# Guide on Problem Based Learning

*by Becton Loveless*

Instructors are regularly looking for new ways to increase the engagement that students feel with their material. Engaged, active students are more likely to learn the lessons that they’re taught. So, in response, researchers and educators have been on a decades old quest to re-envision education and find new ways to instruct students.

One of these new ways of approaching education is problem based learning. This kind of learning is a student focused approach to teaching in which instruction is done by having students focus on problems while working in groups. This approach serves two purposes. First, this approach helps students to construct knowledge rather than passively learn it, which helps to promote retention of information. Second, the group based approach helps peers to engage with one another, which has also been linked to improved outcomes in education.

## The Advantages of Problem Based Learning

Research has previously pointed to numerous advantages arising from using the problem based approach to education. The first advantage is that it uses the group approach to learning, which has itself been associated with several positive academic outcomes. Students engaged in group work typically have superior academic achievement when compared against individuals who work alone. Teachers hoping to improve the academic outcomes among their students can use the problem based approach and rely on the group based aspect to help drive part of the academic improvements they hope for. Researchers have also indicated that group approaches to research are valuable because they improve students’ communication skills.

Although not typically a skill taught in schools, communication is a soft skill that students can use throughout their academic lives. Further, communication skills are valuable because they can help students once they move on to their professional lives. The group based aspect of problem based learning, therefore, may help pass along valuable communication skills that can benefit students far beyond the lessons they’re learning immediately in class.

Returning to the larger topic of problem based learning, there are many advantages beyond passing along communication skills. The group work itself requires project ownership and leadership. Through the course of solving a problem, students have to assume different roles and be proactive in helping drive the group’s success. The problem based approach also helps convey critical thinking skills. Students have to analyze different sources of data and bring together relevant information to address the research problem. At the same time, students also need to be able to evaluate whether the group has made satisfactory progress toward answering the research questions and work within the group to drive more progress.

Though the nature of the work is group work, problem based learning also requires students to be self-directed in their knowledge. Each group member has to contribute to the larger success of the group. This requires students to be active looking up data and possible solutions to the problem they’re trying to solve. Being able to be a self-directed learner is therefore still important to the work, and this teaches students the importance of being independently motivated to succeed academically.

Beyond these advantages, there are at least a few more that students will be able to carry away with them. First, because the research requires students to perform significant research attempting to solve the issue, students need to develop appropriate research skills. Students need to learn where they can find different resources and effective ways of conducting research. By learning these skills, students become better prepared to conduct research at higher grade levels, including at university. Students also become skilled problem solvers. As such, there are multiple advantages and benefits to using the problem based approach to education.

## Problem Based Learning versus Inquiry Based Learning

One point of confusion among educators has to do with the fact that many people don’t understand the difference between problem based learning versus inquiry based learning. The two approaches are student centered and similar in several other respects. However, there are also a few differences that distinguish the two approaches.

In inquiry based learning, there’s a greater emphasis on the process. This approach requires students to become better researchers, so there’s a greater emphasis on reflection and thinking about how a student’s research process could be improved. Students may come up with their own questions or be presented with questions before engaging in different research approaches. During the question development process, students refine and refine their question, again emphasizing the importance of the process in inquiry based learning.

Problem based learning, on the other hand, is less focused on improving the student’s research process and instead focused on answering real world problems. Teachers present students with authentic circumstances that require investigation. Students then become immersed in an investigative approach that involves testing and repeating, much as would be found in a traditional science and research context.

Consequently, both inquiry based and problem based learning requires investigation and research, with inquiry based approaches focusing more on improving the student’s research process and problem based learning focusing more on the given investigative method needed for a real world problem. Both approaches may also involve collaboration, but there’s a greater emphasis on collaboration in the problem based approach, while students are typically expected to independently answer the research question they develop, though they may engage with peers and their instructor to help them in their research. In practice, teachers will often experience a great degree of overlap in using each instructional approach, but will want to apply problem based learning when there’s an emphasis on collaborative group work aimed at solving a single real world problem that can be given to each group.

## Creating a Problem Based Lesson

Before you can actually use the problem based approach to education, there are a few different steps that you must go through to ensure that the lesson is effective. The first step, as with many other educational approaches, is to identify the learning outcomes of the lesson. The problem you use during this approach needs to be geared toward achieving specific learning outcomes. So, the first thing to ask is what you want students to learn by the end of the lesson. After answering that question, identify the problem that can help to best communicate that information as students go through the process of answering it. Typically, the problem should be rooted in a real world situation. This is important because it helps to ground the lesson in something real that students can identify with.

