided is a brief history, assumptions and implications of PBL as an instructional approach, characteristics of the process, implementation, research findings and further avenues for research.

What is Problem Based Learning?

Human beings are faced with personal and job-related problems every day of our lives. We trouble-shoot, diagnose, make decisions, face dilemmas, tackle design challenges and much more. As educators, we face a formidable challenge: How do we adequately prepare learners for success in a world so dynamic that that many of the jobs they may hold do not yet exist? It is the opinion of David Jonassen that the only legitimate goal of education and training should be problem solving (Jonassen, 2004) and as Terry Barrett states in the introduction to her book, New Approaches to Problem-Based Learning, When problems are experienced as relevant and important, people are motivated to direct their energies to solving them (Barrett T. & Moore, S., 2011). Problem based learning, PBL, is an instructional philosophy, a process and a curriculum that is representative of the constructivist paradigm shift from teaching to learning (Barrett T. , 2005). PBL was pioneered in the 1970s at the medical school of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, most notably by Dr. Howard Barrows (Baptiste, 2003). Dr. Barrows defined PBL as, The learning that results from the process of working towards the understanding of a resolution of a problem. The problem is encountered first in the learning process (Barrows, 1980). The rationale behind the development of PBL, Barrows contended, was that medical students were unable to use knowledge learned in conventional, basic science courses because their cognitive structures were decontextualized, thus students had difficulty transferring medical theory into clinical practice (Albanese, Mitchell, 1993). In the 40 years since it s inception, Problem based learning has been implemented across disciplines in higher education as well as in K-12 and has been adapted to accommodate various age levels as well as curricular objectives. In it s purist form, PBL is an instructional method that aims to foster

knowledge acquisition and problem solving skills as well as cognitive flexibility, by presenting learners with an authentic problem prior to any instruction or preparation. Learning occurs in small groups facillitated by a tutor. Working together, students follow a systematic process of brainstorming, issue identification, research, self-directed learning, hypothesis generation and finally, idea integration followed by solution (Massa, 2008). Assumptions and Characteristics of PBL As part of the constructivist paradigm shift from teaching to learning, Problem based learning is grounded on constructivist learning principles. It is a learner-centered approach that empowers learners to construct their own knowledge based on environmental interaction and social collaboration. This knowledge is anchored in authentic contexts in the form of a problem (or problems) which is the core of any PBL curriculum (Savery J. R., 2006). Problems in a PBL curriculum are ill-structured or open-ended triggers that are multidisciplinary and may have multiple solutions (Barrett T. & Moore, S., 2011). The learning process is facillitated by a tutor who supports the group by modeling critical thinking, asking probing questions, directing research and managing group dynamics. In pure Problem based learning there is no lecture or direct instruction by the tutor. Students direct individual and collaborative learning in groups called tutorials, where learning issues are generated, knowns and unknowns are revealed, reasearch is conducted and hypotheses are generated (Hung, Jonassen, Liu, n.d.). Another characterristic of the PBL process is self-relection and the development of metacognition. Throughout the course, learners must set realistic goals and assess the accuracy of their knowledge (Barrows, 1980).

A PBL environment is designed with the following educational objectives in mind: The learner will develop a systematic approach to solving real-world problems. The learner will construct an extensive knowledge base and the cognitive flexibility to apply that knowledge across domains. y y y The learner will develop self-directed learning skills for lifelong learning. The learner will develop the necessary skills to learn and work in collaborative teams. The learner will develop habits of self- relection, self-evaluation and an intrinsic motivation to learn (Barrows, 1980). Sue Baptiste also stresses that for the Problem based learning environment to maintain it s integrity, foundational values such as honesty, openness, partnership and respect must be upheld (Baptiste, 2003). Implementation of Problem Based Learning Because of the collaborative nature of the PBL process, the learning environment should be flexible and conducive to small group learning. Portable tables and chairs can be configured and reconfigured as the group s needs change and flipcharts or whiteboards should be available for brainstorming and organizing ideas (Baptiste, 2003). This flexible environment sets the stage for the tutorial process. Tutorial groups consist of five to eight students and a tutor. The problem is presented to the learners at the start of the tutorial with no input or direction from the tutor, therefore the tutorial serves the constuctive processor for knowledge generation. What follows is the Seven Jump PBL Model developed by Schmidt and Moust at Maastricht University:

