Problem–Based Learning and Higher–Order Thinking

views updated

Problem–Based Learning and Higher–Order Thinking

Cognitive-centred Learning Processes
Facilitation of Thinking
Mediated Learning in PBL

Cognitive-centred Learning Processes

The development of problem-solving acumen and of competencies for creative problem solving is an important goal of PBL. This requires the PBL tutor or coach to intervene in many thinking (cognitive and metacognitive) processes.

The processes that follow engagement of the problem include:

  • problem clarification
  • problem definition and reframing
  • problem analysis
  • problem summary and synthesis

In order to clarify, define and reframe the problem in their own words, students should realize the need to take time to think and plan. For example, in the mosquito problem given in the previous chapter, it is not uncommon to find students jumping to conclusions and giving solutions such as how to control dengue fever when they have not even ascertained some of the facts given. The statement that the “usual methods of mosquito control do not seem to be effective” is often overlooked or ignored. Many also do not pay enough attention to other details or raise questions pertaining to the geography and possible implications of the site of occurrence.

Effective problem solving in the real world involves the harnessing of cognitive processes including:

  • “planful” thinking (taking time to think and planning)
  • generative thinking (coming up with ideas and taking multiple perspectives)
  • systematic thinking (being organized, thorough and systematic)
  • analytical thinking (classifying, logical analysis and inference)
  • analogical thinking (applying similarities, patterns, parallel and lateral thinking)
  • systemic thinking (holistic and helicopter thinking)

Cognitive coaching here involves helping students refrain from unplanned (impulsive) reactions, overcoming sweeping perceptions and unwarranted narrow perceptions. By repeatedly querying about the facts to obtain a clear mental picture, problem solvers also learn to develop systematic and more thorough information gathering.

Often PBL problems are designed in such a way that additional data and information are given only when students ask for them. In other words, the “hypertext” has to be identified and asked for. For example, in the mosquito problem, if students ask for details of the geography of Kampala, the information will then be supplied to them.

Thinking is infused in PBL when students plan, generate hypotheses, employ multiple perspectives, and work through facts and ideas systematically. Problem resolution also involves logical and critical analysis, use of analogies and divergent thinking, and creative integration and synthesis .

In nursing education, for instance, we may present a problem based on an emergency scenario.

Ah Kow, a polytechnic student, has been rushed to the Accident and Emergency Department at Changi Hospital. He is breathing very rapidly and heavily. He has been camping outdoors at East Coast Beach.

Further information will be supplied when students ask for it. The purpose is to get students to ask for the patient's medical history. If the additional information given is that “Ah Kow has diabetes”, then it becomes much more apparent that the problem could be one of insulin. The students may then suggest an immediate blood test, and the “hypertext” related to this problem scenario would be the laboratory report on the blood test.

PBL processes and coaching involve getting the mind to make connections through reflection, articulation and learning to see different perspectives. In the PBL process, the problem scenario and scaffolding (such as the KIND template and questions posed) help learners develop cognitive connections. Having obtained more data and new information, students need to apply analytical thinking skills, such as comparing, classifying, logical thinking and inferential thinking. Good analytical thinking involves not only logic but also knowing when we have to interpolate and extrapolate.

In his book Reasoning and Thinking, Manktelow (1999) noted that a substantial amount of psychological research supports the observation that bias and error in human reasoning are widespread. Jonathan Evans and his colleagues (2002) found in a study of undergraduates that in problem solving there is a tendency for people to focus on a single hypothesis. People also have a tendency to have what he termed “pseudo-diagnostic” response, rather than diagnostic response, based on their background and belief. Evans gave the following example: Suppose a patient has symptom S and the fact is that symptom S is present in 95 per cent of people suffering from disease X. Jumping to the conclusion that the patient is likely to suffer from X without further probing constitutes weak reasoning. Whether the patient is suffering from X would in fact be dependent on at least two further questions: (1) the prevalence of X relative to other diseases and (2) the likelihood of S being present in other diseases.

