Problem-based learning (PBL), as referred to in this summary of an article from The Teaching Professor, is characterized by the following elements:

  • PBL begins with a problem rather than with content
  • PBL presents messy problems to which there may be multiple solutions or multiple techniques for arriving at the solution
  • PBL is a learner-centered approach, not content-centered or instructor-centered
  • PBL challenges learners to become more active

The three most critical aspects of creating effective problems are the following:

  • Orientating the students

    • PBL can make students anxious since it is changing the rules of a game that students thought they understood. Your best students, having the most to lose, may prove to be the most anxious initially. Spending time explaining PBL may help students know what to expect. It may help to point out the following
    • Research shows that people learn better in groupsIn real life, many people work in groups or teams, so learning to work this way is good preparation for the work world Provide handouts in order to underline your main points.
    • Note: If the group work is not a significant part of students’ grade, they will experience less anxiety about it.
  • Picking the Problem

    • You need to develop a problem that is ill-structured, complex and ambiguous. The right kind of problem will make you uncomfortable because it is open-ended. A good problem mirrors real-life problems or has roots in current events.
    • Hint: Have students prepare a “scope statement” to identify what you are going to do, for whom, why and when.
  • Forming the team

    • If you want to create stable teams that function for all or most of the semester, you may want to use an intentional method of group formation. Although for some activities homogeneous groups work best, usually the best thing is to form heterogeneous groups.
    • Form heterogeneous groups based on some significant student characteristic such as level of content preparation or problem-solving preferences (use Basadur’s work to guide assessment of student reflection papers on problem-solving style). It is quicker and easier, however, to form random groups. Students can select from those around them or you can simply draw names from a hat.
  • Additional issues

    • Help teams learn to trouble-shoot interpersonal problems. Provide guidance to help students keep on track, but let them learn from their mistakes. Be willing to let students struggle. Remember that the important learning is not just the right answer—it is learning ways to get to right answers. Sometimes the best help is simply to ask a stuck group a well posed question to point them in the right direction
  • Words of warning!

    • PBL is not appropriate for every class. PBL is not a gimmick that can be used without thoughtful preparation. PBL will not make teaching easier, just more effective when done right.