y y

1. Students clarify known and unknown terms and concepts in the problem description. 2. Define the problem. What needs to be explained? Some problems have secondary, dependent issues (sub-problems) that must be identified. 3. Analyze the problem by brainstorming, activating prior knowledge, identifying learning issues and developing an action plan. 4. Critique proposed explanations, integrate and revise ideas to produce a systematic inventory of possible explanations . 5. Formulate and prioritize learning objectives and distribute learning tasks for selfdirected learning. 6. SDL (self-directed learning) Group members conduct individual research to satisfy learning objectives and fill gaps in knowledge. 7. The group synthesizes individual findings and integrates knowledge to propose a comprehensive explanation or solution to the problem. Often, new questions arise during step seven that identify the need for further research. Consequently, the tutorial group will repeat the process, starting at step four with a deeper understanding of the issues (Schmidt, Rotgans, Yew, 2011 vol.45). At the conclusion of each problem, students engage in a reflective process where they articulate and evaluate knowledge gains and appraise their own problem solving skills as well as those of their peers (Barrows, 1980). The significance of this final activity is to recognize the value of self-reflection and metacognition in learning (Savery J. R., 1996). Students may take on various roles in the tutorial procedure such as chairperson, scribe, reader or presenter. Some PBL groups divide learning issues among the group while others require all learners to research all issues (Barrett T. &

Moore, S., 2011). Because students are responsible for their own learning, many experience anxiety and discomfort as they adjust to a PBL learning format. In a study conducted by Jost et al. (1997) it was reported that confusion about their roles in the learning process and uncertainty about how they would be assessed was the source of much student stress. After a period of adaptation, usually about six months, students adjusted to PBL and began to see the value of the method. (Hung et al.,n.d.). In contrast to the instructor s role in a traditional learning environment, the role of the tutor in a PBL tutorial is to facilitate the learning process. Specifically, the tutor models and assists the group's collective thinking, encourages feedback and reflection, guides the identification of pertinent learning issues and supports the integration of student learning gains. The most significant challenge facing the PBL tutor is transitioning from knowledge provider to manager and facilitator of a self- directed learning environment (Hung et al., n.d.). In a PBL scenario, there is no lecture, so students new to problem-based learning may require instructional scaffolding until self-directed skills such as problem solving, collaboration and metacognition are mastered (Savery J. R., 2006). A subject of considerable debate in light of the tutor's role in the learning process is the importance of the facilitator's content expertise. Results from several studies offer contradictory findings when considering the necessity of tutor content knowledge in addition to facilitation skills. A study conducted by Silver and Wilkerson found that tutors with subject matter expertise were more likely to direct the learning by speaking more often as well as provide specific answers to questions. In addition, it was determined that these tutors offered more clues to direct idea generation and discussion. As a result, Silver and Wilkerson concluded that these instructions inhibited the development of

collaborative as well as self-directed learning skills. By contrast, a study conducted by Eagle, Harasym and Mandin found that students guided by a content expert not only produced twice the number of learning issues, but these learning issues corresponded with course objectives three times more often than those identified by students who were facilitated by a non-expert. The authors suggest that because of their content knowledge, experts know when and how to pose questions that will promote generative thinking. Thus, the most effective PBL tutors should possess subject matter expertise as well as facilitation skills. As identified by Schmidt and Moust, another important quality of an effective tutor is cognitive congruence, which is the ability to communicate with learners at their level of readiness using language that can be easily understood. Fostering an informal, comfortable atmosphere supports an open exchange of ideas, which will stimulate collaborative and self-directed learning. This social congruence has proven to be more effective on student learning than either cognitive congruence or subject matter expertise because the positive exchange between tutor and student stimulates ownership of the learning process (Schmidt et al., 2011). Curriculum Design, Problem Design and Assessment John Savery cited a study conducted by Boud and Feletti (1997, p.5) which offered possible explanations for PBL initiatives which failed to achieve anticipated learning goals. The majority of reasons cited demonstrated a shallow understanding of the rigor involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of a learner centered curriculum (Savery J. R., 2006). In PBL, the conventional curriculum must be reconceptualized from a content, instructor driven format to an authentic, problem driven, student-centered conceptual process. After

