Looking Ahead: The Best Way Forward for Problem–based Learning Approaches

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Looking Ahead: The Best Way Forward for Problem–based Learning Approaches

Oon-Seng Tan

Problem–based Learning and Practical Challenges

Problem–based learning (PBL) has been one of the most popular curricular innovations in education (Marincovich, 2000). Many education reform movements have embraced PBL owing to (1) its emphasis on enhancing flexible and multiple ways of thinking, (2) its paradigm of cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary learning, and (3) its problem-solving contexts that enable integration of content knowledge with real-world applications along with the development of problem-solving acumen (Tan, Little, Hee, & Conway, 2000).

The PBL architecture typically involves a shift in three loci of educational preoccupation: (1) from content coverage to problem engagement, (2) from lecturers to coaches in the role of teachers, and (3) from passive learners to active problem solvers in the role of students (Tan, 2000). The active, self-regulated, and collaborative approach in PBL requires shifts in mental models, patterns of thoughts and behaviors, and the learning method. In theory, it is easy to tell students that they need to take the role of active problem solvers rather than passive learners waiting to be spoon-fed. It is also easy to tell teachers that they should take the role of coaches rather than disseminators of knowledge. While many educators accept the rationale for PBL and recognize the potential value of such a learning paradigm, they are often disappointed with a number of practical realities (Tan, 2001). There is a need to deliberate on why the shift in academic architecture is not as simple as commonly assumed by champions of PBL.

In PBL implementation, it is recognized that staff development and student preparation are essential for mindset change. At the curriculum implementation level, there are often problems caused by confusion relating to the goals of implementing PBL, the content, the role of teacher, and the role of the learner. PBL is not a “one size fits all” methodology, but more a philosophy and approach that emphasizes the effective use of problems through an integrated approach of active and multidisciplinary learning. To effectively introduce a PBL curriculum, it is essential to review the desired graduate profile of the program, the nature of the disciplines, disciplinary goals, assessment criteria, current resources, and the profile of students. With good planning, management support, resource allocation, and staff development, PBL can become a predominant mode of learning supplemented by a range of good instructional methodologies. Many medical schools have successfully adopted PBL in their curricula (Berkson, 1993;Norman & Schmidt, 2000). Although the benefits of PBL may be apparent, the practical conversion from a traditional curriculum to a PBL curriculum can be a daunting task owing to administrative and logistic considerations as well as the lack of resources (Tan, 2002). To make the switch more manageable, PBL can be incorporated at the micro level, in project work or in certain subjects. However, we do not want too much of the same thing, such as repeating the same emphasis of the PBL cycle in all courses. It may suffice to have a few courses or modules where generic problem solving, collaborative learning, and communication are emphasized through the use of PBL approaches (Armstrong, 1991). The secret to using the PBL approach effectively to enhance thinking is (1) to use PBL strategically and align it with desired educational outcomes; (2) to understand the psychological and dialogical advantages of using PBL; and (3) to employ psychological, pedagogical, and technology tools as illustrated in the chapters of this book.

I would next like to raise several specific issues and misconceptions. For convenience, I would use the three foci described earlier (content vs. problem, teacher vs. coach, learner vs. problem solver) to point out some common misconceptions that arise in PBL transition and implementation. In the name of changing student mindsets, some PBL curricula are advocating inquiry in a vacuum where students do not have the prerequisite foundation and the basic tools of learning. Here I think there is a chasm between advocates of so-called “pure” or “authentic” PBL and the reality of students' experience. There are those who claim that PBL need not activate prior knowledge and we could start with a problem from the outset in a domain totally unfamiliar to students. In practice, there are many instances where such an assumption is questionable. There are disciplines and subjects where foundation knowledge is best disseminated first, and effective PBL entails the activation of prior knowledge. Examples of such prior knowledge would be foundation principles of physics and basic mathematical tools. The axioms, language, and tools of certain domains are examples of essential prior knowledge. Apart from foundation knowledge, it is important to ask to what extent the problem scenarios should build on and activate prior knowledge. There is thus the need to understand psychological tools and the construction of knowledge in the use of PBL.