My point is that there is a need to emphasize the learning of problem solving through facts and rationality. That weak thinking is prevalent is supported by psychological research. The PBL process and coaching help develop flexibility and helicopter views by enhancing connectivity as illustrated in Figure 5.1.

Enhancing connectivity in thinking includes:

  • connecting with prior knowledge
  • connecting with prior experiences
  • connecting with the real-world context
  • connecting with theories
  • connecting with other people's perceptions
  • connecting with new facts and ideas

Recent studies such as that by Chin and Brewer (2001) reveal that data evaluation should be the central goal of student learning. When it comes to solving a problem, the ability to construct an accurate model and to elaborate on the model is often limited. There is also

The ability to make intelligent connections is a key to problem solving in the real world. Cognitive coaching in PBL helps enhance connectivity in data collection and in elaboration and communication of information .

evidence that poor problem solving occurs because of the tendency to accept or reject particular key linkages. In other words, a set of cognitive strategies (such as those pertaining to searching for alternative causes and so on) to deal effectively with a given set of data is often lacking. Studies such as that of Lee and Anderson (2001) point to the idea that multiple mechanisms are at work when people work on tasks and fluency in performance can be developed through exercising of general strategies and appropriate attention shifts. PBL trains students to develop and internalize problem-solving competencies by increasing their awareness of different ways of thinking needed in working on a problem.

Effective facilitation of PBL thus involves cognitive coaching and intervention. In my research based on the cognitive theories of Robert Sternberg of Yale University and Reuven Feuerstein of the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential, I have identified many key cognitive functions in problem solving as shown in Figure 5.2.

Previous studies in psychology such as those of Bourne and colleagues (1979), West and Pines (1985), and Sternberg and Davidson (1995) have highlighted the importance of paying attention to cognitive processes to enhance learning and problem solving. In the model of cognitive coaching in PBL shown in Figure 5.2, I have also

highlighted the importance of looking at thinking using a refinement of the information processing model that I have called the 3Cs:(1) collecting information, (2) connecting information, and (3) communicating information.

Lapses in reasoning and good thinking can occur in any of these phases of information processing. The practice of scanning the information field, paraphrasing, dialogue, peer critique, and articulation in PBL helps sharpen thinking in collecting, connecting and communicating information.

Facilitation of Thinking

The PBL cycle also includes:

  • formulation of learning objectives
  • acquisition of new information (following self-directed learning)
  • new iteration of problem analysis
  • problem solution
  • review and evaluation of solution

Table 5.1 summarizes the key processes in the PBL problem resolution process.

The tutor's role is to mediate learning by probing and questioning to facilitate learning of key concepts, principles and theories. The tutor scaffolds, bridges and closes gaps in guiding students towards learning what is important in solving the problem and in acquiring knowledge in the disciplines concerned. In tutorials, a variety of cooperative learning approaches can be used to make collaboration interesting and productive. The tutor encourages comprehensive coverage and critical evaluation of information and research resources.

Facilitating inquiry for deeper learning is a major challenge. Effective PBL tutoring employs a good range of scaffolding and questioning techniques. Effective scientists, entrepreneurs and decision makers know how to ask good questions to help arrive at solutions. The goal of inquiry in PBL is to help students internalize such dialogues .

One of the greatest challenges in working with PBL approaches in the curriculum is facilitating inquiry for deeper learning (Gallagher et al., 1992). I have come across PBL classes that were not effective because the tutors failed to facilitate the necessary inquiry. The