fundamental curricular standards are identified, problems are written and aligned to stimulate student learning to achieve identified objectives (Barrett T. , 2005). Dr. H. Barrows developed a taxonomy for the design of PBL curricula using two variables: problem structure/complexity and self-directedness. Each variable is divided into three levels as shown: Problem structure/complexity Complete case (worked example) Partial case/problem simulation Full problem free inquiry Self-directedness Teacher directed Teacher/student directed Self-directed

This curriculum matrix can be combined six different ways, enabling course designers to match the complexity of content with the readiness levels of learners in a PBL environment (Hung et al., n.d.). In addition to curricular structure, a sufficient investment must be made in the development of learning materials such as student and tutor guidebooks, quality assessments and adequate library resources to support research (Albanese, Mitchell, 1993). Another critical area for investment is ongoing professional development for tutors. PBL facilitators must obtain process expertise to adequately guide a student-centered learning environment. An effective tutor must scaffold learners when necessary, direct individual and group processing and model metacognitive awareness. Just as students reflect on their learning and processing, PBL tutors will benefit from reflection on their tutorial experiences, which will enhance and empower future guidance (Barrett T. & Moore, S., 2011). At the core of a well-designed PBL curriculum is a set of contextually valid, ill-structured and engaging problems. In order to fulfill the educational objectives set forth in any PBL initiative, it is imperative that problems be designed so that student generated learning issues

correspond to course objectives. In addition, it is essential that problems be designed to help facilitate knowledge integration program wide. Several researchers have proposed guidelines for designing PBL problems such as a five stage process proposed by Duch (2001), the decision model advocated by Lee (1999) and an eight step model designed by Drummond-Young and Mohide (2001) specifically for nursing programs. While these models are useful, they are either too broad or domain specific to be used as a framework for multi-disciplinary problem design (Hung et al., n.d.). The 3C3R PBL model, developed by Dr. Woei Hung, is a systematic method specifically designed to guide instructional designers and educators to design effective PBL problems for all levels of learners and across disciplines, thereby strengthening the characteristics of PBL and alleviating implementation issues (Hung W., 2006). The 3C3R model is designed to optimize knowledge acquisition and the development of processing skills by focusing on the core components of content, context and connection, and the processing components of research, reasoning and reflection. The three static, core components provide a conceptual framework for designing problems that address the full scope of the content standards in their professional context while emphasizing integration of content with context. It is crucial that the connection between problems be designed to promote knowledge integration and cognitive flexibility. The processing components of 3C3R are dynamic and function as a guide towards intended learning goals while at the same time adjusting to the learner s readiness and comfort levels. The purpose of the 3C3R model is to take advantage of the inherent strengths of problem based learning the use of authentic problems to teach

content, concepts, problem solving and cognitive flexibility, by precisely aligning standards, objectives, learner characteristics and context (Hung W., 2006).

It is well established that an assessment should be aligned with the teaching methodology used for instruction. In the early implementation of Problem based learning, standardized tests revealed that PBL students scored below students in traditional courses on basic science acquisition but higher in clinical application (Albanese, Mitchell, 1993). This is a prime example of the incompatibility of the assessment instrument and the method of instruction, thereby weakening the case that opponents of PBL sought to prove. As cited by Hung et al., Saven-Baden (2004) assert that because assessment is the most important factor in validating the effectiveness of PBL, it s authenticity is crucial (Hung et al., n.d.). In PBL, learning outcomes include content knowledge acquisition and also processing skills, therefore an adequate assessment should measure both. (Pettigrew, Scholten, Gleeson, 2011). Pettigrew et al. cite Macdonald and Savin-Badin (2004) who indicate that PBL assessments should: Be aligned with curricular standards and course objectives Be authentic based in a practical context Measure professional processes as well as content knowledge - KSAs Reflect a practitioner s development of expertise Provide an experience of assessment in a practical capacity by peers, supervisors etc. Incorporate self- assessment and reflection for continued professional growth (Pettigrew et al., 2011) A typical assessment that measures knowledge acquisition and application is a written exam, a concept map, a case based essay, a portfolio or a written report. An example of a process oriented assessment is a role play, tutorial participation, an online blog or discussion forum, a