Another misconception is that PBL facilitators do not need to have disciplinary or “expertise” knowledge. While PBL has often been advocated for the teaching of what I call lifewide skills (e.g., collaborative learning), it should be noted that disciplinary knowledge should never be compromised. The “just-in-case” syndrome in traditional examination-based curricula tends to lead to too much coverage for the sake of comprehensiveness, just in case the material may be required by examinations or a particular professional or accreditation body. In PBL, instead of comprehensive coverage, learners are empowered with learning-to-learn skills. Nevertheless, there is often a core body of disciplinary knowledge that should be defined. The purpose of PBL is to enable students to appreciate the depth of the inquiry often unique to the discipline. It is thus unfortunate that some PBL advocates are saying that there is no need for content expertise. Some even claim that PBL can be facilitated by noncontent experts so long as they are trained in PBL facilitation skills. I would argue that such assumptions are the surest way to prepare a generation of superficial learners. The acquisition of problem-solving skills, depth of disciplinary inquiry, and discipline-related reasoning skills is of utmost importance for the challenges of the knowledge-based era. Enhancing thinking in PBL involves developing a repertoire of inquiry skills and deep disciplinary competencies that can only come about through dialogue with and critique from disciplinary experts. What is needed is for disciplinary experts to be equipped with cognitive coaching skills. In short, the teacher as a coach requires process skills for making students' thinking visible and disciplinary expertise for engaging in deep dialogue.

Another point of contention pertains to the sense of empowerment or helplessness for the learner as active problem solver. Firstly, problems should be well designed to provide context and meaningfulness, taking into consideration the background, needs, and prior knowledge of students. The purpose is to motivate and engage students with problems. Too often the problems presented are truly “ill-structured” with only a paragraph of scenario. Problems need to be well written—it is the issues that are unstructured. The use of technology to enhance the richness and authenticity of problems and to provide a network of databases, information, and other resources represents an innovation in problem design and presentation that is important for motivating and scaffolding learning in PBL.

Secondly, the PBL tutor's role is that of an active facilitator of process. As a cognitive coach, the tutor poses questions and probes students' thinking to develop their acumen in problem solving and critical thinking in that knowledge field. The tutor needs to scaffold learning through a protocol of questions. In PBL, self-directed learning is often taken for granted. Independent and self-regulated learning is a desirable outcome of education. In many PBL curricula, the self-directed learning needed is tantamount to students taking on the role of the teacher: the students determine the learning objectives, decide on probable resources, mine for information, plan the learning task and decide on the depth of inquiry, monitor their own thinking and progress, peer-teach, and so forth. Many times students are unsure if the learning objectives or issues they have identified are appropriate and relevant, about where to start in terms of learning resources, about the scope of the topic in the particular discipline, about the keywords to use, how to plan the learning task, and how much to study. They often have limited time to read, reflect, and get to the depths of learning. Research in educational psychology tells us that feelings of competence, motivation, and self-efficacy are often attained through appropriate scaffolding (Tan, Parsons, Hinson, & Sardo-Brown, 2003). In many PBL curricula, students are plunged into self-directed and self-regulated learning without appropriate mediation. This often results in unproductive use of time, unnecessary anxiety, loss of interest, feeling of helplessness, and superficial learning. Students also end up producing mediocre work in their presentations. The lack of mediation and modeling of learning and inquiry may result in producing novice learners, which defeats the goals of PBL.

The above observations point to the need for PBL approaches to be underpinned by sound educational and cognitive psychology. One major reason for the PBL confusion is a failure to understand the psychological basis of learning when infusing PBL approaches into the curriculum. The chapters in this book have attempted to address some of the problems raised.

