Blogging My Research: A Definition of Problem-Based Learning

In my last post, I announced that I’ll be blogging my research for an upcoming conference presentation. My goals in doing this are two-fold. One, blogging my research will keep me accountable, and two, posting about what I’m reading and why it’s noteworthy might be of interest to others. As I explained in last week’s post, I’m committed to public scholarship, and this series gives me a way to honor that pledge

What I’m not doing in this series, mind you, is blogging my conference papers! In each post, I digest and react to the material I’m reading, but informally. This means I’ll cite my sources and occasionally quote from them, but I won’t follow the standard organizing conventions of academic writing.

Posts at the beginning of this series will deal with texts and issues related to my first conference presentation of the academic year, “Putting Social Media to Work: Twitter, Problem-Based Learning, and Business Writing.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Magnus A

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Magnus A

In “Putting Social Media to Work,” I outline a problem-based learning activity in which business writing students use twitter and other social media to construct a professional persona to aid them in the job search. This activity is part of a capstone project that asks students to at once synthesize and extend the business writing and communication skills they’ve developed throughout the semester. More broadly, though, this project demonstrates, in concrete terms, the relevance of digital writing to students’ professional lives. Furthermore, as a problem-based learning activity, the capstone project enables students to identify the specific ways that digital writing and social media will be a part of their lives as business people.

It would make sense in this first, official post of the series to start at the beginning: what is problem-based learning? After all, I’m presenting “Putting Social Media to Work” as part of a panel titled “The Promises and Pitfalls of Problem-Based Learning.”

In defining problem-based learning, I focus on these  questions:

  • What does “classic” problem-based learning (PBL) involve, and how is it different from traditional classroom instruction?
  • How does PBL benefit students?
  • What are some drawbacks of classic PBL?
  • Where did PBL originate?

Some thoughts, after the jump.

What is “classic” PBL?
In PBL scenarios, students are assembled into teams and then are confronted with a “problem.” The problem, in the classic model, as termed by Maggi Savin-Badin and Claire Howell Major, must be complex enough to have a number of potential solutions. The problem also should be realistic, if not “authentic” (Savin-Badin and Major 69).

For instance, a PBL problem in an emergency medicine course might look like this, according to the article, “A problem-based learning resource in emergency medicine for medical students”:

CASE ONE (from section 13: Diabetic emergencies)
Ben, aged 20, is playing football. He is a known diabetic, taking twice daily insulin Last night he had a “big” night with his mates and got quite drunk. Today’s game is tougher than he expected. At half time Ben feels tired, but puts it down to the game and last night’s beer! About ten minutes into the second half his team mates notice that Ben seems to have lost concentration. Five minutes later he begins to stagger and falls to the ground.

  • What is the most likely cause of Ben’s collapse?
  • List at least three factors that may have contributed to the development of this condition.
  • What are the clinical signs of hypoglycaemia? How are they modified by beta blocker therapy?
  • Outline your management of Ben (short term for this episode and for prevention of similar episodes in the future).

Once confronted with the assigned problem, students identify their collective knowledge base—what do they already know that would help them solve the problem? Thus, while the problem should be “complex” and challenging, it shouldn’t be so difficult that students’ prior knowledge is rendered useless. Next, after taking into account what they already know, students determine what they need to learn in order to resolve the problem (Savin-Baden and Major 4).

The teacher guides students through this process, and so he or she acts more as a facilitator, coach, or tutor. In the PBL literature I’ve surveyed, he or she goes by one of these terms as opposed to the title of “instructor.”

Collaboration among students is a key element of PBL, so student work often is evaluated or graded as a singular product. What solution did the team come up with, and importantly, how did they reach this conclusion (Savin-Baden and Major 121)? Still, as Savin-Baden and Major note, it is still possible, and in some cases, necessary, to also evaluate students’ individual contributions.

How does PBL differ from traditional instruction and other learning activities?
PBL turns the traditional model of instruction on its head. Whereas the regular-classroom teacher disseminates knowledge, the PBL facilitator creates conditions that enable students to seek out learning opportunities (Savin-Baden and Major 7). The implications of these distinctions are significant. PBL “pays due respect to both students and teacher as persons with knowledge,….feelings, and interest,” but the traditional educational model tends to “conceive of education as a largely one-process” that moves from “knowledgeable teacher to ignorant student” (Margetson 38).

Just because an activity or approach to learning rejects the traditional instructional model doesn’t mean it can be termed “PBL.” PBL, in other words, is a kind of active learning, but not all forms of active learning can be classified as PBL.

