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?
The PBL Projects of the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) are PHOTON PBL (DUE #0603143), STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) PBL (DUE #0903051) and Advanced Manufacturing PBL (DUE #1204941) funded sequentially by the National Science Foundation Advanced Technical Education (NSF ATE) program since 2006. The fourth PBL Project, Problem-Based Learning in Advanced Photonics Manufacturing(NSF DUE #1801115) was awarded to Springfield Technical Community College in 2018.
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?
The time required to teach the same competencies as in a traditional lecture-based learning environment may vary depending on the level of support provided to students by the instructor. The PBL Challenges have been designed so they can be taught in a short amount of time (say, 2 hours) with the teacher leading (least student autonomy). Or they can be taught as a full semester project, with a physical project implemented after the Challenge is completed as the “planning phase” (most student autonomy). Challenges can be adapted to meet local scheduling, for example, two 2-hour blocks of time or meeting every day with the final day of the week for classroom presentations.
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?
In the Teacher Resources section of each Challenge under the heading Assessment Strategies is a Teamwork Assessment instrument. This validated instrument provides students with the opportunity to perform peer assessment on their teammates. Using this instrument, students rate their teammates as well as themselves in five performance categories using a 5-point Likert scale. There is additional room for comments. Upon completion of a Challenge, students are asked to complete the teamwork assessment and submit it to the instructor. The individual assessments are kept confidential. If a student is not pulling his/her weight, this instrument will catch it. Tip: For best results, inform students when the Challenge is introduced that a teamwork assessment will follow.
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?
The PHOTON, STEM and AM PBL Challenges have already been field-tested. Instructors selected to participate in the PBL Projects are expected to field-test up to two PBL Challenges in their classrooms. Participating instructors will submit an instructor survey and narrative to the project team, as well as student surveys for each field-tested Challenge. Any instructor implementing a PBL Challenge is encouraged to submit the above materials to the project team in order to aid curriculum evaluation. These surveys can be obtained from project staff. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy.
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?
The PBL Projects offers “Introduction to PBL” professional development consulting to groups of educators. Educators engaged in a workshop complete several existing Challenges in teams to introduce and acclimatize them to the PBL method. After experiencing PBL as if they are students, educators are introduced to the teacher resources and assessment strategies for implementing PBL.
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 email@example.com
Q14: What professional development services are available to pre-service STEM instructors, in-service STEM instructors, and in-service STEM teacher educators?
During the STEM PBL project, Co-Principal Investigators (Co-PI’s) at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) adapted pre- and in-service technology and engineering education courses to include pedagogical lessons in PBL. Students enrolled in the resulting Professional Practices for Teachers (TE-400) pre-service undergraduate course and the Problem-Based Learning in STEM Education (TE-506). Pre- and in-service instructors are formed into teams to solve selected STEM PBL and PHOTON PBL Challenges in order to receive a hands-on education in how to implement PBL into their own classrooms. As a capstone project for the course, students use the pedagogical strategies and technical skills they acquire throughout the semester to develop original multimedia PBL Challenges related to advanced manufacturing topics of their choosing. For more information, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Q15: When should PBL be incorporated into the curriculum? For example, is it better to introduce PBL into introductory or advanced courses?
It is best to introduce problem-based learning into any curriculum as early as possible so that students can grasp the problem-solving process early on. Students introduced to PBL in introductory courses often adapt the concepts learned in PBL to all of their courses, both technical and non-STEM related. Many students who have used PBL have expressed that they continue to apply the concepts, tools and methods they learned while solving a PBL Challenge to many other aspects of their lives. Although the PBL Challenges are technology-based, each Challenge is modifiable to fit a particular classroom’s needs, allowing even the most seemingly technical Challenges to be utilized in introductory courses. Please contact the project team at email@example.com with questions on how to adjust the PBL Challenges to fit your curriculum.
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.
Q17: What if I don’t know much about the technology of the Challenge I’d like to use?
Q18: Do I need equipment to use the Challenges?
Q19: What if I need a Challenge on a topic not covered by the Challenges the PBL team has developed?
This is a common question and the answer is that you can make your own Challenge. There are three ways to do this-the full video presentation (which is a lot of work), a document format or a powerpoint template. In all cases, the problem you choose should:
- Be an authentic “real world” problem
- Require teamwork to solve
- Meet course outcomes
- Build on prior knowledge
- Be open ended with several possible solutions
- Have resources available for students to solve the problem
- Not have a solution readily available on the internet (students can’t easily find the answer- they have to use the problem-solving techniques you want them to learn)
More information including templates is included here.