presentation, a reflective journal or a portfolio. This list is by no means comprehensive and does not reflect certain variables that can be used to adapt assessments so that curricular requirements and the abilities of learners in any discipline can be accommodated. Possible variables to consider are contexts such as classroom vs. workplace, peer vs. tutor evaluation, formative and summative reviews and online, oral or written appraisals (Pettigrew et al., 2011). Regardless of the type of measurement chosen to evaluate learner expertise or program effectiveness, it is vital that the instrument used not only reflect curricular goals but also be aligned with the teaching methodology. It is only when uniformity exists between the instructional approach and learner assessment that an accurate appraisal of the effectiveness of PBL can be made (Hung et al., n.d.). For the benefits of a Problem based learning initiative to be realized, a considerate investment must be made in the reconceptualization of the curriculum from instructor driven to learner centered. The rigors of this approach cannot be underestimated, justifying the importance of comprehensive and thorough curriculum design, including special attention to the design of authentic problems and assessments. Effectiveness of PBL According to H.G. Schmidt, PBL is an effective instructional methodology because it leverages three important conditions that facilitate learning: the activation of prior knowledge, elaboration, and encoding specificity. In a series of studies conducted by Schmidt and colleagues to determine the role of prior knowledge in initial discussion, students were asked to recall what they remembered about osmosis. They compared the responses of students who

had participated in small-group discussion with those of individual respondants who had not, and found that those who had discussed the topic with their peers produced twice as many ideas as students who worked alone (Schmidt et al., 2011). This finding suggests that collaborative processing has a positive effect on learner recall. In another experiment designed to measure the influence of elaboration on student learning, van Blankenstein and colleagues prepared a videotape of a text reading in which learners were asked to explain their comprehension. Individual students in the study were given the identical text for the same amount of time, but some viewed the videotaped explanation as well. All students were tested twice: once immediately after the experiment and one month later. In both instances, students who were exposed to elaboration in the videotaped presentation had higher scores 28% higher immediately after and 30% higher after one month. It seems that group discussion not only activates prior knowledge, but the process of explaining, or elaborating on that knowledge is a compelling means of facilitating understanding of information (Schmidt et al., 2011). In addition, Schmidt et al. concluded that this higher level processing fosters better retention of information over time. The condition of encoding specificity is met by the fact that the problems used in PBL resemble scenarios that students will encounter in a professional context. As specified by Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) problems should be designed to replicate those that are frequently encountered in the practical setting, possess a high degree of urgency and have complex, multiple solutions (Barrows, 1980). This contextualized learning promotes the development of cognitive flexibility because information is organized around fundamental principles that are applicable across muliple domains. In addition, knowledge is more easily retrieved because learning through contextual problems enables student to encode

information specific to the domain in which it will be used (Artino, 2008) (Schmidt et al., 2011). From a social constructivist s point of view, H. G. Schmidt has posited that student collaboration is productive in PBL due to the theory of distributed cognition. He hypothesizes that the social and collaborative process of tutorials relieves the cognitive burden on the individual by distibuting the informational load collectively among the group (Schmidt, 2007). Hung et al. cited several studies that have shown significantly positive results in PBL students problem solving skills. Many employers praise student s abilities to transfer these skills to the workplace and attribute their rapid development of expertise and their ability to work independently to the repeated exposure to authentic problems in their courses of study (Hung et al., n.d.). In studies conducted with high school science students, Pease and Kuhn (2010) found significant increases in learner comprehension, knowledge integration and transfer that was sustained over time, when comparing a PBL structure to lecture. They attribute these findings to several benefits: collective processing aids in meaningful learning, allowing for better recall of information due to multiple retrieval paths. Also, repeated questioning about knowns and unknowns facilitates integration of prior and acquired knowledge, thus improving overall understanding. Finally, metacognitive awareness informs students of their limits and motivates them to seek new answers (Pease, Kuhn, 2010). Findings against PBL The two biggest criticisms of PBL are concerned with factual knowledge acquisition versus higher order thinking and content coverage (Hung W., 2006). In the most recognized study of Problem Based Learning spanning 20 years, Albanese and Mitchell (1993) found that

