Problem-Based Learning (The Other PBL)

What is PBL?

PBL is a constructivist approach to learning that assumes the following:

  • knowledge is constructed (not transmitted)
  • knowledge is socially co-constructed through multiple perspectives (subjective rather than objective)
  • knowledge practices are sociocultural in nature
  • knowledge is contextually-based

Here’s a great explanation from Dr. Peggy Ertmer at Purdue University:

You can find articles from the journal Dr. Ertmer mentions here.

Further reading on PBL.

What is the difference between problem-based and project-based learning?

  1. PBL is at the pedagogical root of good project-based learning, which:.
  • is centered around “driving questions” (similar to the essential questions of Understanding by Design, a problem-based approach to curriculum design)
  • is based on a real-life problem (contextual)
  • supports higher order thinking skills
  • is student-centered
  • requires sustained inquiry from multiple sources

See Project Design Rubric from BIE.

2. Good project-based learning is problem-focused. However, PBL does not have to be project-focused. That means that PBL has the flexibility to be implemented in a shorter period of time (e.g., a single lesson), whereas project-based learning tends to require a longer time frame.

  • Examples of PBL activities that are NOT project-focused:
    • WebQuests
    • game-based learning (complex games)
    • science experiments (classroom lab)

Why is it important to understand PBL?

Because PBL is the driving pedagogy behind good project-based learning, it is essential to understand what PBL is. Without that understanding, project-based learning design can easily become an exercise in knowledge application rather than knowledge construction, thus missing the boat on higher order thinking skills.

For librarians, PBL approaches can make the one-shot session more student-centered and focused on deeper learning. And the well-designed research assignment is an example of project-based learning rooted in the pedagogy of PBL.


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