Facilitating Problem–Based Learning Processes

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Facilitating Problem–Based Learning Processes

Teachers' Roles in PBL
Preparing Students' Mindsets
Emphasizing Collaborative Learning
Facilitating Small Group Learning in PBL
Experiencing PBL

Teachers' Roles in PBL

In a knowledge-based economy, we need new responses in the way we deal with knowledge and learners' participation. Teachers and students alike are confronted with the need to reexamine their views of:

  • knowledge
  • teacher—student interactions
  • peer interactions
  • interactions with the information milieu

Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University, noted his observation of instruction in schools (1993, 179):

The bulk of instructional time finds students listening to teachers talk, working on tasks that require little application of concepts, imagination, or serious inquiry. Description after description documents the Sahara of instruction demanding little thought from students.

Twenty-five years ago, Professor Arnold Arons (1978) at the University of Washington wrote: “Experience makes it increasingly clear that purely verbal presentations—lecturing at large groups of students who passively expect to absorb ideas that actually demand intense deductive and inductive mental activity coupled with personal observation and experience—leave virtually nothing permanent or significant in the student mind” (p. 105).

Student learning is a major focus of educational institutions. In what ways are students learning? In what directions are teachers directing their energies? What are institutions doing to make education relevant and to add value to the education process?

We need to use learning processes that will move students towards independent, lifewide and lifelong learning. The learning environments we establish should encourage reflective thinking, critical evaluation and inventive thinking .

In Chapter 1, I talked about a shift in curriculum pertaining to three foci of preoccupation. This is represented in Figure 4.1. The teacher's role in PBL is very different from that in a didactic classroom. In PBL, the teacher thinks in terms of the following:

  • How can I design and use real-world problems (rather than what content to disseminate) as anchors around which students could achieve the learning outcomes?
  • How do I coach students in problem-solving processes, self-direction and peer learning (instead of how best to teach and give information)?
  • How will students see themselves as active problem solvers (rather than passive listeners)?

Likewise, in PBL the teacher focuses on:

  • facilitating the PBL processes of learning (e.g. changing mindsets, developing inquiry skills, engaging in collaborative learning)
  • coaching students in the heuristics (strategies) of problem solving (e.g. deep reasoning, metacognition, critical thinking, systems thinking)

  • mediating the process of acquiring information (e.g. scanning the information environment, accessing multiple information sources, making connections)

Figure 4.2 illustrates these roles of the teacher in PBL and Figure 4.3 shows the teacher's role as a designer of the learning environment through the use of problems. In fulfilling these roles, the teacher manages the learning process and provides the necessary interventions to ensure that students acquire relevant knowledge and higher-order

thinking skills (reasoning, heuristics and metacognitive skills). The teacher also facilitates, coaches and mediates so that students acquire competencies to become independent, self-directed learners and learn to communicate and socialize effectively as team members.

To be effective facilitators, we have first got to change our own mindsets about learning. As Professor Arons (1978) argued:

If we are serious about cultivating some measure of the kind of understanding I have been defining … we must give students time to learn; the pace must be slow enough to let them confront evidence, to think and contemplate, to relive some of the steps by which the human mind first achieved these insights. This means we must cut down on “coverage.” It is futile and fatuous to drown students in a stream of names and jargon (p. 110).

More recently, Larry Cuban (1999), when referring to arguments about enhancing medical education, cited:

Faculty wanted students to have “more time for reflection, for unhurried contemplative reading, for assimilating the best of the original literature in each field.” They wanted students to learn that “real study is more rewarding than cramming,” and that “all our present knowledge serves mainly as a springboard into the fascinating unknown” (p. 147).

In today's fast-paced world where the half-life of knowledge is shortened, it is even more important for us to have the mindset that depth, imagination and insights and the processes of learning in a discipline are more important than the mere coverage of content. Many teachers, however, are used to teaching and disseminating content only. Owing to the examination system, we also tend to adopt a “just-in-case” attitude and cover more and more content. This is contrary to what is needed in the real world today: “just-in-time” knowledge.

