# Problem-Based Learning

by handsomecat
Tags: learning, problembased
 HW Helper PF Gold P: 2,823 handsomecat, I once developed and scrounged for Introductory Algebra ideas for group & pair exercise problems for linear equations. Internet would not be needed - just pencils, straight edge or rulers, graph paper, and maybe a calculator. Each group would be given a brief , exact description on paper and would then do some activity, either to make a graph and determine some values, or use a graph to give conclusionary information. I never actually had enough opportunity to try the ideas in practice, but maybe others would.
 Emeritus Sci Advisor PF Gold P: 6,236 I have a question concerning what you guys consider PBL. As far as I understand, genuine PBL is based upon the axiom that by solving, or struggling to solve, problems you didn't get the tools for, you'll invent them yourself, and you will integrate them much better than if someone explained the concepts to you. This is like confronting, say, students who only have algebra knowledge, and never had any calculus, with a problem where you need to calculate a derivative or an integral or something, and then let them struggle until they find a way out (and re-invent, or document themselves, or whatever) calculus. So they should then surf on the web, visit the library, do whatever is needed to solve their problem, and at the end of the day, they've learned some calculus. Is that what is PBL for you ?
P: 70
 Quote by vanesch I have a question concerning what you guys consider PBL. As far as I understand, genuine PBL is based upon the axiom that by solving, or struggling to solve, problems you didn't get the tools for, you'll invent them yourself, and you will integrate them much better than if someone explained the concepts to you. This is like confronting, say, students who only have algebra knowledge, and never had any calculus, with a problem where you need to calculate a derivative or an integral or something, and then let them struggle until they find a way out (and re-invent, or document themselves, or whatever) calculus. So they should then surf on the web, visit the library, do whatever is needed to solve their problem, and at the end of the day, they've learned some calculus. Is that what is PBL for you ?
Well PBL is based on the idea that students need to construct their own knowledge and find their own meanings for them. So yes, this is vastly suitable for subjects like engineering due to the problem-solving nature of the subject, and the humanities due to the diversity of ideas possible, but I'm not sure how it is applicable to maths and calculus.
Emeritus
PF Gold
P: 6,236
 Quote by handsomecat Well PBL is based on the idea that students need to construct their own knowledge and find their own meanings for them. So yes, this is vastly suitable for subjects like engineering due to the problem-solving nature of the subject, and the humanities due to the diversity of ideas possible, but I'm not sure how it is applicable to maths and calculus.
Well, there's a difference between case studies to put into practice the theoretical basis you've learned already and to devellop problem solving skills, and struggle with case studies to derive, on your own, the theoretical basis. The former is like doing a research project or a PhD (which is nothing else but PBL in your area of application), while the latter is, well...
Even in engineering, I have a hard time thinking that one would learn, say, electromagnetism on one's own by fiddling around whole day in the lab with apparatus that you don't even know how to use.

In fact, my wife is studying this as part of her PhD (that's how I got interested in this stuff). In France, since about 10 years or so, classical languages are taught this way: not much vocabulary or grammar, but just the original text and a translation in juxtaposition. And from that, the student has to "learn how to translate", or even better "learns how to read the original". It is a complete disaster, and part of her work is the analysis of that disaster. An experiment has been performed where one has compared the performances of students who never had any exposition to Latin courses with those who had courses for 4 years, and the result was that both groups performed almost identically on the tests

So in as much as one can learn skills this way, I wonder how much you can gain structured knowledge, purely based upon PBL. It's entirely different if you already have (more or less) the theoretical basis to solve the problem.
Emeritus
PF Gold
P: 12,270
 Quote by vanesch So in as much as one can learn skills this way, I wonder how much you can gain structured knowledge, purely based upon PBL. It's entirely different if you already have (more or less) the theoretical basis to solve the problem.
In our program, all of the PBL classes have facilitators to help focus and guide discussion. So, the students aren't entirely on their own. Still, the key to getting it to work well for them is 1) to have well-crafted cases that will lead them toward questions they should be asking, and 2) having good facilitators who only keep them from going astray and resist the urge to interrupt and give a lecture, and 3) cases that supplement the formal lecture courses, so they have some fundamentals going into the class.

