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What is Problem-Based Learning?

After completing twelve years of schooling and another 4 or 5 years of higher education, many people still find themselves unequipped to handle real-world challenges. They might have graduated on top of their classes, yet they find themselves lacking in the wake of unexpected situations or problems. It could be something like an engine malfunction in an aircraft, and that too mid-air. People may be well trained in the theoretical concepts of things, but they lack critical thinking skills, the composure, and the confidence to apply the theory they know to solve the problem at hand.

It might seem unfair to blame freshers for the lack of practical knowledge necessary to sustain themselves in a professional environment. Problem-solving is a skill that is a reward of dedicated hands-on learning and years of practice. Technical knowledge is only one of the skills a problem-solver needs, but essential skills such as critical thinking and patience cannot be achieved through theory-based learning.

Let’s discuss the process of problem-based learning and examine the effectiveness of PBL. 

What is Problem-Based Learning?

This is a student-centric teaching method that utilizes complex and open-ended problems to familiarize students with the topics in their curriculum. Apart from technical knowledge, students who have this learning experience face real-world problems that hone their critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, communication skills, and teamwork. Students are grouped into teams to promote a collaborative effort that would facilitate sharing knowledge between team members and improve their communication and people skills.
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Here the teacher is only a facilitator, and the learning process is self-directed and handled independently by the students.

How does Problem-Based Learning differ from traditional learning?

In simple terms, a traditional educator might reprimand a student for damaging a tool or a laboratory apparatus. Creating a solution for an unforeseen situation is out of the scope of conventional education. In contrast, an educator in a problem-based learning system would instruct the student or group of students to understand the situation or the loss created by this situation and instruct them to learn novel manufacturing methods such as 3D design and printing to replace this damaged tool or apparatus. There are multiple ways in which Problem-Based Learning differs from traditional learning.

  • Learning sequence
  • Traditional Learning Sequence: The learning sequence happens in the following order:
    • Transfer of knowledge: Teachers or subject experts impart knowledge to students. Knowledge is often delivered in the form of lectures. Most of the time, these lectures are one-sided, and student engagement is minimal. Most of these lectures are purely theoretical due to the lack of resources or time to familiarize the students with accurate or realistic examples. 
  • Memorizing information: The major focus of traditional learning lies in clearing examinations. Clearing written examinations only require technical knowledge, which is not often delivered in ways that students can grasp easily. There is also a lack of engagement on the part of students, due to which they fail to get a complete picture of the concepts in their curriculum. This leads to students memorizing information to clear exams. Retention of these in their memories happens at questionable levels and later it will help students improve engagement rate and ignite a passion for learning among the students.
  • Problem assigned: Problems are assigned to students individually and at times as groups, and they are expected to apply their knowledge to solve them. Students often fail to solve these problems or spend too much time remembering unnecessary information and lose a lot of the time.
  • Problem-based learning sequence: Problem-based learning happens in the following order:
    • Problem assigned: Students are grouped and assigned a real-world or realistic problem. These problems are often chosen based on topics in the curriculum.
  • Understanding the problem: Students work as a team to understand the problem and relate to it. This process is self-directed by the students, and the teacher acts only as a facilitator and guide. Students work as a team so they can divide the problem into sections and designate work or research among themselves. By the end of this stage, the students are familiarized with the problem at hand, so they are better equipped in terms of knowledge to decide what needs to be done next. There is no memorization of facts, figures, or equations.
  • Learning and applying knowledge to solve the problem: This is naturally the last stage of this learning sequence. Sound understanding of the problem would enable students to decide what skills they need to learn to complete the task. They would also be working as teams to discuss multiple possible outcomes. Learning here refers to practical learning, which involves using real-world tools or simulations.  Once they are equipped with the right skills and tools, they can apply their knowledge and solve the problem.
  • Roles: In traditional learning, the roles of those involved are fixed. There is always a teacher who is a subject expert and controls the flow of knowledge. The students have very little control over their learning process and often learn only what their teachers teach them. Traditional learning inclined more towards the comfort and availability of a subject expert to transfer knowledge.

