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Problem-Based Learning

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1 Problem-Based Learning
Bobbi Waldner

2 This virtual seminar will cover the details of a Problem Based Learning project I used with a Grade 5/6 split Humanities class. I will also discuss what Problem Based Learning is, something of its origins, its expected outcomes and its relationship to Resource-Based Inquiry Learning. The seminar will conclude with a discussion of Problem Based Learning’s rewards, challenges, possibilities and questions. Feel free to respond to the content or questions posed as you wish! I hope you find it enlightening! Introduction

3 The problem The problem scenario:
Out of the blue, you are given $5000 from an aging relative, with the proviso that the funds MUST be used for travel. Where would YOU go?

4 The project Most of us wouldn’t perceive a $5000 gift to be used for travel as a problem, but that is just the problem I posed to my split Grade 5/6 Humanities class as a culmination project to a unit of study on World Geography.

5 The Travel Fair THE TRAVEL FAIR
This unit culmination project required students to sell prospective consumers on a dream vacation of their own creation. My students’ Travel Fair task was twofold: First, students decided where they would go and then created an actual budget for their trip using a variety of resources, (including print, electronic, and human). How would they get there? Where would they stay? What would the costs be? What would be the best time or season to visit? What activities could one do while at their destination? What would they need to pack in their suitcase? Second, they were to assume the role of travel agents at a travel fair and sell their trip to potential travel consumers (a group of people comprised of fellow students, both older and younger, teachers and parents.) Each visitor to the Travel Fair was given a Debit book and an imaginary “allowance” of $10,000 with which they could purchase vacations being sold by my students. The Travel Fair

6 Sales booth Students were required to organize a booth from which they would ‘sell’ their vacation.

7 The required elements of the sales booth were:Real Life
A detailed list of the trip’s costs and inclusions A travel brochure, complete with computer imported and manipulated visuals, detailing the trip in terms of transport, accommodations, sights to see, excursions, and tourist information about climate, what to pack and ideal times/seasons to travel. A travel poster with a visual and a slogan of no more than 5 words An oral sales pitch of no more than one minute, designed to persuade potential buyers to purchase the vacation designed by each particular group.

8 Optional elements included:
Music Food Traditional or local dress/costume Visual or print aids All optional elements had to be reflective of the students’ chosen destination.

In this task, I, as the instructional designer: relied on a problem/inquiry which required students to develop research skills and obtain knowledge gave students a problem that was “ill-structured” (Stepien and Gallagher, 1993), which is to say, there is no ONE correct solution, nor one linear path to take to find said solution. assumed the role of the coach and facilitator, supporting students with research skill acquisition as necessary, and acting as a co-discoverer of information gave a loose guideline as to how to approach the problem, but allowed for variations in student approaches to solving it ensured that assessment of the task was authentic and performance-based. What began in my mind as a fun, highly motivational culminating activity evolved into a project that, as described, fits all the characteristics of a Problem-Based Learning project.

10 What is Problem-Based Learning?
Problem Based Learning (PBL), has students working cooperatively in groups to find a solution to a real world problem. It is a teaching method which helps students develop problem solving skills, as well as requiring students to gather (along the way) the content knowledge and develop the research skills necessary to solving the problem. Learning content and skills occurs as a function of solving the problem This method’s similarities to inquiry-based learning are obvious: nonlinear paths to solutions, exploring information to become informed about the problem, collecting and retrieving relevant information from a variety of sources, as well as student choice in terms of presentation (synthesis) of what they’ve learned or discovered. While this technique of teaching and learning was first used in medical schools, PBL has migrated into K-12 classrooms as well.

