Frequently Asked Questions
Q1: What is problem-based learning (PBL) and how does it differ from other forms of inquiry-based and experiential learning?
Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a learner-centered instructional method in which students learn by actively and collaboratively solving authentic real-world problems. In PBL, the instructor serves as a facilitator or consultant, guiding the students through the problem-solving process and providing instruction on an “as needed” basis. Unlike traditional instruction in which students attend lectures, solve well-defined end-of-chapter homework problems, and engage in highly structured “cookbook” type laboratory activities, PBL is open-ended and contextualized.
With PBL, students learn the process of structured problem-solving in addition to course content by engaging in a systematic and recursive process that begins with problem analysis. During the initial analysis, students must carefully and methodically dissect the problem to identify what is known and unknown, reflect on prior knowledge to identify knowledge gaps, situational constraints, and other pertinent problem features, to properly frame the problem and establish criteria for a successful solution. Once the problem has been properly framed, students engage in self-directed learning, setting specific learning goals and a time frame to seek out the knowledge and skills needed to solve the problem. After the required information has been acquired, students reconvene with their team to brainstorm possible solutions. Upon agreeing on a potential solution, students test their ideas to validate their solution. If the solution generated does not adequately address the established criteria for success, the process is then repeated. A hands-on component can often supplement this process but unlike project-based learning, it is not necessary to have laboratory equipment to solve a PBL problem.
PBL Challenges provides hands-on activities that use simple and/or common lab materials to illustrate the principles of the Challenge. Examples of hands-on activity projects can be found in the Teacher Resources Technical Document located in the Teacher Resources section of each Challenge (Note: This section is password protected. [Passwords can be obtained upon request by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org] However, the Challenges can be taught without hands-on activities, allowing students to learn about complex and expensive systems without needing to experience them first hand.
Q2: What are the PBL Projects?
Each PBL Project has developed a set of interdisciplinary, multimedia real-world Challenges (case studies) in partnership with research universities and industry. The web-based Challenges are designed for implementation in secondary and post-secondary science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. A flexible approach to implementation allows instructors to introduce students to PBL at various levels of difficulty and over a period of time best suited for their individual class.
The PBL Projects team has provided professional development training for instructors and administrators in the use of the PBL Challenges. Contact us at email@example.com to learn more about professional development opportunities.
Q3: Are the PBL Challenges free?
Q4: What content areas do the PBL Projects cover?
Q5: What kind of problems are Challenge problems?
Q6: Are the Challenges aligned to national academic and industry standards?
Links to the alignment tables are available in the Teacher Resources section accompanying each PBL Challenge. The tables contain links to the full text of each standard, as well as notes on text selection. The tables can be used online or downloaded in Microsoft Excel format.
To support students with a range of mathematics backgrounds, the PHOTON PBL and STEM PBL Challenges have also been aligned to video lessons and practice problems from Khan Academy, a free multimedia educational resource.
Q7: How do high school instructors work with the challenges to make sure they meet their testing parameters by state?
Q8: What are the assessment tools and how do I access them?
Q9: How long does a Challenge take to implement?
Remember, the goal of PBL is to teach problem-solving and critical thinking, as well as a specific competency or procedure. With PBL, the desired competencies are learned in the context of solving a real-world problem, which is very different from teaching a specific topic in isolation of the real-world constraints that tend to “muddy the waters.” Learning is real, and the competencies developed are deeper and more complex, likened to the skills of an expert as compared to a novice and more transferrable to new and novel situations.
Q10: How do instructors ensure that each student is pulling his or her weight in a team, and that each student has received a holistic education in the content areas the instructor is required to teach?
To ensure that students receive a holistic education in a specific content area, there are three separate assessment tools designed to capture students’ content knowledge, conceptual knowledge, and problem-solving ability. The content knowledge assessment uses three levels of content-related questions ranging from simple multiple-choice questions to more difficult closed-ended problems to more open-ended and thought-provoking problems. The content knowledge assessment can be modified to meet the needs of the individual instructor and/or curriculum. The conceptual knowledge assessment uses concept mapping to assess students’ conceptual understanding of the main topics or concepts presented in the Challenge and their understanding of the relationships between concepts. This is a powerful method used to bridge the gap between interrelated concepts and principles typically taught in isolation of each other in traditional lecture-based instruction. Finally, the problem-solving ability assessment captures the all-important processes students used in solving the Challenge problem. This represents the most authentic form of assessment because it taps into students’ cognitive and metacognitive processes through the process of reflection.
Q11: How are the Challenges themselves evaluated? How can instructors give their feedback to the PBL Projects team?
Similarly, the project team collects and utilizes evaluation materials from professional development workshops, and conducts focus groups and individual interviews with secondary and postsecondary participants in its projects. Findings from the aforementioned evaluations are used to develop reports, academic papers and other dissemination materials to share with the public and the project’s funder.
Q12: Where have the Challenges been used to date?
Q13: What is your model for providing professional development consulting for in-service teachers?
Once educators are familiar with the PBL Challenge format, and have used Challenges with their students, the next step is a “Make Your Own Challenge” workshop to then introduce the PBL Challenge Design Guide link to page under educator resources and template to create their own PBL Challenges with industry or community partners. Educators are coached through researching and identifying potential problems that both address the learning outcome requirements of their courses and engage students in meaningful real-world problem-solving.
The “Introduction to PBL” and/or “Make Your Own Challenge” workshops, as well as customized versions, can be delivered, for a fee, for a single institution or district, or as an open workshop for multiple institutions and/or school districts. To learn more please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Q14: What professional development services are available to pre-service STEM instructors, in-service STEM instructors, and in-service STEM teacher educators?
Q15: When should PBL be incorporated into the curriculum? For example, is it better to introduce PBL into introductory or advanced courses?
Q16: ‘During my first go around with implementing the PBL Challenges my students gathered so much information that it took longer than expected to go through and assess my students on their understanding. I felt that all the information was significant but it got cumbersome justifying the validity of found data. Do you have suggestions on justification?
Most students will immediately go to Google to try and find a solution without first thinking through what they are looking for. This is the beauty of the Whiteboards. When completing the “What do I need to learn?” column in the Problem Analysis Whiteboard, they need to explain why that information is important and how will it be used. This is the role of the facilitator. The goal is to get them to think strategically – to synthesize the information they find and summarize how and why it was used to solve the problem.