Reflections on problem-based learning

Edited and cross-posted from my reflections on a problem-based learning activity (part of my education studies coursework).

Under traditional, teacher-centred modes of instruction, the teacher provides direction and draws boundaries for learning. But under problem-based learning (henceforth PbL), the students are given much more freedom to explore and pick their own focus learning.

Typically, I read assigned references and any other literature I happen to find, note the key points I have identified, link key points to existing concepts I already know, and then assess my understanding with assessment exercises, or by creating something–an article, a piece of writing, a project–that incorporates this new information.

Under PbL, this process has remained largely the same, but I was able to focus more on my areas of interest, and lett other group members focus on their own identified areas of interest. In discovery and reporting, not only did I have to link my own reading to my prior knowledge, I also had to do the same for the readings of other group members, as well as their prior knowledge. The end result is that the content we covered as a group is certainly much more than any of us would have covered individually.

What I also discovered is that personal interest does play a big part in the depth of content covered by each group member. A group member investigating an area they are personally interested in is more likely to read the literature in greater depth, and draw links to their own prior knowledge, which should presumably be greater than average, if they are interested in the topic. My group members were able to draw much more from their readings on peers, family and environment influence respectively than I would have done on my own. I used to think group work was just about playing to the best of each other’s strengths, but I now see that combining interests is just as important as well.

However, although PbL has taught me a lot about the topics I looked into, the way it was implemented without in-depth content assessment or content creation, only presentation, leaves much of this acquired knowledge tentative and untested, and I am not confident to really apply this new knowledge.

Assessment #

Under traditional modes of learning (didactic/learning cycle), students assess their knowledge and understanding by answering questions, usually in the context of assessment. With well-designed questions, students can see if they have learned the syllabus concepts properly; a good grade should mean that they have understood the content sufficiently.

Under inquiry-based or problem-based learning, such modes of assessment are replaced by testing of the students’ solutions. In science, the solutions can be tested either in an experiment, or by attempting to use it to explain various phenomena. In social science, further studies can be made to assess the validity of the students’ models, or to see if they can explain current observations.

In this PbL scenario, though we may have learned a lot, it is difficult to assess if what we learned is applicable or accurate. We do not have a chance to apply these ideas to resolve an imaginary student’s motivational and learning issues, nor do we get a chance for our solution to be evaluated by experts or experienced educators. The focus in our assessment is on creativity and presentation, not so much on relevance and applicability in actual context. In such cases, even with an impressive presentation, it is hard for us to tell if what we have discovered is really useful in the real world, or merely discovery for its own sake. Such learning is tentative learning, picked up from reading but held at length in the mind only until it can be verified in the real world.

Real-world context #

The problems we are given are  scenarios that could occur in our line of work. They definitely have much real-world context. However, out in the real world, we would also be able to interview the student, to ask her more about her situation, and also to find out more information that would better focus our efforts. Without this interaction with context, what we experience is real-world context, but not real-world learning. We collaboratively generate hypothetical solutions based on a real-world problem, but do not learn anything about the problem from it until we actually have a chance to try it out.

Understandably, these scenarios are meant as springboards for our reading and research into selected areas of interest, and not meant as problems to be ‘solved’. But this does nothing to alleviate the anxiety we feel, that our learning, though well-grounded in psychology literature and research, is not grounded in real-world experience, whether our own or that of an expert’s. Many of the research papers are noticeably carried out in a cultural context quite different from ours. Per Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory, as well as various findings from research on the social context of learning, all of these affect the outcome of education. We learn only by trying out our proposed solutions, to see if our hypotheses work, or by hearing how the efforts of others have turned out. Otherwise, we fail to fully realise some dimensions of meaningful learning: self-directed learning, learning by doing, and real-world context.

Boundaries to learning #

In our research for this PbL, we were asked not to focus on motivational theories or on teacher influence. This was done with real limitations in mind, due overlaps with other parts of the course. Although this in no way affects each group’s ability to come up with an interesting and engaging presentation, I believe this rather limits the scope of learning that could otherwise have been accomplished with a more relaxed problem boundary.

The group as a whole learns more when each member is fully engaged in an area of their own interest. If this area of interest falls within the marked out-of-bounds areas, the group as a whole forfeits this potential for deeper learning. This is especially the case for PbL scenarios where student motivation is clearly one of the major factors, which I am sure many student teachers will be interested in — motivating students to study is always a difficult task for new teachers. Forcing student teachers to focus on cognitive and learning theories instead, is forcing them to go over content that is already covered in other courses—especially the content teaching courses—such as the four cornerstones of the institute’s learning theory syllabus: behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and social learning.

While emphasis through repetition is a useful way to reinforce learning, I feel that what limited time we have [ed. note: the education studies programme runs for a year] should be maximised for us to explore as many areas as possible, especially when we’re applying a learning model of wide scope, such as PbL. It is quite likely that we may not have another opportunity to properly read into motivational theories, discuss them with peers, and apply them to static real-world scenarios again until we go for personal development courses.

Despite these limitations and shortfalls, this PbL session has been fruitful as a collaborative learning effort, and has taught me much about PbL dynamics. I will draw on this experience in future planning for PbL activities, so as to make such future activities more meaningful.