11 What are the expected outcomes of PBL?
Research shows that PBL provides students with the opportunity to gain theory and content knowledge and comprehension. (Major and Palmer, 2001) PBL helps students develop advanced cognitive abilities such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills.(Major and Palmer, 2001) Research evidence suggests that PBL is better than traditional instruction on long-term information retention, conceptual understanding and self-directed learning. (Gallagher, 1997) PBL curricula may enhance both transfer of concepts to new problems and integration of basic science concepts into clinical problems. (Norman & Schmidt, 1992) PBL enhances intrinsic interest in the subject matter. (Norman & Schmidt, 1992) Students in PBL courses often report greater satisfaction with their experiences than non-PBL students. for example, PBL medical students at Harvard reported their studies to be more engaging, difficult, and useful than did non-PBL students. (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993) PBL appears to enhance self-directed learning skills (metacognition). (Norman & Schmidt, 1992)

12 Once confronted, how can students be supported in the problem solving process?
Teachers can help students attack the problem presented by following an information search process model similar to the one outlined here. First, teachers must help students to define the problem and determine what they already know, what they need to know and developing a plan to access, evaluate and use information which will help solve the problem Second, teachers need to encourage and guide students in accessing a variety of information sources, whether they be print, electronic or human, to aid in finding a solution. Third, students must construct and present a solution to the problem in a format of their choice. It is key that students reorganize the information they find in a way that will suggest a solution.

13 The role of the teacher The teacher’s role in this type of learning is that of facilitator and coach. Teachers model problem solving behaviours, such as metacognitive strategies, information search strategies, group collaboration strategies, or time management strategies. Teachers are monitoring the progress of the learners and asking questions to move students forward in the problem-solving process. Unlike traditional classrooms, the faculty member is not the sole resource for content or process information, but instead guides students as they search out appropriate resources. (Major & Palmer, 2001) Once students have begun to undertake these teacher-modeled strategies for themselves, the teacher’s role becomes that of a coach and then fades, as students become more adept at locating, evaluating relevance of, and using information to solve the problem posed.

14 How are key principles of Resource-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning reflected in this project? The idea that questions need to be real--ones that people need answers to--was inherent in this Travel Fair project. This task was perhaps even more relevant to my students, given the fact that all the students were expatriates and international travel had been a way of life for most of them for as long as they could remember. In addition to a real world question, I very strongly believe in the Resource Based Learning principle of learning research skills in context. I have been witness to the fact that if students need to find information to solve a problem, they will pay closer attention to any instruction given about how to go about accessing and retrieving that information. For this project, my students needed to either learn or become refreshed as to how to retrieve information from encyclopedias (both print and electronic), atlases, climate maps and graphs, photo libraries, travel guides (again, both print and electronic) as well as Internet travel booking sites for researching costs of transportation and accommodations. Because of the need for information, they were highly motivated to learn to search for and retrieve information and ‘navigate’ efficiently through all the types of resources at their disposal. It should be obvious by now that the nature of this Travel Fair project required active participation with many resources, another key aspect of Resource Based Learning. In fact, some of the students went well beyond our school’s Media Resource Center and computer labs and went into the community to speak to local travel agents to try to find the best fares and deals possible. Many of the students also used each other and members of the expatriate community to obtain word of mouth information, particularly regarding good accommodations, restaurants, and sights to see. As I mentioned before, since these children, aged 10 and 11 were very well traveled already, many of them had already been to destinations such as the Amazon Basin, Italy, or China. In some cases, students had to look no further for information than their neighbour, who had just returned from a trip to Machu Picchu or Buenos Aires. It was so much fun to witness these conversations between the kids about which airport VIP lounge had the best food, or which hotel in London was the best, and it amazed me that these very adult conversations were being held by my Grade 5/6 students.

15 How are key principles of Resource-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning reflected in this project? (continued) A constructivist approach to learning, as mentioned in the Stripling article of the Topic One readings, is credited with producing in students a deeper understanding of the topic being studied. The project undertaken by my students, is a great example of this depth of understanding. In gathering facts from a number of different resources, they were forced to construct the solution using the facts as building blocks. Pragmatic as I am, I loved the fact that they weren’t just gathering facts for the sake of regurgitation, but that they were required to apply the facts gathered to form their solution, or final product. In obtaining information, evaluating it and synthesizing to produce a solution to the problem posed, they were able to construct meaning for themselves on a variety of levels, including not only content knowledge and research skills, but those of collaboration and organization as well. Problem-Based Learning by definition requires a problem that is “ill-structured”. (Stepien and Gallagher, 1993). There was definitely more than one possible solution to the problem posed and the students and I delighted in the fact that everyone chose a different path to and mode of presentation for their solution. They were forced to compare costs and benefits for the various portions of the vacation in order to present a final product that was marketable. A key problem they had was balancing their desire for luxury with the reality of their budget. (I would say with a high degree of certainty that we’ve all experienced that dilemma! It doesn’t get much more “real-world” than that!!) Some chose business class air tickets but skimped on accommodations, and some chose economy flights but luxury accommodation. Each solution was valid and students experienced mixed sales results, depending on their prospective buyers!