PBL, Pedagogy, Psychology, and Technology

PBL provides excellent opportunities for the application of psychology to education. In Chapter 1, we mentioned that over the last few decades the challenge of pedagogy progressively changed from making content knowledge visible to learners by enhancing clarity of explanations and elucidating difficult terrains of knowledge, to making teachers' thinking visible through pedagogy that supports and models process skills, problem-solving skills, and thinking skills, and then to making students' thinking visible through design of learning environments and processes that enable students' ways of thinking and knowing to be manifested in active, collaborative, and self-regulated learning.

As noted by the National Research Council (1999) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences: “The quest to understand human learning has, in the past four decades, undergone dramatic change. Once a matter for philosophical argument, the workings of the mind and brain are now subject to powerful research tools. From that research, a science of learning is emerging” (p. 5). Advances in neuroscience and the advent of brain imaging technologies have contributed to our understanding of the brain and learning, while recent developments in psychology have led to better understanding of the psychological processes of learning, memory, and intelligence. A broadened conceptualization of intelligence and an emphasis on practical intelligence, problem solving, and insightful thinking create opportunities for PBL models to be linked to some of these theoretical frameworks as well as applications. PBL provides possibilities of new ways of engaging the individual that can take into account “plasticity of development,” individual differences, as well as problem solving in cultural, community, and social environmental contexts.

The desired outcomes of education worldwide often include two indispensable qualities: (1) the ability to be an independent, autonomous lifelong learner and (2) the exercise and harnessing of higher-order thinking. Two decades or so of research on teaching thinking points to a confluence of greater understanding of the individual as thinker and the importance of thinking about thinking (i.e., metacognition). There are excellent opportunities for research findings on the incorporation of self-regulated learning and metacognition in pedagogy and learning to be applied in PBL environments.

Progress in cognitive science has given new support for the use of problems in learning. We have mentioned in this book that seeing configurations (the whole is more than the sum of its parts), understanding perceptions, cognitive dissonance, problem solving, and insightful learning are important aspects of learning. It can perhaps never be overemphasized that insightful, flexible, inventive, and breakthrough thinking develops best when people are immersed in solving a problem over an extended period of time. The pedagogy of PBL helps make visible or explicit the thinking as well as the richness of the cognitive structuring and processes involved. PBL can benefit from many recent studies in psychology, such as human tutoring (e.g., Chi et al., 2001), how people evaluate information (e.g., Chin & Brewer, 2001), making hypotheses (e.g., Evans, Venn, & Feeney, 2002), reasoning (e.g., Manktelow, 1999), and insightful thinking (Sternberg, 1990;Sternberg & Davidson, 1995).

The psychological perspective is probably the best way forward for PBL practices. PBL models should be developed and rooted in research on understanding of cognitive functions, metacognition, cognitive coaching, and problem solving (Gijselaers, 1996; Tan, 2003). The other related area is understanding of the roles of emotion and interpersonal intelligence that underpin self-regulated learning and collaborative learning. Neuroscience and related research has provided new insights into the functioning of the “emotional” brain and the importance of emotion, such as learned optimism and resilience, in problem solving. PBL can incorporate emphasis of these specific developments, apart from general aspects of self-directed and collaborative learning.

Lastly, Internet technologies have opened up a myriad of new possibilities in the landscape of learning for a new generation of learners. The power of these technologies in advancing PBL remains largely untapped (Chen & Tan, 2002). There are abundant avenues for research and experimentation on instructional design in e-learning with PBL approaches. We need more projects such as those by Grabowski and her colleagues (see Chapter 10), as well as more insights into the creative combination of face-to-face mediation, technological mediation, and e-learning.

So long as there are problems and learning to be done, PBL will likely continue to be an important conceptualization abounding with applied research and practice. Not unlike areas such as problem solving, PBL from the psychological and technological perspectives will always have currency and relevance. The challenge, however, is the creative use of PBL to enhance thinking and intelligence in individuals, groups, organizations, and systems.


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Looking Ahead: The Best Way Forward for Problem–based Learning Approaches

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