Dear Future Self: Beware (and Prepare) for Problem-Based Learning.

For today’s blog post, I wanted to talk about teaching through problem-based learning (PBL). Much of what I have read has emphasized that teaching in a PBL setting can be difficult, and is a skill that takes time to master. As a current PhD student with little in my teaching portfolio, it seemed like a bridge too far to write a post on how I would adopt a PBL strategy for a fictitious course that I might teach in the future. So, rather than doing that, my goal here is to just reflect on the approach and identify strengths and limitations of PBL. I hope that I will remember this post in 5-10 years, when I am in a place to implement this novel approach to teaching.

Problem-based learning is well described in this article from Stanford University. The authors write that in a course using the PBL approach, there is a focus on group-oriented work attempting to solve complex problems. Learning outcomes are to develop content knowledge comparable to a lecture-based course, but also other skills like problem-solving, reasoning, communication, and self-assessment skills. PBL’s can vary in course structure and format, and in the actual problems that are at the core of this approach. In the Stanford article, the authors discuss at length “ill-structured problems,” which they define as open-ended problems that have multiple solutions and require students to think critically to solve them.

The first piece of advice I will give my future self is to avoid these open-ended and evolving ill-structured problems and to replace them with tried and tested case studies. As outlined in this article from the University of Illinois’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, the ‘case method’ is a subset of PBL and uses participatory and discussion-based learning that focuses on critical thinking and communication in a group setting. While problem-based learning in general may be quite open-ended (and importantly, may require constant attention and modification by the instructor), using existing case studies that have been tried and tested provides a means of engaging students in the approach without having to reinvent the wheel. For example, The University of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching provides a number of excellent examples (link here).

Some strengths that I recognize with PBL’s (again from the University of Illinois article) are that the approach promotes “contextual learning and long-term retention.” I love to spin a good yarn and the use of stories and high-level engagement can create a scenario where deep learning is achieved. I have experienced that sort of learning mostly through field experiences, and I am really excited by the opportunity to provide that level of experience in the classroom. Doing so would eliminate the hurdles of getting folx into the field, and I think would help increase engagement and achievement of students. The other benefit that resonated with me was that PBLs provide students with the opportunity to “walk around the problem” and to see varied perspectives. I really value inter- and multidisciplinarity, and giving students the opportunity to learn from their peer’s diverse viewpoints is quite appealing.

A major challenge that I see with case-based approaches is that finding appropriate means to assess successful learning can be difficult. For instance, a multiple-choice test is not able to assess the critical thinking that is perhaps the primary learning outcome from these approaches. And to write (and grade) thoughtful exams is a serious commitment. Another concern was raised as I read an article, Grappling with Real-World Problems, which discussed PBLs at a public charter school in Washington DC. The authors discussed how first grade students were exposed to PBL by roaming school fields to look at spiders. The goal was to work as a group to try and reduce people’s fear of spiders by leveraging their own experiences with them. Though the learning outcomes may be profound for these students, trying to wrangle 20 or more 6-year-olds can be nearly impossible (my spouse was an elementary educator for 8 years and can vouch). Regardless of the level (K-12, undergraduate, graduate education) at which PBLs are applied, this approach will require additional levels of supervision, and a single mentor, teacher, or moderator is unlikely to be enough. My last piece of advice to future Sam is to go in eyes wide open, and to recognize the level of faculty or TA support needed for these approaches to succeed. To go it alone seems like an ill-structured problem itself, and is likely to let down both the instructor and their students.

3 Replies to “Dear Future Self: Beware (and Prepare) for Problem-Based Learning.”

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective to your future self on PBLs. I agree that PBLs require additional preparation, planning, and supervision. I wonder if using a collaborative approach with the implementation of PBL would provide increased manageability? I know I enjoy collaborating with others and have found the expertise and knowledge of others in the creation and development of a PBL can take it to the next level. Similar to the Murzi et al. research study, the collaboration from the university to the industry enriched the learning experience. Collaborating to create and implement a PBL can make learning meaningful and manageable for all involved. Teamwork makes the dream work!

  2. This was an interesting post and I especially agreed with your discussion of the difficulty of assessment in relation to problem based learning. If the learning outcomes which are desired are intangible and heterogeneous, how does the instructor know that the class activity has succeeded? Even if problem based learning is a better fit for the challenges of the real world, will the instructor succeed in communicating specific content that is needed to succeed in higher level classes in technical/scientific disciplines? I don’t think a single instructor can transform the entire culture of education at their institution, nor should they be expected to. If an entire department made a collaborative decision to implement these processes, there may be more success in getting this to work. In many of the problem based science courses that I have taken, however, the assessment was very traditional, and this approach could end up putting a lot of the burden of learning on the student.

  3. Assessment in PBL-centered classes is controversial enough to be a field of its own. Unfortunately, the current education system conditions students to disproportionately value heavily-weighted assignments and shelve the rest because they’re not “as important.” Obviously, a PBL class doesn’t really have traditional assignments, so it seems logical to grade the students based on successful completion of the project (or at least the attempt). But that opens up another can of worms due to its subjectivity…which is in line with the subjective and ill-defined nature of PBL. The “best” grading scheme is “one which is catered specifically to the class,” but that’s vague and doesn’t help the instructor establish the class. I would be interested to see what others have written on assessment in PBL.

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