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Problem Based Learning

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Can we teach classes that are not about memorization?  Can we bring problem-based, interactive learning to an online course? Problem-based learning because is evidence-based and performs so much better than more conventional methods.

The problem with problem-based, interactive learning is that the students have to participate and to interact with the teacher.  The argument for problem based learning is that the students learn up to 60% more material.  Plus, for students who engage in it, after the first shock of realizing that the class won't be memorization based, they report having a much better time and learning more.  Some students resist at first.  The American Radio Works program says, don't try this if you still need tenure(!).  But that is because it feels different.  A Harvard physicist in the program makes the point that it used to be that we couldn't easily get to the library to get information, so we needed to memorize.  Now there are endless online resources at the drop of a thumb, so we need to teach people how to find, translate, and use information.


Interactive, problem-based learning formats do seem disorganized to students who are used to conventional education .  Conventional educational practice lays out of body of material to be mastered (learned, memorized, etc.) and then tests the students on their temporary retention of that material through quizzes and exams.  These newer approaches to teaching attempt to engage the student in a discipline through interacting with it and learning its questions and challenges and where to find the relevant information.  There's not necessarily a body of knowledge to retain but rather a sense for how to orient oneself and find the information when needed again.  I can see how that could seem disorganized to someone who is used to conventional practices.  However, the literature suggests that the kinds of students who do best with these newer methods are just the ones who flounder at conventional education .  Many of the students who sail through college and graduate school without interruption are found to do well regardless of method used.

I'd like to see us change the culture of education .  The culture seems to resist frequent contact and interactive learning in favor of a kind of hierarchical isolation from the instructor.   This can become especially true in the on-line environment, which doesn't have to necessarily mean low contact with faculty.  I'd like to see students involved from the beginning in shaping the course the way they'd like it to go.  Interactive PBL requires student presence.  The University of Minnesota, Rochester, which is a health sciences campus that feeds the Mayo Clinic, entirely uses this approach and doesn't even have a lecture podium.

I have a way to go to get to where I'd like to be for the online environment.  For example, in one of my on-line classes, I still did two fairly conventional lectures each week with powerpoints though I encourage discussion.  Because I don't know who (if anyone) will attend, I need material upon which to fall back.  I also make my slides available as study guides/resources.  I'm still not generating the level of discussion I would like, so I have to be prepared to lecture.  I usually lecture for one hour and then have a half hour of discussion.


Here is a summary of what students don't like about this style of education (the full article from McMaster's University is available at

Students' Readiness for Problem-based learning
In PBL, students are not passive information receivers any more. They are expected to more actively engage in their learning process. Therefore, you should take into accounts of students' motivation, background and learning habits before you think about employing PBL into the classroom. Since the PBL approach put the responsibility of learning into the hands of students, students who are used to the structured and sequenced information presentation from the instructor may fail to make progress in learning and resent the self-learning challenge.

Research on students' perception of PBL has reported that students' concerns about PBL include the unfamiliarity of PBL formats, dramatic differences between competitive and collaborative learning, demands on time and self learning, and ambiguous learning situations with direct instruction. Kingsland (1996), in his evaluative study of the architecture program at the University of Newcastle, reports students' reactions to the time issue in the problem-based learning:

"Architecture 1 students maintain Reflective Design Journals to aid in the development of design and critical analysis skills. Comments in these journals highlight times of high stress due either to the accumulation of assignment or to time management problems."

MacPherson-Coy, Sullivan and Story (2000) listed students' response to the question " What did you like least about the PBL program?"; stress over lack of time to complete everything and stress over getting familiarized with the PBL format are on the top of the list.

In order to resolve students' resistance to PBL, enhancing students understanding of and positive attitude toward PBL process can help prepare students to face the challenges of PBL. If instructors perceive that students will have difficulties in self-directed learning, they may either provide more support during the process or accommodate students' different learning styles by balancing the learning activities via lectures, group discussions, and self-directed inquiry.

Also, PBL relies on collaboration between students to bring in different perspectives and knowledge bases on problem solving. However, students' prior experience and skills in teamwork may either facilitate or impede students' learning in PBL. Therefore, the instructor should be open to any questions and concerns about the collaborative process. Nelson (1999) suggested to give an overview of the basic ideas and ideas about the collaborative problem solving process helping students understand what they will be engaged in and why.



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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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