Problem-based Learning

Problem-based Learning (PBL) involves challenging students by involving them in addressing genuine problems from their discipline. PBL is an ideal way for students to develop their knowledge by applying it to authentic situations. PBL is also used to develop students’ problem-solving capabilities.

Both well-defined and loosely-formed problems are used, with each offering a different learning opportunity depending on the learning context. For example, the development and testing of factual and procedural knowledge normally will require a more specific problem type to problems that are based more on developing conceptual or meta-cognitive knowledge.

Suggested room configurations

This is a typical room layout for sessions where students will be working in small groups, especially where knowledge is more open-ended. The tables create a reasonably sized work area for students to capture their discussions and communicate effectively. Whiteboards can be used for groups to write their ideas and flipchart paper can be stuck to the walls to help the students organise and present their work. The layout offers flexibility as the sizes of the groups can be adjusted to the requirements of the activity by increasing or decreasing the number of desks.

SCALE-UP rooms, while not as flexible as other layouts, are designed with PBL in mind and offer an alternative configuration based on students working in groups of three, six or nine. In SCALE UP the flexibility comes, not from the furniture, but from the nature of the problems themselves. Each group has access to a shared computer and dedicated whiteboards on which to work.

Potential supporting technology

The technologies that can be used to support PBL depend to some extent on the nature of the problem being investigated. However, tools such as Popplet and Padlet that assist in recording ideas and their relationships to each other are often useful, particularly if the activity is group-based rather than individual. Likewise, mind-mapping software can be an effective way to explore a topic, record ideas and develop strategies for tackling the problem.

For longer running PBL activities, rather than those that run in a single teaching session, tools to record and share progress are valuable as they allow group members to collaborate without duplicating effort and can serve as a record of the process followed in addressing the problem and the contributions of different group members.  Blogs, Social Bookmarking, and ePortfolios are all useful tools for this recording and sharing, and can be used with both group and individual activities. For longer-running group activities, a tool  that allows work to be assigned to individuals and progress tracked by all members, such as Trello, can be important for ensuring that work is divided equally and that all of the students are contributing appropriately.

A smartphone or tablet is also a useful tool for documenting the process of solving the problem.  Many students already or have access to these devices and the built-in camera and audio recorder  make them well-suited to capturing work from in-session activities and distributing them around a group or cohort.

Further Resources

Problem-based Learning: An Approach to Teaching and Learning