In problem-based learning, the teacher is only a facilitator who provides students the settings and platforms to observe the situation, understand the problem, and learn the necessary skills to come up with a solution. As guides, teachers could help students gain skills they need at the right time. Also, the teacher must place students in well-mixed, diverse groups based on cultural and social factors and assign them to problems that require extensive research. The students completely direct learning, while the teacher only guides them. Problem-based learning is a student-centric approach.
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  1. Learning outcomes: The learning outcomes of traditional learning are limited to gaining theoretical knowledge. Minimal attention is given to learning problem-solving skills such as critical thinking or communication skills. Students of traditional learning systems are more prepared to clear exams than solve real-world problems.

On the other hand, problem-based learning is based on the idea of preparing students to face unforeseen situations. The self-directed and independent form of learning makes students more self-sufficient. Managing projects and working in groups will help improve people skills, communication skills, and leadership skills to a great extent. The open-ended nature of the problems helps them learn to think unconventionally or outside patterns and behaviors.

How do students approach the learning process in a Problem-Based Learning environment??

  • Analyze and Understand: The first step in problem-solving is for the group to analyze the problem to understand it and its real-world implications. Working in groups, students can break down the situation into smaller parts and divide the process of analyzing them. For this, they are expected to: 
  • Create a list of familiar details about the problem. This helps them understand what skills they have concerning those details so that they can either establish a plan to understand the problem or make another list of skills they need to learn.
  • Construct a problem statement as a team taking into account contributions made by each team member as to what they already know about the problem.
  • Get feedback from the educator.
  • Involve in research to understand unknown details related to the problem at hand.
  • Learn relevant skills, concepts related to the problem and familiarize themselves with tools that could be used to create solutions.
  • Once everyone is acquainted with the problem, take steps to devise possible solutions.
  • Provide concrete instructions regarding contributions and expectations to each team member.
  • Generate a list of possible solutions and relevant thoughts or inputs that can be useful in later stages.
  • Establishing timelines with concrete actions:
  • Establish an entire timeline with a start date and estimated date of completion.
  • Organize the inputs of each team member and create a draft of the solution
  • Make a list of steps to follow concerning project completion.
  • Prioritize steps based on their impacts on the problem and consequently the solutions.
  • Get consensus from the entire team about the timeline and action steps. Reconsider if necessary.
  • Working towards realizing the solution:
  • Divide the task into smaller parts that can be assigned to different team members.
  • Adhere to the established timelines.
  • Conduct trials in each aspect.
  • Bring together different parts of the solution.
  • Conduct trials of the final step.
  • Make a final report after completion of the process.
  • Reflective thinking and sharing of new knowledge or insights:
  • This needs to be done at every stage of the process.
  • After completing the project, students could conduct discussions to share what they have learned by working on it.
  • This step helps students become more cognizant about what they have learned and achieved by working on a project of that sort.

What are the responsibilities of a teacher as a facilitator in problem-based learning?

As a facilitator, the responsibilities of a teacher are as follows:

  • Assigning problems to students
  • Dividing them into well-mixed groups.
  • Serve as a model and source of information and guidance.
  • Help students secure resources and training as and when they require it.
  • Give feedback and necessary inputs to each group as and when they require it.

If you are an educator looking for opportunities to engage your class through problem-based teaching, SelfCAD is a free online software featuring user-friendly and intuitive tools along with free tutorials that make 3D design and 3D printing easy for anyone. Students can use SelfCAD to design tools and solutions to work on their assigned problems. You can start your journey at absolutely no cost by visiting SelfCAD. Advanced tools and features can be unlocked by subscribing to their Pro license for $14.99 per month or $11.99 per month if billed annually, or the Perpetual license costs a single payment of $599.00 for lifetime access. 

Final thoughts

PBL fosters active learning, meaningful retention, and enhancement of lifelong learning skills. Though challenging for teachers, PBL positively affects student content knowledge and development of skills, increased motivation, and engagement. Students also need support to complete tasks and integrate technology into projects.

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