However, there are programs that really leave the students on their own. The only reason they work for those students is that the faculty are driven mad with each and every group coming to them separately, asking questions and seeking guidance, rather than just giving one lecture to all of them on the topic. So, I think it's a myth that they really are learning without lectures, it's just individual lectures given over and over and just increasing faculty time rather than helping reduce the time the faculty need to put into the course.
P: 21,871
 Quote by handsomecat Well PBL is based on the idea that students need to construct their own knowledge and find their own meanings for them. So yes, this is vastly suitable for subjects like engineering due to the problem-solving nature of the subject, and the humanities due to the diversity of ideas possible, but I'm not sure how it is applicable to maths and calculus.
Ummm - much of engineering is math and calculus, so how would PBL be suitable to engineering, but not to math and calculus.

With regard to concepts like convective heat transfer and turbulence, and many other aspects of engineering, I'm not sure how one would turn a student loose without some lecture on the basic physics, which is also heavily involved in math and calculus.

Most of my course work was lecture based, with problems. The problems were pretty intensive and we often worked in groups to work a problem out. Often one had to extrapolate from the theoretical to applied in order to work a problem. It was rarely, plug and chug - especially when it came to design and analysis.
Emeritus
PF Gold
P: 12,270
 Quote by Astronuc Ummm - much of engineering is math and calculus, so how would PBL be suitable to engineering, but not to math and calculus.
I think what he's suggesting is that students would get the lectures on math/calculus, and then PBL would be used for applying it to engineering problems.

But your question also gets at the point Vanesch brings up, which is that in a true PBL-setting, where do we expect the students to acquire the knowledge?

There are a lot of faculty who like to just jump in and use the newest teaching methods just for the sake of looking innovative, and don't really consider if they work, and if they would work for the particular group of students they have and the course objectives.

At least one advantage I see of TBL over PBL is that in TBL, the questions students need to be able to answer are given to them, so they have at least that much structure in identifying topics to study. In PBL, it is entirely student-directed learning, and there's really no check that they are getting the information they need.

My view on PBL is that it is a really nice supplement to a curriculum where students can practice their critical thinking and communication skills, learn to work on a team, and learn to apply what they've learned in their classes. When I say curriculum, I don't mean for a single course, I mean in the context of all the courses one is required to take for a particular major or degree. For example, our medical students still have standard course lectures on physiology, biochemistry, histology, anatomy, pharmacology, microbiology, etc., and PBL is just one extra course that gives them some practice applying all these topics together and understanding the conceptual relationships among them for the practice of medicine. I would NOT want these cases to be their only source of information for learning biochemistry, physiology, histology, etc.

I also think that PBL would be an excellent tool in a graduate program curriculum. When the goal of graduate school is no longer information-based education, but really rounding off their development of self-directed learning and learning how to research topics on their own, and where the specific knowledge the get out of a course isn't terribly important, as long as they are learning SOME topic in great depth, then this could be very useful.
 Admin P: 21,871 PBL is a new term to me. I taught by lecture and problem assignments, which is pretty much the way I was taught. I guess one has to look at the entire picture, starting in K or 1st grade. In primary education (1-6), it's pretty much lecture and doing activities, and it's mixed subjects (3R's + humanities + science) with one teacher. Starting in grade 7 (or middle school/junior high school) the classes become specialized/differentiated and each teacher teaches a particular subject. The learning there is based on the foundation of knowledge from earlier grades. Presumably, the upper level university classes are built on the foundation of the lower level classes. In engineering or even advanced phsyics, I'm not sure how a strictly PBL approach would work. What's TBL, btw? Textbook?
HW Helper
PF Gold
P: 2,823
Some commentary from Astronuc:
 PBL is a new term to me. I taught by lecture and problem assignments, which is pretty much the way I was taught. ....
An example of PBL (problem based learning) would help to understand what it is/can be.

Students in a science course can pick an activity (or problem) from a list, and find out how to solve or design to satisfy that listed description. The student may need some procedural guidance but the work must be the student's. Some library search may be needed. Or as possible, a Microbiology student may be given the task, "collect some microbes from the environment, cultivate them, and identify and characterize two of them (the student would need to use their instructed, learned course skills to do this).