traditionally trained students scored higher on content knowledge tests while PBL students scored higher in clinical application and reasoning. In addition, the rate of content coverage is slower in PBL than in conventional classrooms (Albanese, Mitchell, 1993). Does PBL sacrifice the scope of the curriculum on behalf of critical thinking skills? It is important to note that in a clinical study, Paul Kirschner found that PBL students ordered more unecessary tests, which could be aleviated if the practitioner had more extensive factual knowledge (Kirschner,Sweller, Clark, 2006). Walter Dick, a prominent author and designer in the field of instructional design contends PBL ignores entry level (behavioral) instructional strategies that may prove more effective for basic knowledge acquisition. Basic knowledge is necessary to create a store in long term memory. It is to this knowledge, stored in long term memory, that new information will be integrated. By ignoring entry level assessment and instruction, a learner s prior knowledge, if any, is left untapped. How is the gap between what is known (or unknown) and what the learner must be able to do as a result of instruction addressed? Do the students have the adequate schemas, information and tools to overcome this gap (Dick, 1991)? This frustration and other issues such as false starts and inefficiency, is cause for anxiety for many beginning PBL students (Kirschner et al., 2006). In a recognized report by Kirschner et al., the authors assert that minimally guided approaches such as PBL are ineffective because of the heavy demands on cognitive load. The authors contend that as long as the student s working memory is being used to search for a solution, it is unavailable to alter longterm memory by transfering new information to the existing knowledge base. In addition, essential elements in the problem structure, necessary basics, are often unidentified or overlooked in the analysis of the problem, making meaningful connections difficult at best (Kirschner et al., 2006).

Ineffective problem design is another critical issue that determines the success or failure of Problem Based Learning. Four important studies (Coulson Osborne, 1984; Dolmans et al.1993; O Neil, 2000; van Gessel, 2003) identified that only 62-64% of PBL students identified learning issues that corresponded with curricular objectives. This is stong evidence that a PBL approach can result in insufficient content coverage as well as being inefficient due to wasted time and effort (Hung et al., n.d.). Another criticism of Problem based learning claims that it s proponents fail to differentiate between epistomology and pedagogy. Is it a mistake to assume that a novice learning a discipline is equivalent to an expert practitioner? Walter Dick stresses that domains of knowledge and the domains of learning are quite different, a contention that Kirschner and others support (Dick, 1991) (Kirschner et al., 2006). The authors posit that the schemas possessed by the expert are the result of years of experience working in one s domain and learning in contrived authenticity is merely a pedigogical structure that falls short of the discipline in practice (Kirschner, 2006). Conclusion - Areas for Further research As it enters it s fourth decade of implementation, Problem based learning has proven itself as a viable intructional method, especially in medical and pre-professional education. Even so, the implementation of PBL in undergraduate and K-12 education has not been widely adopted (Ertmer, Simons, 2006). In undergraduate education, PBL is slowly gaining ground as universities such as Samford, Delaware, Southern Illinois and several universities in Europe and Australia initiate programs in various academic curricula. As we forge deeper into the information age, 21st century skills such as critical thinking, adaptability, creativity, technology literacy and collaboratiation are in high demand. Undergraduate and K-12 intitutions are

