Putting Students First with Problem-Based Learning

April 18, 2023

Alyssa Jackson

M.Ed. in Health and Wellness Education

Illustration of puzzle pieces coming together to represent problem-based learning

Did you ever play “doctor” as a kid, perhaps coaxing your little sibling to be the patient? You listened to their heart, looked inside their ears and asked questions to figure out what was wrong, even though you knew the issue was that they were just plain annoying.

This childhood example underscores a very powerful learning process called problem-based learning (PBL).This process is utilized by educators, instructors and professional development leaders across all subject matters and levels to increase engagement, apply learning to real-world experiences and cultivate critical thinking skills.

What is PBL?

Problem-based learning is defined by Cornell University as “a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working to solve an open-ended problem.” The instructor will set up the learning experience in the following order:

  1. Describe the learning outcomes to be achieved through the learning experience.
  2. Create the open-ended problem. Although hypothetical, this should be aligned to real-world experiences, such as medical case studies.
  3. Provide learners with scaffolds to work through the problem, including but not limited to:
    • Research articles
    • Question-and-answer sessions with the instructor
    • Textbooks covering the material
    • Group roles (if completing as a group)
  4. Establish how the learning will be assessed.

Why should instructors use PBL?

  1. It generates authentic learning experiences. Learners appreciate the opportunity to connect information they are learning to something they may actually experience in the workforce.
  2. It saves time on planning. Once you generate the problem, collect resources and create assessment criteria, most of the work for the lesson is completed. The rest comes in the form of student problem solving.
  3. It increases engagement. Our brains are stimulated by creative problem solving. Students will automatically join in on the learning experience as they attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance created by the open-ended problem.
  4. It gives room for critical thinking and creativity. All too often, learners’ creative juices are squandered by standard lecture-style classes, even though creativity and critical thinking are two invaluable tools students will need in the workforce.

What is an example of PBL?

In a healthcare course, case studies are wonderful tools to maximize student engagement and learning. Here is one example:

Stephanie enters urgent care with debilitating pain and she is afraid it is going to get worse. As a group, you must carefully formulate five questions to ask her to diagnose the problem, and then research proper treatment options with the resources provided to come up with the best care plan for Stephanie.

From this small example, students can work creatively through learned topics in an experiential, engaged format. Even if students do not diagnose the problem correctly, they can still research care options for whichever diagnoses they do make.

By formulating authentic, open-ended problems for students through PBL, instructors will transform their classrooms into a haven of engagement, learning and problem-solving, thus inspiring next generations to take these skills to novel situations in their educational and work-related experiences.

Equip yourself with even more effective instructional strategies by enrolling in an education program at American College of Education. Take a look at our M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Technology or our Certificate in Adult Education and Corporate Training.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Alyssa Jackson
Alyssa Jackson, M.Ed. in Health and Wellness Education

Alyssa is a nutrition educator with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Program through NC State University in North Carolina. She recently completed her M.Ed in Health and Wellness Education at ACE.

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