Problem-based learning – students learn (often in groups) by trying to solve an overarching problem.
Problem-based learning (PBL) is a modern student-centred strategy that is similar in nature to project-based learning enquiry-based learning. Problem-based learning is also known as discovery learning. It has been used widely in adult education (for example, in medical and engineering fields). However, it can also be employed in schools when it is carefully structured, delivered and monitored.i In problem-based learning, tasks and activities are centred around working toward a solution to a stated problem. The process can be open-ended and driven by students, or it can be based on a series of structured activities set by the teacher. While purists may disagree, many teachers add explicit instruction to PBL lessons.
In problem-based learning, tasks and activities are centred around working toward a solution to a stated problem.
The central problem needs to be an authentic, real-world problem that is relevant to students’ interests and motivations. The point of problem-based learning is not just to find a solution, but to develop skills and knowledge during the process.ii The main argument in favour of problem-based learning is that knowledge is better retained and recalled when it is applied in a real-world context. Students may not learn as much in terms of volume of content, however their skills and knowledge can be applied in multiple contexts to solve genuine problems well into the future. Advocates of this strategy also stress its ability to improve student-teacher relationships, to improve student communication and team-work skills, and to provide a deeper understanding of the topic.iii
Problem-based learning is a quintessential student-centred strategy. However, there is a misconception that employing a student-centred strategy such as this one, means that the teacher’s role is somehow reduced. The reality is that student-centred activities require as much (or potentially more) planning, resource development and monitoring than other strategies, particularly when working with children. Throughout the lesson, teachers provide advice and guidance, mini-lessons and short, sharp activities. They focus on metacognitive skills such as using higher-order concepts to solve smaller local problems and they may even emphasise core skills such as reading, writing and maths. Problem-based learning does not mean that the teacher is somehow relegated to an isolated corner in the room, particularly in primary schools. When PBL is implemented with adults however, the teacher becomes a ‘facilitator’. In some cases, this facilitator is a student chosen by the group to act as the ‘group leader’.
Throughout the lesson, teachers provide advice and guidance, mini-lessons and short, sharp activities.
Problem-based learning may not suit all learners. Students need a certain level of existing knowledge and to be sufficiently motivated. Depending on the problem, they may also need well-developed metacognitive skills such as the ability to plan an approach into the task, organise information and categorise potential solutions for testing. PBL is usually thought of as being a medium-term project that is completed in small groups or pairs over a period of 1-3 months. However, teachers can implement problem-based learning for shorter periods of time as a standalone activity within a normal lesson. As with all strategies, the educational goals of the program are the driving factors in determining if and how problem-based learning should be implemented.
Hint: several issues need to be addressed before and during PBL implementation. For example, group work may need to be structured so that effort is equally shared amongst members, regardless of skill, language ability and personality. The teacher should not rely on high-performing students to supplement the work of other students (or replace the role of the teacher).
Implementing problem-based learning requires a series of steps:
The steps in the PBL process are very flexible and can be adjusted to suit the needs of the students, the demands of the topic or problem and the stated goals. In a science class for example, a group of motivated students could use problem-based learning to improve the energy efficiency of the school with the view to applying for government grants. The problem is partly an investigation into exactly where electricity is used in the school and what other schools have done to reduce their usage. The problem might then become how to reduce usage by 10% in a specific area or season. On the other hand, a teacher may dedicate a single lesson to solving something a little easier, such as a pertinent maths problem. There are no concrete rules that dictate how problem-based learning should be executed – teachers can be creative and apply aspects that they find appealing.
There are a few similar terms that are often very confusing. Here is a summary of these terms and how they relate to each other:
Hint: don’t design a learning activity or program purely to fit any of the definitions above. Design the activity, lesson or program to meet the learning goals first and foremost. There is no reason to dogmatically stick to one strategy and to not use elements of others. The definitions are largely academic and not that relevant once you understand the broad concepts that permeate them all.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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