Table 5.1 Facilitation of PBL problem resolution process
Problem analysis
  • Cognition: connecting with prior knowledge (3Cs activated), further clarification, scanning-spanning-searching, “organizational” thinking, systematic exploration, open-mindedness, creativity and divergence
  • Tutor's prompting to ensure key areas to be learnt are not overlooked
Problem summary and synthesis
  • Overview of what has been analysed and hypothesized
  • Articulation and summarizing of key information
  • Clarity of mental field and mental representation of problem
  • Systematic and systems (holistic) thinking
Students' formulation of learning objectives
  • Commitment to the cause of the problem
  • Ownership of roles and responsibilities
  • Zeroing in on what is important to know and learn
  • Gaps in knowledge formulated as learning issues (in the form of questions)
  • Learning issues aligned and connected to context
  • Learning issues can be multidisciplinary
Self-directed learning and self-study
  • Activation of prior knowledge and goal-directed reading
  • Immersion in the relevant resources (e.g. Internet, reference material)
  • Learning with a view to sharing
  • Evaluating sources of information
Reporting to the group
  • Learning by teaching others
  • Articulation and paraphrase of knowledge acquired
  • Demonstration of mastery of knowledge
Iteration of group problem solving
  • Integration of knowledge from different disciplines
  • Correction of misconceptions
  • Explanation as well as application of knowledge from various sources to solve the problem
  • Critique of value, validity and reliability of information and resources brought to the group
  • Application of new knowledge to the problem
  • Reflection and critique of prior thinking and knowledge
  • Doing all the necessary learning and developing new hypotheses in the light of new learning
Review and evaluation
  • Closure: tutor's summarization and integration of what has been learnt (major principles, concepts, gaps, etc.)
  • Evaluation of PBL processes (e.g. problem solving, self-directed learning, group support and teamwork)

students complained to me and called the tutor “Mr What Do You Think” because the tutor repeatedly asked one and only one question: “What do you think?” Many of us are not used to using an inquiry mode of teaching and facilitation. Much staff development will be needed in this area.

Chi and his colleagues (2001) reported that the interactive style of dialogue can be a very effective form of learning, provided the tutor exercises a good amount of scaffolding through good questions.

Table 5.2 provides examples of questions tutors may use in coaching the various PBL stages. The list is not meant to be exhaustive and merely serves to help tutors devise more of their own questions.

Table 5.2 Examples of questions to facilitate inquiry
Meeting the problemWhat are your thoughts on this scenario?
What comes to your mind?
What do we know?
What are the statements of facts we can identify?
What is meant by the sentence … ?
What do you think about that statement?
Do you have any idea about this term (concept, etc.)?
Could you explain what is meant by the term (concept, etc.)?
Problem summaryHow would you paraphrase … ?
Describe in your own words …
Describe the sequence: what came/happened first … followed by what?
What can we say about the who, when and where?
Could you restate what the group discussed?
Does the group have the same mental picture of … ?
Problem analysisWhat can we make out from the information?
What additional information might we need?
What do we need to know?
Can we know for certain … ?
Could you think of anything else?
What does that link you to?
Have you considered all the possibilities?
Do we have enough data/knowledge to suggest that … ?
Table 5.2 Examples of questions to facilitate inquiry
Formulation of learning objectivesWhat is important for you to solve the problem?
Have you listed all the key questions?
Why do you think this issue is important?
What makes you include … ?
What kinds of resources might be helpful?
Bringing new knowledge and
problem solution
Describe what you have learnt about …
Explain what you understand by …
Specifically, what do you mean by … ?
How do you know?
Could you elaborate on … ?
How valid and reliable is this?
How would you connect what you learnt to … ?
How does it work?
Why is it so?
Explain the strategy …
Explain your solution …
What is at stake if we do this … ?
What is at stake if we do not … ?
What are the pros and cons?
What are the consequences?
What would the end product look like?
Review and evaluationWhat are three key things you have learnt about the problem?
What did you learn about yourself and your peers?
What did you learn about your problem-solving approaches?
What did you learn about your independent learning?
How different would it be if…?
What other sources and counterchecks do you have?
What solution might you propose to meet the following criteria?
How do you apply it to another situation?
What other follow-up might you recommend?
If you'd do it again, what might you do more/less?
How might you do it differently the next time?

Mediated Learning in PBL

The characteristics of effective PBL coaching can be summarized by the mediated learning experience (MLE) model. First expounded by Professor Reuven Feuerstein (Feuerstein, 1990; Feuerstein & Feuerstein, 1991), the model has been represented by Tan (Tan, 2000a; Tan et al., 2003) as shown in Figure 5.3. It captures the key

parameters for teacher interaction with students that promotes inquiry and metacognition. It also takes into consideration the affective and motivational aspects of learning that underpin good PBL.

