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.


The Art of Implementing Instruction

Designing instruction and teaching are both an art and a science. The science part informs pedagogy and practice. But even when using best practices, instruction can fail miserably. Why? That’s where the art part comes in.

Implementing instruction, whether through teaching face-to-face or through some form of distance learning, requires more than just a checklist of ‘what should be included.’ It’s an art form that relies on creative thinking. And problem solving. And empathy. And experience.

So while the learning sciences serves as a great foundation for great teaching and learning, the art of  implementing instruction is much more difficult to achieve. That’s why it takes so long to become an instructional expert (some say 10,000 hours).

How do you know if you are implementing instruction successfully? Consider the following:

Your learners’ needs are being met.

  • What equipment will your learners need to meet the learning objectives?
  • Will the concepts be introduced at the appropriate learning level? Let’s say you are teaching freshmen to evaluate resources. Are you using content that is appropriate for their reading level(s)? For example, using scholarly articles written at a higher reading level than your students are capable of comprehending will not meet their learning needs.
  • Do any of your students have special needs that might impact your ability to provide instruction to them?

Instructional strategies match learning content.

  • Are you teaching thinking skills or procedural skills?
    • Thinking skills (generally, higher order learning) require instructional strategies that foster metacognitive awareness, such as modeling, reciprocal teaching, discussion, or think-pair-share.
    • Procedural skills require instructional strategies that allow students to practice and master those skills hands-on.

Students are engaged.

  • Student engagement should not be equated with entertainment. Being entertained is no guarantee of learning.
  • Engagement can mean:
    • piquing students’ curiosity
    • getting students to think outside the box
    • challenging students within their zone of proximal development
    • ensuring students recognize the relevancy of what they are learning
    • basing instruction around unique themes
    • using off-the-wall examples

Students show learning progress.

  • How do you know your students are learning?
  • Are you using formative assessment techniques?
    • clickers or polling
    • quizzes
    • discussion
    • informal observation
  • How are you measuring long-term learning? What summative assessment techniques are you using?
      • rubrics
      • research papers or projects
      • tests
      • portfolios

The purpose of these indicators is to get you reflecting on your own instructional practices. To become a master of the art of implementing instruction takes practice, time, creative thinking and most importantly, great mentorship!