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.

Metacognitive Strategies That Work

Metacognition is a key skill for success in learning. Critical thinking and problem solving rely heavily on advanced metacognition, as does information literacy.

So, what is metacognition? You might have heard it described as “thinking about thinking.” Metacognition is a keen self-awareness about one’s thinking, evident in the ability to self-monitor AND regulate one’s cognitive processes. So it’s more than just “thinking about thinking.” Metacognition requires action or self-correction about thinking too (self-regulated learning). To some extent this process develops naturally as we mature. But maturation can only take metacognitive development so far. That’s where good metacognitive strategies come in.

Good metacognitive strategies make thinking visible–both expert thinking and student thinking.  Here are some metacognitive strategies that work, with tools that can enhance those strategies:

Think Aloud Method

I have discussed the think aloud method in other posts (here and here). This is one of my favorites because it models expert thinking about something (e.g., source evaluation, search strategies), which is probably the single most important first step in helping students develop the metacognitive skills needed to successfully solve problems within a specific domain. For information literacy instruction, the think aloud method gives students expert insight into ways of thinking and interacting with information. Students are then given the opportunity to practice those “ways of thinking” on their own with librarian guidance.

No tools are needed for face-to-face instruction with this strategy, though Think Sheets might be useful for students as they practice the skills on their own. For online learning, librarians can demonstrate the think aloud with screencasts or screenshots. Students can do the same.

Knowledge Surveys

Knowledge surveys are a great way to get students thinking about what they know and what they don’t know at the beginning of an instructional session. Survey questions are scenario-based (what would you do or what do you think you should do) and responses can be open-ended or multiple choice in format. Student response systems (clickers) can be used to deliver knowledge surveys. Discussion immediately following the survey questions(s) gives students insight into their areas of weakness and competence.

Scaffolded Discussion

Discussion (sharing thoughts) is vitally important for the development of metacognitive skills. But, participating in a discussion in itself is a skill that many students need to learn. Scafffolded discussion that uses guiding questions, or that provides students with tips for creating their own questions, not only enhances the development of metacognitive thinking, it’s a very practical approach as well–after all, most college courses use discussion as a central learning activity.

Guided Feedback

Learning requires feedback. Guided feedback has been shown to be an effective metacognitive strategy (it’s a lot like scaffolding). In guided feedback, students receive explanations about the quality of their actions within a learning activity. For example, in the classroom, an instructor might provide oral feedback during an inquiry-based learning activity. In an online course, students might receive annotated feedback or even feedback in the form of a screencast or podcast. Guided feedback can be especially useful for the process of writing research papers. Providing feedback during that process (by chunking up activities) results in better learning.


Self-reflection can help students identify and correct problem areas in their learning. However, good self-reflection is a metacognitive skill, which means that self-reflection alone can be meaningless to students unless they know HOW to self reflect. As an adjunct to more direct approaches (think aloud) and with adequate feedback, students can learn how to use self-reflection as an effective tool. Surveys can be used as self-reflection tools, as can student response systems.