Preparing Students' Mindsets

It is not easy for students to shift their mindset from one of spoon-feeding to one of inquiry and self-directed learning. Before implementing PBL, it is useful to prepare students, especially when PBL is going to feature as a major part of the curriculum.

Students are easily locked into narrow perceptions and tend to do only what is required to clear the immediate academic hurdle. It is a tragedy of the education system if students only want to know how and not why. Some form of orientation and induction is needed to help students get an idea of the processes and the “end in mind”. Help them to realize that the challenges of the world and expectations of higher education and employers are very different today. Explain why their education needs to be aligned with emphasis on skills such as (1) learning how to learn (self-directed, independent learning), (2) acquiring of depth of content and professional knowledge, (3) working collaboratively, (4) employing interdisciplinary knowledge, and (5) using critical inquiry and reflective practices.

The following are some important pointers to prepare students for PBL:

  • Help students shift their mindset.
  • Explain what PBL is in terms of what students might experience.
  • Give students an overview of the PBL cycle, structure and time frame.
  • Communicate the goals, outcomes and expectations.
  • Prepare students for the novelty and the frustrations they may face.
  • Help students take ownership of problems.

To reinforce the preparation of students for a major PBL curriculum, some of the information can be put succinctly into a handbook or on a Web site, which may include:

  • Message from the professor or coordinator to encourage a positive attitude to change
  • A statement about the real-world expectations of graduates or the kinds of professions students are being trained for
  • A description of the curriculum and where PBL features in the curriculum
  • The what, why and benefits of PBL
  • Frequently asked questions
  • Testimonies from previous PBL participants
  • Employers' endorsement or testimonials of their employees who graduated from PBL courses

Emphasizing Collaborative Learning

PBL provides an excellent vehicle for collaborative inquiry and learning. Bray and his colleagues (2000) described collaborative inquiry as a process in which people are engaged in “repeated episodes of reflection and action” as they work in a group to “answer a question of importance to them” (p. 6). According to the authors, collaborative inquiry involves:

  • formation of a collaborative inquiry group
  • establishing conditions for group learning
  • acting on inquiry questions
  • making meaning by constructing knowledge

In PBL classes, learning is done in small groups. Small group learning provides opportunities for students to be actively involved and engaged in interactive inquiry and group learning, with the aim to:

  • gain a deeper understanding of the knowledge (content and process) being acquired
  • learn problem-solving processes
  • learn to benefit from team perspectives
  • develop interpersonal and communication skills
  • learn to be effective team contributors

There are two strong arguments for collaborative learning:

  • Collaboration as a competence
  • Value of collaboration in higher cognitive and metacognitive processes

Collaboration as a competence includes inter- and intrapersonal skills and effective communication and social skills. The ability to work in teams and collaborate effectively is critical for all professionals today. Globalization calls for effective communication across cultures and we need to learn to work with others for mutual benefit and the achievement of goals. Moreover, with increasing complexity and specialization, we need to share and optimize on the various strengths of people in a group.

While visiting an international aircraft corporation in 1995, I observed that the executives and engineers there seemed to enjoy arguing and criticizing one another's ideas. I learnt later that they have the mindset that whenever they have an idea they want to know if it is good and viable, so they always welcome critiques and opinions. I was told that if you simply say “it's great” to their idea, they may actually be insulted. They may say to you: “Please critique to help me improve—I am sure you have some ideas of how this can be further improved!” Such a culture seems to create a resilient mindset. I noticed the same kind of behaviour when I attended an executive management programme taught by Stanford professors. My fellow participants were mostly senior executives in multinational corporations and self-made entrepreneurs. They were always eager to speak aloud their thoughts and ideas. One of them, a vice-president of a cruise company, told me that it is easier to make use of others to evaluate your ideas than to do it yourself because you would have already stretched your limits thinking about the problem and about new ways to improve on it.

