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Reviewing Problem Based Learning

Reviewing Problem Based Learning

Author: Trisha Fyfe

In this lesson, you will review the components of Problem Based Learning (PBL) and the steps to implement PBL in your classroom.

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Welcome. I'm Trisha Fyfe. And today I'm going to be exploring the topic, revealing problem-based and project-based learning. As we learn about this topic, we will work toward several learning objectives. Together we will answer the following questions. What is problem-based learning? What is project-based learning? What are the similarities and differences between the two? And how can we decide which is best for us to use in our teaching?

In problem-based learning, students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex problem or challenge. Students have voice and choice in their learning as they work towards mastery of not only content, but 21st century learning skills, communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. They create a high quality, authentic product.

Problem-based learning entails students grasping content and knowledge aligned to the standards-- the four C's of 21st century learning, communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, the process of deep inquiry, where resources are used and answers developed, driving or essential questions, where learning is focused on the open ended question, the need to know, or students' investment. Why is this important to me? Voice and choice-- choices are given to the students throughout this type of learning as the teacher takes the role of facilitator, not director.

Critique and revision-- feedback is given and received, prompting further inquiry when revisions are needed. And finally, a public audience-- the goal of problem-based learning is for the product to be meaningful. Presenting to an authentic audience will help students find the meaning, as well as develop skills needed in the real world.

According to Buck Institute of Education, there are six steps to problem-based learning. These steps are number one, presentation of the ill-structured problem, which is a messy problem, number two, problem definition, defining the problem. Number three, a knowledge inventory is generated. What is the problem? What do we need to know?

Number four, possible solutions are generated. Number five, learning issues are formulated for self-directed and coach learning. And finally, the final step is findings and solutions are shared using an authentic product or presentation.

Problem-based learning is deeply rooted in the idea of constructivism, an idea goes back to Piaget. Piaget believed that learners construct and internalized learning when they are engaged in their instruction and allowed to make their own meanings. Before inquiry-based models, this concept was discussed as discovery education.

Learning by Doing, a project by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Thomas Many, helped promote the ideas of constructivism, even more in the professional learning community setting. Other influences to constructivism included Vygotsky, Montessori, and Bruner. All of these influences have assisted in the development of pedagogical approaches to constructivism that are inquiry-based and project-based.

We can thank William Kilpatrick for the term project learning. It was he that used the term first back in 1918. Later, John Dewey's work continued to focus on this type of learning. It's important to understand that there are two different types of learning associated with the acronym, PBL, problem-based and project-based. While they are both developed from the same theory, essentially constructivism, there are distinct differences. And it's important to avoid confusion of the two.

So let's talk about project-based learning. What is project-based learning? Project-based learning is focused on a question that is open-ended. And skills and competencies are applied in authentic ways. Project-based learning includes the four C's, or 21st century learning skills-- communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, and has a strong focus on inquiry.

The tasks in project-based learning are longer and more integrated, oftentimes stemming from multiple disciplines. The timeline for projects is long, often weeks or months. And there are multiple steps involved in project-based learning. The goal of project-based learning is for the student to learn real world authentic content and skills. And this is assessed with a project performance or creation of a product to show connections and understanding.

So let's take a deeper look at each of these PBLs side by side. In comparing and contrasting the two, we can sort through the reasons to use or not to use each of these, depending on our goals and objectives for our own students, or the particular lesson or unit. Problem-learning is generally shorter than project-based learning, and follows those six steps that we just spoke of.

The solution proposal is the product that is created. The teacher generally gives the problem to the students to solve. And it's usually based around one single subject. On the other hand, project-based learning is generally longer, sometimes taking up to months. It follows a more general set of steps. And the product or project creation is what the students are working towards. It's based in real world authentic tasks and is oftentimes multi-disciplinary.

Both of these build on the four C's-- communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Both are student-directed, Inquiry-based, and extend over a time period. Both are based on open-ended questions or tasks. And both are based in authentic learning.

So let's review what we learned today. We covered the following questions. What is problem-based learning? What is project-based learning? What are the similarities and differences between the two? And how can we decide which is best for us to use in our teaching?

Remember, problem-based learning is a type of learning centered around a complex question, problem, or challenge, where students have choices in their learning. Content, 21st century learning skills, and creation of an authentic product are all key to problem-based learning. We also compared problem-based learning to project-based learning, which has many of the same elements. But instead of focusing on a single subject, project-based learning is often multi-disciplinary. And learning is extended over a longer period of time.

Now that we've thoroughly reviewed the two different PBLs, problem-based learning and project-based learning, let's apply these ideas by reflecting. What are the challenges to bringing each of the PBLs into your teaching? Have you experienced either PBL, problem-based or project-based learning, in your own personal education?

Thanks for joining me today as I covered the lesson, reviewing problem-based and project-based learning. I hope you found value in this video lesson and are able to apply these ideas and resources to your own teaching. For more information on how to apply what you've learned in this video, please see the additional resources section that accompanies this video presentation. The additional resources section includes hyperlinks useful for applications of the course material, including a brief description of each resource.

Notes on “Reviewing Problem-Based Learning”


(00:00- 00:27) Introduction/Objectives

(00:28- 00:55)  What is Problem-Based Learning?

(00:56- 01:57)  Essential Elements of Problem-Based Learning

(01:58- 02:35) Steps of Problem-Based Learning

(02:36- 03:52) Theory Behind Problem-Based Learning

(03:53- 04:43) What is Project-Based Learning?

(04:44- 06:00) Comparing/Contrasting the Two PBLs

(06:01- 06:45) Recap

(06:46- 07:39) Reflection 

Additional Resources

The Buck Institute

This is a comprehensive website dedicated to Project Based Learning. The site includes resources and examples, and the landing page provides an overview of Project Based Learning. By clicking on your role, you will find additional readings and resources to support you with the implementation and/or understanding of Project Based Learning.

Driving Question Facilitation 

This page focuses on developing driving questions for Project Based Learning. Included on this site are useful tools for teachers beginning this process and a concise sheet on developing driving questions.

Speaking of Teaching: Problem-Based Learning

This article is a comprehensive look at Problem Based Learning. In addition to providing an overview, this article provides clear steps to develop ill-structured problems-- a cornerstone of Problem Based Learning. The right hand side of the article includes tips for teachers as they implement Problem Based Learning in their classrooms.

Problem-Based Learning at University of Delaware

This website offers an overview of Problem Based Learning for teachers. In addition, if you click on the link on the right hand side of the site, you will find a clearinghouse of problems that you can you use with your class. By clicking on the Resources tab, you will find additional lessons and tools to use to implement Problem Based Learning in your classroom.