A teaching style that encourages learners to solve sticky problems

Several research findings provide evidence to support claims about the positive effects of PBL on cognitive skill development and knowledge retention. [iStockphoto]

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centred instructional approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem. It provides learners with opportunities to identify solutions to ill-structured, real-world problems. Several research findings provide evidence to support claims about the positive effects of PBL on cognitive skill development and knowledge retention. This problem is what drives the motivation and the learning in a classroom. To encourage students to develop flexible knowledge and effective problem-solving skills, we must embed learning in contexts that require the use of these skills.

Studies suggest PBL improves long-term knowledge retention, problem-solving skills, analytical and reasoning skills, interpersonal skills, self-directed learning skills, and attitudes towards the course subject. There is also considerable evidence in the literature supporting claims that PBL helps students develop flexible knowledge, effective problem-solving skills, and self-directed learning skills.

Problem-based learning is seen as a set of approaches under the broader category of Enquiry-based Learning. One of the main defining characteristics of Problem-based Learning, which distinguishes it from some other forms of Enquiry-based Learning, is that the problem is presented to the students first at the start of the learning process, before other curriculum inputs. Another defining characteristic of PBL is that in PBL tutorials, students define their own learning issues, what they need to research and learn to work on the problem and are responsible themselves for searching appropriate sources of information.

Why is PBL important?

The positive impacts of PBL range widely. First, PBL allows the learner to take an active role in his/her education, encourages concept application, and provides intellectual growth through strategic decision making. Specifically, PBL holds students accountable for their own learning and the learning of the classmates, allows students to explore more than one right answer, and encourages students to use learned knowledge to arrive at a solution. Second, PBL can enrich students’ learning outcomes, which will better prepare them for the work environment. When knowledge is deficient, PBL encourages students to identify the missing information that must be utilised to complete their task. As such, PBL requires active engagement of material rather than regurgitation of lectured concepts. Third, PBL provides tools necessary to handle future challenges. In contrast to traditional lecture-based learning, which requires students to demonstrate understanding by replicating materials provided by the faculty member on exams, PBL has been found to be a better instructional pedagogy to “bridge the gap between theory and practice”. Due to its well-known benefits, PBL has been successfully employed in a wide variety of disciplines including business education, medical education, social work education, health education, and engineering education.

 Research on PBL

Let’s take a look at a study done here in Kenya on the effects of PBL on secondary students’ agriculture achievement in Ndhiwa Sub County, Homa Bay County. Scholars Peter Oyier Ogweno of Egerton University, Prof Nephat J. Kathuri of Kenya Methodist University, and D  Agnes O. Nkurumwa of Egerton University, sought to compare the effects of PBL method and Demonstration Teaching Method (DTM) on achievement of students in agriculture subject.

The target population were 7, 124 students taking agriculture and 52 teachers of agriculture. Accessible population were Form Two Students and 12 schools. Both stratified random sampling and purposive sampling methods were used to obtain a sample size of 575 students and 12 teachers of agriculture. Six schools used Problem Based Learning as treatment, while the other six schools were taught through Demonstration teaching method. Pre-test was administered to PBL and DTM groups before teaching the students and a post-test was also administered to both groups at the end of six weeks of study

Students who were exposed to PBL achieved better results with a mean of 57.475 as compared to the mean score achieved under demonstration teaching method (48.4). The calculated mean difference between PBL and DTM was 9.075. However, the difference between pre-test and post-test mean scores under PBL was 27.475, while, the difference in mean scores between pre-test and post-test under demonstration teaching method was 18.4. This implies that PBL had the highest effect on students’ academic achievement compared to demonstration method.

Therefore, teaching through PBL produced better mean score when compared to teaching using demonstration method. This implies that PBL is superior teaching method because it has produced higher students’ learning outcomes as compared to demonstration teaching method. The success of PBL use is mainly linked to very close and useful interactions of students in PBL classrooms. Learning through interactions in sharing and discussing learning issues in small groups motivates most of the students, especially after gathering information through independent study.

The researchers reiterated that students taught through PBL acquire skills that are useful in actual life situations. Other studies testing the effectiveness of PBL method across the globe also confirmed that PBL has far reaching benefits to students, therefore, this has made students in PBL classes to consistently perform better than students taught through other teaching methods.

 Getting started with PBL

When starting to design a PBL initiative, it is very important to be aware of the research evidence about success factors in PBL implementation and to plan with this awareness in mind. In addition to gathering information about PBL generally and about PBL in a specific discipline, there is a range of effective strategies for starting a PBL initiative. These include attending PBL staff development workshops in your own institution or a major PBL university.

Visiting a university that is implementing PBL and listening to the perspectives of academics and students can be very helpful. Working with an internal/external PBL consultant to design, implement and continuously evaluate a PBL initiative is another effective strategy. Framing the PBL initiative as a major action –research project or having a research project linked to the PBL initiative are ways of combining teaching and research.

What approach should teachers employ? A 2001 research study titled ‘The Power of Problem-Based Learning’ conducted by Deborah Allen and B. J. Duch, scholars at the University of Delaware, provided written guidelines for a class centred approach around the method.

Choose a central idea, concept, or principle that is always taught in a given course, and then think of a typical end-of-chapter problem, assignment, or homework that is usually assigned to students to help them learn that concept. List the learning objectives that students should meet when they work through the problem.

Think of a real-world context for the concept under consideration. Develop a storytelling aspect to an end-of-chapter problem, or research an actual case that can be adapted, adding some motivation for students to solve the problem. More complex problems will challenge students to go beyond simple plug-and-chug to solve it. Look at magazines, newspapers, and articles for ideas on the story line. Some PBL practitioners talk to professionals in the field, searching for ideas of realistic applications of the concept being taught.

The problem needs to be introduced in stages so that students will be able to identify learning issues that will lead them to research the targeted concepts.

Write a teacher’s guide detailing the instructional plans on using the problem in the course. If the course is a medium- to large-size class, a combination of mini-lectures, whole-class discussions, and small group work with regular reporting may be necessary. The teacher’s guide can indicate plans or options for cycling through the pages of the problem interspersing the various modes of learning.

The final step is to identify key resources for students. Students need to learn to identify and utilise learning resources on their own, but it can be helpful if the instructor indicates a few good sources to get them started. Many students will want to limit their research to the Internet, so it will be important to guide them toward the library as well.

PBL is a pedagogical technique that situates learning in complex problem-solving contexts. It provides students with opportunities to consider how the facts they acquire relate to a specific problem at hand. It obliges them to ask what they need to know. PBL offers the potential to help students become reflective and flexible thinkers who can use knowledge to take action.