In the PBL process, students learn that teamwork and collaboration are important for developing cognitive processes pertaining to scanning the environment, understanding the problem, gathering essential data and analysing data, and elaborating on solutions. Dialogue is essential to ensure that we are not locked into our own limited or prejudiced perspectives. It is important for developing critical thinking and reflection.

People have different perspectives and views about a problem. We should learn to exchange views to gain a better understanding of a problem situation rather than assume a “correct” or “best” answer in one's own mind. Furthermore, when it comes to understanding the different perspectives of a problem, it can be said that none of us is as smart as all of us .

Small group teaching in PBL also helps to make students' thinking “visible” to tutors. In traditional teaching, the lecturers' job is to make their thinking visible to the students by being clear, systematic and organized. We have, however, neglected an equally important, if not more important, aspect of education, which is for students to make visible to us their thinking. Are they only able to regurgitate information or are they sufficiently analytical? Are they learning to connect information and ideas? Do they see things in systemic (big picture) and systematic ways? Through collaborative discussions, students learn to inquire and employ metacognitive processes.

Facilitating Small Group Learning in PBL

In your PBL class, particularly if it is a new class, develop an environment of learning, sharing, collegiality and professionalism through appropriate ice-breaking activities. Get to know the students and facilitate communication amongst them.

If your tutorial group is small enough, with one tutor to ten students or fewer, small group learning is a lot easier. Owing to budget constraints in many institutions, tutorial classes are getting larger in number. Whatever the numbers, there are innovative ways to encourage small group learning. You can establish a small group learning climate by having ground rules about group work. For example, in a typical PBL class of say 24 students, we can break students into eight groups of three. They would be told that whenever it is time for group work they would be expected to form into groups and assume certain group roles immediately. The roles appointed are as follows:

  • Chairperson: to facilitate the discussion and ensure focus
  • Recorder: to capture in writing key points discussed
  • Reporter: to listen with a view to presenting a summary to the class

If there is a fourth person, he or she can be the timekeeper and vice-chairperson. All these roles should be rotated in each tutorial, and the tutor may observe, monitor and assess these roles. The main purpose of assigning roles, however, is to ensure that group activities are productive. Experience tells us that often group work may not be productive because people do not proactively assume roles and take up responsibilities. Even at the workplace, more often than not group discussions take place with no productive follow-up and actions. Often no one jots down the key points, and important ideas are not captured for future deliberations. Furthermore, when the time comes for sharing and presentation, there may be no volunteers. Groups also tend to stray in discussions—talking about many things except the problem! By having a chairperson to keep the discussion going and to keep members focused, time is more optimally used.

Although it is recommended that students work in groups of three or four, the tutor may also use a variety of cooperative learning techniques to combine these groups at various stages of the PBL cycle to synergize the combination of ideas, sharing of learning and the presentation of ideas. For example, groups may be asked to focus on different aspects of the problem or learning issues. In peer teaching and learning, it is also possible to get members of different groups working on similar learning issues to collaborate and to do joint teaching in two or three combined groups to their peers.

Table 4.1 provides a list of some general guiding points for group facilitation.

  • If the problem is not given beforehand, give time for more thorough individual reading. Get students to think, reflect and make notes.
  • Move around to monitor the quality of discussion. Prompt, question and ensure intended scope and preoccupation.
  • To kick off the discussion, encourage every student to articulate his or her perception of the problem so that everyone arrives at a clearer mental representation of the problem scenario.
  • Initial brainstorming may involve putting down words, phrases and ideas that come to mind with respect to the scenario.
  • Remember that PBL involves a problem and the commitment of problem solvers; hence, developing ownership of and commitment to the problem is an important aspect of the first tutorial.
  • Ask students to develop a problem statement for each problem scenario. The statement is an articulation of how the group paraphrases and takes ownership of the problem.
  • Refrain from giving answers, disseminating or teaching anything (except PBL processes) in the first session!
  • Ask another question for every question raised. Your job is to make the students' thinking visible—not your thinking or knowledge at this point!
  • Ask each member what he or she thinks. Ask what the group thinks.
  • Begin the inquiry with simple processes like describing the scenario in the students' own words and linking it to their own experience and prior knowledge. Note that the initial experience can be frustrating.
  • Get some (the better ones), if not all the groups, to share their problem statements.
  • Emphasize that this is the beginning of their self-directed learning journey and that they are to deliberate and inquire further. Suggest a fixed amount of self-directed learning time (e.g. two hours) when it comes to allocation of self-directed deliberation and information search pertaining to the problems.