16 How are key principles of Resource-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning reflected in this project? (continued) In such a complex and potentially overwhelming project, it was imperative that students be supported at critical junctures in the process of research and synthesis. Research on learning indicates that learning occurs in an atmosphere of confrontation and support. (Stripling, 1996) I found these two notions two indispensable halves of meaningful learning. Since I had confronted students with a difficult and lengthy problem, I took the opportunity to support students as much as possible at each phase of the project by asking leading questions that would move them along in the research process, by suggesting specific travel booking web sites to try for information needed, by helping them to set up one-on-one interviews with travel agents, and by assisting them in location of resources such as atlases or travel guide books and web sites. In addition to supporting the research process, I gave guidelines for what was a required part of the solution and what was an optional part of the solution, as stated on slides 7 & 8 of this seminar. Students often commented to me that they enjoyed the fact that parts of the project were optional. This accomplished a variety of things. First, choice is motivating for kids. They ‘buy in’ to a project much more readily if they feel they have some control over its outcome. Second, having some requirements and some options simultaneously satisfied the learning styles of those who needed structure and those who desired a product with a greater amount of self-determination. Third, these guidelines, some looser, some tighter, gave me the ability to structure the task to pinpoint skills and knowledge I needed to ‘cover’, curricularly speaking, while at the same time allowing for student input and creativity.

17 How are key principles of Resource-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning reflected in this project? (continued) I also found it necessary to support the students with mini-lessons at key points during the project. In other words, as students are grappling with a problem and confronted with the need for particular kinds of knowledge, a lecture at the right time may be beneficial. (Hmelo-Silver, 2004) To put it another way, there are times during the PBL process when it is beneficial to arm students with small bits of skills or knowledge needed to complete an aspect of the project With this in mind, I delivered not lectures, but what I would call mini-lessons at key junctures in the project on topics such as: collaboration and organization techniques information location and retrieval from print resources navigation of travel booking web sites tips on public speaking principles of graphic design slogans and the use of simple, but persuasive language marketing techniques

18 How are key principles of Resource-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning reflected in this project? (continued) Guidelines and suggestions as to how to collaborate with others, organize tasks and manage the time given for working on the task assigned, was another way I tried to support the students. Again, I set up some organizational routines which were mandatory, and allowed for student input in others. At the opening of each class period, I individually surveyed each group to discover where they were in their process and what they planned to do during that period. Some groups functioned well by choosing a “project manager” who set up a simplified Gantt chart to chart and monitor progress on the multiple tasks, while others managed by collaboratively making a simple action plan and assigning tasks based on that plan. At the close of each period, each group met to talk about what was or was not accomplished, ask questions of me or each other, and, if needed, to assign homework tasks to be completed before the next class period. I found that my role in this task definitely was one of facilitator. I was not the one that the students looked to for all of their information needs. Rather, I was one who would suggest ways and places to look, acting as a co-discoverer. This was so enjoyable for me as a teacher. In student centered activities such as this one, letting them go and seeing them experience successes, large or small, as individuals, or groups autonomous from me is very rewarding. Finally, Problem-Based Learning dictates that assessment must be authentic and performance-based. Accordingly, the students were assessed in a number of ways, including a cumulative process grade, based on how well they functioned as groups and as members of groups. They were also assessed using rubrics on their oral presentation during the travel fair , and their marketing techniques as well as on visual aids and presentation.

19 Rewards of Problem-Based Learning
Observation of students during and following this project affirmed to me the value of this type of learning activity. Students enjoyed solving this problem. They looked forward to coming to class and working toward the final product and I believe that what is learned with enjoyment is never forgotten. This high degree of student motivation often spawned independent inquiry, both during and after the project. Students would, even if not assigned to do so by their groups, read magazine articles or surf the internet in their spare time because they had been hooked by interest in their destination. Also, the idea that learning research skills in context will aid in the retention of those skills was in abundant evidence as a result of this project. I observed students using the information search skills gained or reinforced during this task again in subsequent tasks, or even teaching other students the search skills they had recently learned. The same can be said of the time management and collaboration skills modeled and learned. I observed many of the students breaking down complex tasks into smaller parts, or making action plans for completion of subsequent tasks and projects in my class. Colleagues shared with me the fact that they had also observed my students engaging in those self-organizing behaviours in other classes.

