Problem-based learning has been around for a long time, but can it fit well into our CBT based approach?

Maybe it can!

What is problem-based learning anyway?

According to Wikipedia, problem-based learning (PBL) is “a student-centred approach in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem found in trigger material.” It focuses on the development of desirable skills and attributes, many of which are those sought by employers. It’s also an active learning approach that fosters the development of self-learning, teamworking and collaborative skills, and interpersonal skills. Finally, it helps helping students develop flexible knowledge, effective problem-solving skills and intrinsic motivation.

As a technique, it’s best known in medical education, where some medical educators switched to PBL from traditional approaches which were theory focused and detached from the way doctors actually worked. The downside was that it was challenging to those students who had not learned that way before, and so they had to learn a new way of learning (and it has some other downsides too, as Wikipedia explains). The upside was that the students were a lot more competent when they went on their hospital placements because they had learnt about the way doctors actually solved problems, acquired knowledge and worked in real life. So, it is a more life-long learning approach.

It requires re-thinking how education and training could and should work and can be demanding to implement. Maybe that’s why we don’t see so much of it in VET, although a DEd thesis by Melinda Waters (You can access it here) had as one of its case studies a teacher who used PBL in teaching as an example of innovative approaches in VET teaching and learning. I don’t suggest you read all this thesis (it’s a loooong one), but just have a look at chapter 4 and the case study of ‘Thomas’ who was using it to deliver the Cert IV TAA, although his journey started earlier in delivering a VET qualification in advertising and marketing.

Making PBL work

An article by Saga Briggs in 2015 has some tips for those considering this approach. They include:

  • Clearly understanding why you are adopting PBL
  • Holding Brainstorming sessions at the first few class meetings in a PBL course to identify issues central to the course, and
  • Developing a set of ill-structured or open-ended problems as a basis for learning or open-ended problems that have multiple solutions. These require students “to look at many methods before deciding on a particular solution.” But the problems need to be “complex enough to require collaboration and thinking beyond recall; and contain content that is authentic to the discipline.”

In addition, you need to refrain from providing too much information initially. You also need to allow time for collaboration, with students working on the problem in small groups with instructor support. But it’s also important to see that all students are participating and involved in the process.

It’s also suggested that you emphasise depth over breadth, conduct regular assessments and assessments that are authentic, hold class discussions, and facilitate peer to peer feedback by the students themselves.

Mark Mossuto undertook an NCVER funded community of practice project on PBL that was published in 2009. You can access that report here.

There are also books on the approach that a google search will turn up and number of pieces that typing ‘problem based learning’ into VOCEDplus will spit out for you if you are interested in exploring this approach more.