As in all good interactive approaches to learning, PBL interactions should include three indispensable characteristics: (1) intentionality and reciprocity (IR), (2) mediation of meaning (ME), and (3) transcendence (T).

In terms of the first characteristic, the PBL tutor should have a clear intention of what inquiries to elicit. Reciprocity refers to the tutor's alertness and awareness of how the learner responds to the intention of the PBL process. The presence of this IR parameter implies that an explicit and purposeful outcome should result from the interaction. PBL tutors need to be clear about their intentions and the outcomes, such as learning of content, problem-solving skills and lifewide skills as described in the earlier chapters.

The next major characteristic is the mediation of meaning. In any learning situation, the awareness of meaning constitutes a major component of the motivation system. The reason problem scenarios are powerful is because of the real-world context and the meaningfulness they present. In the coaching and probing process, many why-questions are raised. An effective mediator helps the learner discover the significance of working on such a problem as well as the value of the PBL process.

Transcendence refers to the transfer of learning across contexts and situations. One main reason PBL is advocated in many curricula is its effectiveness in bringing about transfer of learning. Students learn to take a lifewide approach to learning so that they actually learn how to learn.

These three parameters (IR, ME and T), represented in the inner ring of Figure 5.3, are necessary and sufficient conditions for MLE. The other parameters are often present whenever applicable in effective learning situations. Mediation of feelings of competence (FC) relates to the need to provide “successful experiences” in the tasks given to students and to remove the unwarranted fear of failure. FC is important as the fear of making mistakes often results in a lack of commitment to try again. The purpose of scaffolding is to help develop the sense of competence in problem solving.

In PBL, tutor—learner and learner—learner dialogue and questions are a cornerstone of learning. We ask questions such as: What comes to your mind as you approach the problem scenario? What are your hypotheses? What strategies might we use? What might you do differently if the criteria are now changed? This is the mediation of reflective practice (RP), which relates to self-regulatory and metacognitive behaviours. Metacognition is an essential competence in PBL, as pointed out by Gijselaers (1996).

Mediation of interdependence and sharing (IS) refers to a “sense of belonging” and sharing behaviour. We have already mentioned the importance of collaboration and that one of the roles of the PBL tutor is to broaden students' perspectives on learning. When it comes to understanding a real-world situation and getting a full perspective, “none of us is as smart as all of us”. Furthermore, the ability to harness information from others and build a pool of people resources is a life skill. The tutor in PBL encourages students to get out of their comfort zones and learn to seek information from various sources and from people. Teamwork, interdependence and knowledge sharing are attributes emphasized in today's world.

The formulation of learning issues in PBL, the need to teach one another and the challenge of solving a real-world problem provide strong goal-directed behaviours (GO). The tutor's role is to guide and ensure that individuals and groups are constantly engaged in such goal-seeking and goal-attaining behaviours. Good PBL programmes must also offer sufficient challenge and novelty, hence the NC parameter. After all, PBL is about enhancing intelligence to confront ill-structured and novel problems.

The repertoire of MLE in Figure 5.3 is meant to be a simplified map to enable PBL tutors to focus on key behaviours. For example: Is the learning purposeful, meaningful and transferable? Does the learning environment encourage feelings of competence, goal-seeking behaviours and the need for challenge and novelty? Are we optimizing learning by emphasizing heuristics, scaffolding and connecting students to important milieus of knowledge? Do the PBL process and design encourage development of collaborative and peer learning?

To summarize, PBL facilitators need to bear in mind the quality of interaction, inquiry and thinking. We should use the PBL process to make students' thinking “visible” so that we can encourage deeper learning.

PBL is about making students' thinking visible and stretching multiple ways of thinking to confront problems that are illstructured and novel. PBL coaching involves active mediation of purpose, meaning, transfer of learning, optimistic seeking of alternatives, goal-directedness, challenge, collaboration and self-reflection .

About this article

Problem–Based Learning and Higher–Order Thinking

Updated About content Print Article