Teachers also need to set some ground rules for the class and how research will be conducted. What resources students can use, the conduct of each student, and the contributions each student will make should all be discussed. Beyond this though, teachers should also prepare their students for the group work they will be conducting. This can be done through the use of warm up exercises meant to acquaint them with assessing their research and the research of others. If a class is conducting problem based learning approaches for the first time, then it may be helpful to assign each group member a specific role. However, this is up to the discretion of the instructor. Lastly, teachers should also be clear regarding how the group work will be graded. Group work can be a source of contention among students, since some may feel as if they’ve contributed more than others. Clearly specify how each person in a group will be graded in a way that is fair to all group members.

## Examples of Problems

Over the years, problem based learning has been used in a variety of contexts, so there are a number of different examples that researchers can look to if they need help visualizing what problem based learning looks like. This is especially important when educators are trying to clarify how problem based learning looks like depending on grade level. At the elementary school level, for instance, teachers encouraged students to learn information about topics that could be applied to working in a garden. When preparing to work in the garden, teachers noted that the students had to go in-depth with information about soil, sunlight, and related topics. The students were then able to develop solutions to problems they might face when working in a garden. Because teachers were working with elementary school populations, there was less focus on advanced research methods and greater emphasis on finding an engaging problem that would capture the interest of students. Students then learned more about the topic and attempted to address the problem in front of them.

At the middle school level, teachers found it a bit more difficult to capture the attention of students. For many, it seemed that students were at a precarious age where they had little interest in their academic performance. One way that teachers found they could attract attention was by generating problems in which students took on authoritative roles with leadership power. As one example, teachers said they assigned lessons in which students took on roles such as school administrators or city leaders. Using this approach interested students and helped capture their attention, highlighting the need for teachers to come up with intriguing real world problems For example, teachers noted that agricultural problems that could impact the entire region were of interest to students in addition to political and school problems. Other teachers noted that research into medical problems also captured the interest of students and even encouraged future interest in similar topics. As such, the problem based approach may be useful for encouraging specific interests in students that last far beyond the classroom in which they’re introduced to those topics.

At the high school level, teachers applied the problem based approach in a number of ways. Literature lessons were enhanced by bringing in people who had direct experience of some of the literature being discussed. Researchers noted that, when discussing harsh topics and issues, it made students consider ethical dimensions of the literature that they previously had not considered. In a science course, learning about the degree of waste that occurred in the United States helped students to tackle problems of lunchroom waste in their schools. One physics instructor indicated that student interest physical design included addressing flooding in the local community.

From elementary through middle and high school, teachers increasingly found success by finding problems that were of interest to students at different grade levels. This required creative thinking and a willingness to find problems that would adequately capture the attention of students. As can be seen in a review of problems used at different grade levels, teachers constantly identified different problems that were of interest among younger and older students. When designing lessons, teachers should carefully consider what sort of problem will capture the attention of students of all learning levels.

## Lesson Structure

Researchers have also arrived at recommendations for how teachers should structure their lessons. At the beginning of a lesson, teachers should begin by clarifying unclear terms and concepts for their students. This helps to remove an early barrier to learning so that students can focus more on researching solutions to the problem they’ve been presented with. Second, the problem should be defined. Students can ask several different questions that may address the problem, which they can use to guide their research.

The analysis phase of the class includes students tying together the different questions and coming to an understanding of what is currently not known. In discussions within their groups, students may be able to quickly identify what information they’re lacking to solve the problem. After students have identified what information is lacking to address a problem, teachers can then guide their future research by formalizing the learning goals for their group. At this point, it’s up to students to begin looking through different sources of information to find the lacking information. This information can be used to address the questions that have been developed and devise a final solution to the larger problem that was presented by the instructor. Finally, teachers should evaluate the findings, assess the quality of the resources used, and discuss the theories and explanations students arrived at.

As can be seen in this simple lesson structure, problem based classrooms can be highly engaging and interactive ones, with teachers bringing a loose structure to the class and allowing students to develop questions that address a central problem before directing students on where they may want to take their research. Students and teachers work together to address the problem rather than the teacher handling the development of questions independently. Using this approach and by allowing students to work in groups, teachers can encourage greater engagement and improve the chance that students retain their lessons over time.