Experiencing PBL

Suppose you are part of a PBL group and you are presented with the following “mosquito problem”.

There is an explosion of mosquitoes in a suburban region of Kampala, Uganda. Local news report that several villages and towns there have been under siege from disease-carrying mosquitoes. According to a report from a nearby medical centre, a number of people have been hospitalized. The usual methods of mosquito control do not seem to be effective. You are with a group of humanitarian volunteers and workers. The group has been approached to help with the problem. You have access to further support, resources and funding. What recommendations would you make to help solve the problem?

Read through the problem several times and think through before reading further. What comes to your mind? How would most people approach such a problem?

I have used such problems many times in workshops with students, teachers and educators. In about 80 per cent of the cases, the participants addressing this problem would come up with (1) a list of issues from their brainstorming and discussion and (2) a list of causes and solutions, a typical example of which is shown in Table 4.2.

There is nothing wrong with coming up with a list of issues or one identifying possible causes and solutions. What is often missing, however, is a thorough listing of the facts of the problem before going into identifying the causes. The problem with mere brainstorming of ideas is that it is often not followed by a systematic distinction of facts, hypotheses and ideas.

In PBL, the first stage is to teach the identification of the problem based on facts. Instead of stating the facts that we know or seeking additional information or more accurate data, people often move straight into hypothesizing causes and suggesting solutions. There is also a tendency to perceive a problem with a sweeping or biased perception. This first stage also entails getting students to inquire and

Table 4.2 Typical output from group problem solving
Wet seasonMassive clean-up
Stagnant waterRegular pest control
No proper fumigationEnforcement of health laws
Lack of manpowerEducation
Poor housing conditions
Poor habits of people
Poor drainage system
Ignorance of conditions for
mosquito breeding
Financial constraints

to learn to ask questions to obtain an accurate and thorough understanding of the problem.

Table 4.3 summarizes the key practices pertaining to the first stage of facilitation of the problem-solving process.

To help students develop a more systematic way of approaching problems, we can encourage the use of templates such as those shown in Figures 4.4(a) to (c). These are just examples of typical templates used in many PBL programmes. Depending on the nature of the problem and the preference of the team, any of these can be used. Other refinements and innovations are also possible (as in Figure 4.4d).

The purpose of these templates is to help us:

  • clarify facts (what we know) from ideas
  • identify what further data or information we may need
  • identify knowledge gaps
  • list new learning we need to attain (learning issues)
  • clarify things to be done

For the mosquito problem, a KNL chart may look like Table 4.4. Similarly, we can encourage better analysis in the solution phase by using a template that comprises strategies, pros, cons and consequences, such as Table 4.5.