20 Challenges of Problem-Based Learning
Although the rewards of Problem-Based Learning are many, there do exist challenges for its implementation. First, coming up with an effective problem to pose, which meets all PBL criteria is key, and not always easy. It can be tempting to make problems too simplistic. Second, traditional methods of assessment such as pencil and paper quizzes or tests, or essays may not adequately reflect what’s been learned in this nontraditional methodology. Options for assessment in PBL need to be varied, depending on the task and students. I used rubrics and observation checklists. Portfolios, multimedia or oral presentations and reflective journals, just to name a few, could also be used to successfully reflect what students have learned, can do,and whether or not the objectives for the task have been met. Third, issues about load-pulling, which seem to be inherent in group work do pop up. It seems inevitable to field complaints from group members about other group members who are not shouldering their share of the work. I have tried to address these issues by assigning a process mark which reflects how well the group members worked together. I have also used self and peer assessment with written justification to combat complaints about those not pulling their load. Fourth is the challenge of assigning individual vs. group grades. Parents have, at times, complained about the assessment of group projects being unfair to their child. One way I tried to address this was to ensure that there is room for both group and individual assessment. That is to say, while there is a shared grade for the overall product, parts of that product may be the sole responsibility of one person who is rewarded (or not, as the case may be...) individually for their efforts. Any other ideas on how to overcome this challenge?

21 Challenges of Problem-Based Learning (continued)
Fifth, students with a learning style preferring structure may feel overwhelmed with the amount of freedom in how to solve such a complex problem. These type of students typically want to quickly find (or be told...)the answer, rather than surrendering to the uncertainty of the process in order to let meaning, and subsequently, the solution, evolve. Finally, teacher comfort level with this method can be an issue. I come from a background of student centered learning from days long before I was a teacher, and have a high comfort level with it. I gained experience as a participant and leader in the 4-H Youth program, whose motto is “Learn To Do By Doing.” Members of this program were and are encouraged to take on leadership roles in their clubs at very young ages. As a teacher, I’ve been a Teacher Advisor and mentor for Student Centered Intramural Programs, Student Leadership option classes and an instructor in a Calgary High School program called P.E.P. (Personalized Education Program), whereby teachers could demand students’ attendance in full-group classes only 50% of the time, with the understanding that students would organize the other 50% of the class time working independently on project work or with other students or with one-on-one help from the instructor. All of these programs shared one common theme: that of student-centeredness. I understand that it can be difficult to let go of some of the control over the direction in which students go and what route they take to get there. Teachers who may experience anxiety over going the PBL route need to understand that guiding and monitoring as a facilitator is still possible (indeed necessary) and that even student failure or mistakes can be a source of learning, with timely reflection and debriefing.

22 (for extension and other disciplines)
Problem-Based Learning: Possibilities… (for extension and other disciplines) Since completion of the Travel Fair Project, with its many successes, I have imagined different scenarios for its extension. Another time, with a particularly highly-functioning group of students, I might adjust the task so that instead of designing a trip for themselves, they would have to design a trip for a classmate or even a fictitious customer, just to add another dimension of difficulty. Part of the assessment would be how well the trip reflected the interests and needs of the person for whom it was designed.

23 PBL Possibilities (continued)
Another PBL project I have used in Language Arts is one called “The Book Fair” where each student assumed the role of a publishing company sales representative and needed to “sell” their book to prospective buyers (parents, students and teachers armed with fake money) in an exposition format. Students supported verbal sales pitches with other visual and sensory aids such as: posters, brochures, business cards, costumes, dioramas and even food. This became an annual event at my previous school, much anticipated by students and parents alike.

24 PBL Possibilities (continued)
Yet another PBL task involves a culmination project to a novel study. Students needed to assume the role of a record producer who is hired to compile a soundtrack for the movie version of the novel that they have just completed studying. Students needed to consider both lyrical and musical connections between the songs chosen and situations, themes, characters, settings, motifs or events in the novel and make written justification for their choices as well as to design a CD cover.

