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Problem-based learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is sometimes referred to more accurately as issues-based learning,


because many of the topics used for study are not really problems. The method has gained popularity
in recent years as highly suitable for use in higher education contexts; but PBL can also be used in upper
primary, middle, and secondary schools if the issues to be explored are selected carefully, ensuring that
they are age-appropriate and relevant. King (2001, p. 3) states:

PBL offers a mode of learning which might be considered closer to real life. This real-life link is twofold:
firstly, the projects or problems used often reflect or are based on real-life scenarios; secondly, the processes
of teamworking, research, data collection, critical thinking and so on are those which will be of use to the
students in their further careers.

Similarly, Lee (2001, p. 10) has suggested that, Learning through problemsolving may be much more
effective than traditional didactic methods of learning in creating in the students mind a body of
knowledge that is useful in the future.
In PBL, students are presented with a real-life issue that requires a decision, or with a real-life
problem that requires a solution. With older learners, the problem or issue is often intentionally left ill
defined and messy so that there is no clear path or procedure to follow. Students typically work in
small collaborative groups. The teacher or tutor has the role of general facilitator of the group discussion,
but does not direct or control the investigative process.

Advantages of PbL
encourages self-direction in learning
prepares students to think critically and analytically
empowers students to identify, locate and use appropriate resources
issues studied are linked closely with the real world and are motivating for students
active involvement in integrating information and skills from different disciplines
knowledge and strategies acquired are likely to be retained and transferred to other learning situations
enhances communication skills and social skills necessary for cooperation and teamwork.

disadvantages of PbL
Some students have difficulty sifting irrelevant information from what is relevant for addressing the problem or issue.
Some students lack flexibility in their thinking and therefore approach an issue from a very narrow perspective.
Younger students often decide on a solution too early in the process and then resist change later.
Some problems and issues are very complex. They may call upon knowledge and experience that the students do not
possess. Complex problems also greatly increase the cognitive load associated with the task.
Teachers have difficulty adopting a facilitative, rather than a directing and instructing role.
Groups dont always work effectively. Even at tertiary education level, students are often not capable at first of
executing the tasks associated with PBL independently; they require direction and support throughout the process.
Some issues or problems may require access to information and resources that the school does not possess.

LinKs to more on ProbLem-bAsed LeArning


An article from the National Teaching and Learning Forum available online at:
http://www.ntlf.com/html/pi/9812/pbl_1.htm
See also Study Guides and Strategies website at: http://www.studygs.
net/pbl.htm
A useful text: Torp, L., & Sage, S. (2002). Problems as possibilities:
Problem-based learning for K16 education (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA:
Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.
David Mills has a critique of PBL on The Higher Education Academy website
at: http://www.c-sap.bham.ac.uk/resources/project_reports/
ShowOverview.asp?id=4