adopting PBL because of of it s demostrated ability to address aforementioned skills in realworld settings (Savery J. R., 2006). The implementation of PBL in K-12 public education proves to be a bit more complicated. Most state-funded schools are constrained by state mandated curriculum standards in addition to the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind. These mandates have reduced K-12 educators to employ instructional methods that teach broad, shallow, decontextualized content that will enable student to pass standardized tests. There is little, if any, room to engage students in problem solving activities. More research is needed to find ways to circumvent these contraints so that PBL can satisfy state, federal and 21st century objectives (Ertmer, Simons, 2006) (Savery J. R., 2006). Ertmer et al. recommend that teachers identify areas in the curriculum that that contain inherent problems and start small. In addition, the authors advocate the use of hard scaffolding in a K-12 PBL initiative in four important areas: initiating inquiry, managing student engagement, addressing student misconceptions and concept integration, and fostering reflective thinking (Ertmer, Simons, 2006). H. G. Schmidt confirms the need for further research into the use of scaffolds in PBL to support implementation and learner success at various levels and across disciplines (Schmidt et al., 2011). Pease and Kuhn and Hung et al. raise the important issue of human development in K-12 settings. In this context, it is important to recognize that students may not be cognitively ready to handle ill structured problems and self direction. Another area for consideration is the suitability of Problem based learning for students who are learning disabled or those who require more structure for learning success (Hung et al., n.d.) (Pease, Kuhn, 2010). Albanese and Mitchell advocate a hybrid PBL design that leverages the strengths of traditional and problem based instruction. This program begins with traditional, teacher directed instruction

for basic knowledge acquisition and gradually moves into a PBL format that increases in complexity as students become familiar with the process (Albanese, Mitchell, 1993). Another component of PBL that begs further research is the area of problem design. Since it is crucial that student generated learning issues correspond to specific course objectives, the complexity and structuredness of problems needs further research. Are all problems amenable to the PBL process or should the method be adapted according to the complexity or structuredness of individual problems (Hung et al., n.d.)? Jonassen has developed a typology of problems and has proposed that the design model used for solving a problem should correspond to its level of complexity (Jonassen, 2004). The 3C3R model, designed by Dr. Woei Hung needs further evaluation to measure it s reliability as a guide for the design of effective PBL problems. Because cognitive requirements differ from one type of problem to another, further research is necessary to assess whether the components of the 3C3R model can effectively address the dynamic nature of all problems (Hung, 2006). Finally, the increased growth of online learning warrants further research and investment in the implementation of collaborative online Problem based learning. Reeves et al. have published a report that identifies an urgent need for the development of pedagogy specific to the design and delivery of online collaborative learning. Herrington s latest research at Edith Cowan University in Australia, focuses on authentic activities in web- based learning environments. As the authors stated in their report, Not enough is known about the demands of online teaching on faculty and learners, nor do we understand the most effective alignments of educational objectives, content, subject matter expertise, instructional methods, technological affordances, and assessment strategies for online collaborative learning (Reeves , Herrington, Oliver, n.d.). Promising developments are

surfacing. COPS, (Collaborative Online Problem Solving) is an innovative project being conducted at the undergraduate level at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. COPS is designed to provide online problem based opportunities in which students examine problems, conduct research, experiment and reflect (Edwards, Watson, Farrell, Nash, 2007). Project Foundry ( is a web-based platform that manages project based learning by incorporating learning plans, teacher reflection, student research, assessments, daily tasks and portfolio compilation. The Project Foundry platform is currently being used by high schools in the U.S. and can be configured to align with state standards and all subject areas. The project embraces hands on learning that provide students real experiences and contextual application, we believe, paramount to becoming successful knowledge workers of the 21st century (Project Foundry). The rapid advances in technology have made it possible to access huge amounts of information and collaborate with colleagues across the world from the palm of our hands. As the 21st century forges onward, it is imperitive that today s learners be prepared to face unknown challenges. Critical thinking, flexibility, adaptablility and self-regulation are just some of the skills students will need to adequately face these challenges. It is time to raise the bar from instructional methods that cultivate a generation of shallow minded dot fillers, to those methods that will empower today s learners to think deeply, tackle problems and seek solutions.

Works Cited
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