An students in an organic chemistry class may be given any of individual synthesis projects, randomly from a set; each student picks a compound as is then expected to do a literature search for methods to synthesize and then to try synthesizing the compound, and then extract or purify, and analyze his results. He may find more than one of a set of somewhat similar variations or alternate variations of literature articles describing how to synthesize the chosen target, but the student must make his best choices according to what may be available for his laboratory.

A computer science course (maybe even a beginning course) may later in the semester, make a list of possible project ideas (problems, actually) for students to choose and solve/write programs for. These would be much longer programs than the typical course exercises used in chapter assignments or lab section activities. Instead of writing a program focusing on just two or three new concepts and using some other learned concepts and going up to maybe 200-250 lines of code, the project would require maybe two weeks and go up to maybe 1200-2000 lines of code, and the problem description is more detailed than a typical course chapter exercise. Also, student would recieve no guidance (even may need to relearn already studied material).

One point of possible misunderstanding: Is PBL a mode of instruction for an entire course? If so, I find this possibly a little troubling. Maybe other viewpoints are needed.
 HW Helper PF Gold P: 2,823 ... in fact, maybe I have most of the concept but PBL is really applied to the WHOLE course. Is this true?
Emeritus
PF Gold
P: 12,270
 Quote by symbolipoint One point of possible misunderstanding: Is PBL a mode of instruction for an entire course? If so, I find this possibly a little troubling. Maybe other viewpoints are needed.
Yes, PBL would be for an entire course. I don't think what you describe would be considered PBL. What you described are more independent research projects.

An example of how we use it. The med students are given a case that spans three weeks, with them receiving another part of it each week. They are basically presented with a fictitious patient's medical records. The first week usually starts out with a patient history, description of symptoms/presentation, and some basic lab test results. The students are then challenged to start diagnosing the patient. BUT, it goes beyond this (sometimes we even give them the diagnosis in week one). They also need to formulate, as a group, a set of learning objectives about the basic science issues they need to learn to understand HOW the symptoms relate to the illness. So, for example, if the case tells them a patient has X illness and is put on Y medication, they need to go find out the pathophysiology of illness X all the way down to the biochemical mechanisms, how it affects other organ systems aside from the one directly addressed in the initial presentation of symptoms, and the mechanisms of action of drug Y for treating that illness.

By the time they are done with three weeks of work, they develop a concept map, and basically find out they've learned the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, histology and pharmacology related to an entire organ system....or, sometimes they learn that they have a LOT of missing information they didn't learn that they should have.

There are med schools that use this entirely as their basis of instruction and offer NO lectures at all.

Astronuc, TBL means team-based learning. There is another thread on that. It's more formal, includes things like pre- and post-tests, and students don't have to come up with their own questions, but work as a team to find answers to pre-assigned questions. With PBL, the group works in isolation from any other groups. In TBL, the groups work together, but then share answers with the larger class so all can benefit from the cooperative effort. I think TBL is more suited for the less mature learner (and by mature, I don't mean behaviorally or age-wise, but in terms of experience and background). PBL, in my opinion, is best suited for the more mature/advanced learner.

The problem I have with most of the literature on these teaching methods is that they are poorly controlled. For example, as a measure of outcome, they might use passing rates on board exams. However, the comparison is made between historical passing rates from previous classes, and then current passing rates with classes converted to PBL. There is no way to know if OTHER factors have influenced those passing rates, such as changes in admissions criteria, differences in undergraduate curricula of those admitted, students being threatened by the dean that previous classes haven't done well and that they need to study harder for board exams, differences in board exams over the years, etc. It could even be like the course I'm teaching, in which previous instructors have been, to say the least, horrendously boring and confusing, and new instructors come in and ANYTHING could be better for improving their outcomes. This is why I'm trying to build in some controls with my approaches discussed in the TBL thread, such as only using it in some, but not all lectures, so I can compare differences in content learned when I lecture ONLY vs when I lecture and then add on TBL learning. I'm also attempting to collect survey data AFTER the course ends that includes a brief test of course content to find out if student retain the information better, which is really the true goal any instructor should have.

 Related Discussions Academic Guidance 26 Academic Guidance 13 Educators & Teaching 2 General Math 2 General Discussion 6