25 PBL Possibilities (continued)
I’m not a Math teacher, but applications of PBL could be used in Math with a field trip to a real or virtual grocery store, where students are given a set amount of money to spend on food for a family of four for one week. Math concepts such as ratios and proportions, measurement and estimating could be brought into play. To make things even more interesting, give students different amounts of money to accomplish the same goal of feeding the family of four. This is definitely a real world to feed your family based on your income, be it meager or ample.

26 PBL Possibilities (continued)
Science teachers have some really amazing opportunities to pose real world problems and test out hypotheses to reach a solution. One of the more creative ones which comes to mind is the designing and making of spaghetti bridges to see which bridge is capable of bearing the greatest load. As well, there are egg parachutes...taking into consideration aerodynamics and the laws of gravity to design a vehicle which, when dropped from a height, prevents the egg carried within it from breaking upon contact with the ground.

27 PBL Possibilities (continued)
The preceding ideas are just a few of my own which could work for PBL projects, but in doing research for this seminar, I discovered a site initiated and maintained by the University of Delaware called The PBL Clearinghouse. This site is a compendium of Sample PBL projects, searchable by Keyword and Discipline. It requires registration, in order to receive a password to access the clearinghouse, but it is free of charge. While most of the projects are for university students, it could spawn some neat ideas which could be made applicable in a K-12 setting. It can be accessed at the following link:

28 Final thoughts & questions
PBL, by definition, is designed for use with groups, but I see applications for use with individuals as well. What do you think? This particular project worked well in part because I had daily 90 minute class blocks of time for Humanities. This allowed the time needed for in-depth research or lengthy, time-consuming tasks. It also allowed for time to address different aspects of the problem (i.e. a visual task such as working on a poster as opposed to using the computer to create a travel brochure or researching flight costs on a travel booking web site) for students who need a change of pace from one task to another part of the way through the period. How many of you have block periods? Do you prefer them to individual periods? How do you think PBL might work, or how do you think it might need to be adjusted to fit into the minutes that are a reality in many schools?

29 Final thoughts & questions (continued)
Problem-solving can cause researchers to spill over out of one subject area and into another. Case in point, my Travel Fair was done in an interdisciplinary integrated program of Language Arts and Social Studies. My students were also allowed to work on the computer-based portions of the project during their Computer class periods. This type of project does not always fall neatly into one subject division. Would this prevent people from trying PBL where there may be timetabling concerns, or even in a job-share situation, where two different teachers may be teaching subjects (i.e. Math and Science) that might dovetail nicely in an interdisciplinary project? Or do you think careful collaboration between job-share partners or working around time tabling concerns would make PBL feasible on a short-term basis?

30 Final thoughts & questions (continued)
PBL was initially done in medical schools and institutions of higher learning and indeed, much of the research on expected outcomes of PBL has centered around those same institutions of higher learning. Do you think PBL can be feasibly done on a widespread basis in a K-12 setting, given the predictably more frequent interventions which may need to be made by teachers to offer direction or give mini-lessons? Is it truly PBL if teachers need to intervene to offer help or guidance more often? Or should we even be concerned about whether or not it is truly PBL, if it is a methodology (slightly modified PBL, if you will) that yields good results with students?

31 Bibliography Albanese, M.A. & Mitchell, S Problem-Based Learning: A review of literature on its outcomes and implementation issues. Academic medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical colleges, 68 (1), Gallagher, Shelagh A Problem-Based Learning: Where Did It Come From, What Does It Do, and Where Is It Going? (Abstract) Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 20 (4), Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16 (3), Major, Claire H. & Palmer, Betsy Assessing the Effectiveness of Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education: Lessons from the Literature. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 5 (1) Norman, G.R., & Schmidt, H.G The psychological basis of problem-based learning: A review of the evidence. Academic Medicine, 67 (9), Stepien, W.J. & Gallagher, S.A Problem-Based Learning: As Authentic as it Gets. Educational Leadership, 50(7) 25-8 Stripling, Barbara K Quality in school library media programs: Focus on learning. Library Trends, 44 (3),

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