How does PBL benefit students?
PBL anchors knowledge by making it meaningful to students’ lives as professionals and individuals in a globalized, changing world

For one, PBL helps students to transform their classroom knowledge—that “learned in academe”—with knowledge needed in the workplace (Savin-Baden and Major 13). Don Margetson restates this idea in less vocational terms and explains that PBL encourages a “much greater integration of knowing that with knowing how” (38, emphasis in original).

But PBL doesn’t just help students apply knowledge; it helps them “utilize their previous knowledge and… and construct it into a new form that is understandable and meaningful to them” (Savin-Baden and Major 25). PBL is a form of self-directed learning, and proponents of this kind of educational strategy believe that the greater a person’s stake or interest in the material, the more likely he or she is able to learn—and excel. This is something I’ve experienced first-hand in my first-year composition courses.

The ability to transform theory into praxis and direct one’s learning are vital processes of life-long learning. PBL encourages self-enrichment beyond the college years. It teaches students how to learn, and therefore, how to acquire new knowledge and skills when the situation requires it. In a slightly different way, PBL helps students transport and adapt knowledge/skills from one context (or job situation) to another.  

What are some drawbacks of classic PBL?
Crafting the (Right) Problem
Savin-Baden and Major note that when PBL problems are not take from “real life,” students could lose interest because they likely will sense that “they are being manipulated into learning rather than stimulated to explore their own agendas” (69). While this insistence on authenticity is important, I wonder whether problems must be from “real life” or rather simply “true-to-life.” Moreover, does the degree of authenticity vary depending on the subject students are studying?

Assessing of Student Work
Grading the product and process of PBL is a delicate balancing act. How much weight should be given to the process versus the product? Should the team’s grade carry more weight than the individual’s grade, if the each team member should be evaluated individually at all?

Encountering Student Resistance
Putting students and teachers on the same plane—at least in theory—can feel uncomfortable and even threatening to students, as Margetson points out. In the era of state-mandated testing, students are rewarded for being passive listeners and regurgitating facts and figures. Students also are rewarded for “compet[ing] with peers [as opposed to] collaborat[ing]…with them” (Savin-Baden and Major 82). However, as I’ve observed, students feel uncomfortable—and downright frustrated—with group work for other reasons, particularly when a “team grade” is assigned. It’s worrisome to think that someone else’s work—or lack thereof—negatively will affect one’s grade.

Changing the Meaning of Learning, but for the Better?
David Bord and Grahame Feletti note that PBL, when conceived of as a learning philosophy, risks negatively shaping how students think of learning in the college setting. They reason that if a course or program hinges too much on PBL, then students might “equate learning solely with its practical or instrumental value” (Bord and Feletti 9). After all, the benefits of learning for learning’s sake—the ideals at the heart of a classical liberal education—often fall on deaf ears; PBL-heavy curricula might make the pleasures and importance of learning for the sake of learning even harder to discern.

Where did PBL originate?
PBL has strong historical ties to medical education, particularly in the Americas. Consensus indicates that PBL has its roots in work by Howard Barrows and Robyn Tamblyn at McMaster Medical School in Canada. In 1976, the duo published a paper, “An evaluation of problem-based learning in small groups utilizing a simulated patient,” in the Journal of Medical Education. A few years later, in 1980, they published subsequent research in the book-length study, Problem-Based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education.

Though Barrows and Tamblyn are credited with beginning the PBL movement, Bord and Feletti note that elements of the McMaster program appeared some thirty years earlier at Case Western Reserve University in the U.S. (3). Further cementing PBL’s early connection to medical training can been seen in Harvard Medical School’s mid-1980s redesign of its curriculum, which featured “problem-based learning in tutorial groups as its central education approach” (Moore 73).


So, where to next in this series?

In the second post of this series I’ll discuss how PBL in its initial, classical form has transformed since its inception. What, for instance, does PBL look like outside of its original locus in medical education and the sciences? I also will look at how PBL is being used in the composition and rhetoric classroom as well as business writing/communication.

Works Cited and Consulted

Amador, Jose, Libby Miles, and CB Peters. The Practice of Problem-Based Learning: A Guide to Implementing PBL in the College Classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker, 2006. Print.

Boud, David and Grahame Feletti. The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. London: Kogan Page, 1991. Print.

Margetson, Don. “Why is problem-based learning a challenge?” eds. David Boud and Grahame Feletti. The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. London: Kogan Page, 1991. Print.

Moore, Gordon T. “Initiating problem-based learning at Harvard Medical School.” eds. David Boud and Grahame Feletti. The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. London: Kogan Page, 1991. Print.

Savin-Baden, Maggi and Claire Howell Major. Foundations of Problem-based Learning. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. Print.



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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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