Table 4.3 Facilitating understanding of the problem
This stage involves helping students with the following:
  • Reading thoroughly, observing and reflecting (often underlining key facts, making notes and enquiries)
  • Learning to clarify and ask questions (e.g. about terms, concepts, assumptions, vagueness and lack of data)
  • Overcoming sweeping perceptions and assumptions
  • Avoiding unwarranted narrow perceptions and bias
  • Developing systematic and thorough information gathering, accuracy, precision, as well as breadth and depth of perception
  • Contextualizing and understanding the nature of the problem confronted
  • Reframing the problem (it is only when you can state the problem in your own words that you can solve it!)
  • Understanding limitations (knowing things beyond our control)
  • Understanding delimitations (the need to deliberately define the scope of problem solving or work within the available expertise or resources)
  • Using questions to identify (and state) the problem
  • Asking why and why-not questions
Table 4.4 A KNL chart for the mosquito problem
What we knowWhat we need to knowLearning issues
Explosion in mosquito population
Site of outbreak—Kampala, Uganda
Several villages andtowns affected
A number of people have been hospitalized
Usual methods of mosquito control ineffective
Our role—to investigate problemand find solutions
Availability of additional support, resources and funding
Extent of the population explosion
Geography, ecology and environment of the areas affected
Species of mosquitoes and their effectson humans
Available hospital treatment and medical help for victims
The “usual” control methods (e.g. frequency of spraying) and why they are ineffective
How to control the spread and eliminatethe mosquitoes
Current hygiene levels, health habits, practices, existing public campaigns and education
Current state of living conditions and drainage systems
Extent of political drive/involvement to improve conditions
Preventive treatment and costs. What resources are available: budget, equipment, chemicals, pesticides, manpower, health and medical expertise, etc.
How mosquitoes multiply in this region
Geographical and demographic patterns of city; urban development plans
Information on the species of mosquitocausing the outbreak; its reproduction and life cycle; conditions that encourage breeding; impact on the health of peopleand the diseases caused
Methods of chemical and biological control to eradicate problem and prevent future outbreaks
Knowledge of types of insecticides and their effects
How to increase public awareness throughthe use of campaigns, public forums and health screening
How to remove stagnant water and other breeding grounds and how to improve drainage systems and sanitation
Relative cost-effectiveness of methods of eradication
Health management system—political and financial costs
Budget planning
Table 4.5 Solution matrix for mosquito problem
FumigationImmediate action
Covers a wide area
Inconvenience to residents
Stoppage of activities in
fumigated areas
Causes respiratory problems
Loss of valuable man-hours
Public educationLong-term solution
Preventive measure
Increases awareness
Lukewarm response
May not reach target audience
Effect not immediate
Time consuming and expensive
Decreases occurrences in the future
Ensures continuity of awareness
Raises civic consciousness
Punitive measuresHighlights seriousness
of problem
Minimizes irresponsible
actions in the future
Public outcry
Political repercussions
Opposition from pressure
Raises funding for research
Ensures better working conditions
Raises civic consciousness
Health screeningPrevents further loss of lives
Prevents spread of diseases
Strain on health department
Lives saved
Saves on medical costs in the
long run
Research and
Long-term solution
Creates database
Better response in the future
Possible cheaper innovations
Expertise needed
Resources needed
Not immediate solution
Experience gained
May discover new species
Increases reputation in the
international research
Table 4.5 Solution matrix for mosquito problem
“mosquito” wau;h
Promotes neighbourliness
?ong-term preventive
Encourages responsibility
within community
Promotes civic-mindedness
Not immediate
Poor response
Neighbours may turn on
one another
Troublesome for residents
Better or more hostile
Builds or strains social
Decreases costs
Biological control
methods such as
the use of fish
or frogs
Avoids harmful effects of
Overbreeding of frogs or fishEcological imbalance may lead
to catastrophe
Increased frequency
of fogging
Kills mosquitoes
Air pollution
Health hazards
Health problems
Frequent inspection
of possible
breeding sites
Early detection
Effective control
More manpower needed
Increased costs to authority
Manpower stretched leading to
Coordination problems
Regulatory control
of breeding at
construction sites
Reduces absenteeism of
construction workers due
to diseases
Increased costs to construction
Greater awareness of the
importance of controlling
breeding of pests

The above are just examples of how templates can be used to facilitate and scaffold inquiry and learning. Depending on the level of maturity of the students, different templates can be used. Templates can also be used to help students manage their time and learning tasks. For example, a PBL work plan may include these elements:

  • List of things to do
  • By whom
  • By when
  • Resources needed

In PBL, the tutor thus manages the learning environment to encourage students' engagement with and immersion in the problem. The tutor also plays an active role in facilitating collaborative inquiry and students' learning process.

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