Problem-based learning (PBL) is both a familiar teaching approach and a dramatic innovation that transforms the classroom experience for students and teachers. Working in groups, students confront a tangible problem -- medical diagnosis, legal dispute, policy proposal, ethical dilemma -- to resolve. Since the students lack significant information and experience, they ask questions. The stock query "why do we need to know this?" is suddenly replaced by the question "what do we need to know?" Through these questions, called "learning issues", students become responsible for their own learning; they tap into their creative resources; and they develop direction and focus. In this setting teachers become mentors and facilitators. They move among groups, directing students' discussions and energies when appropriate. Rather than lecture information or manage behavior, teachers cultivate skills, focus effort, foster resourcefulness, and maintain an interactive climate of learning.
PBL revolves around a focal problem, group work, feedback, class discussion, skill development, and final reporting. The teacher organizes and pilots this cycle of activity, then teaches skills within that context. Inviting students into a learning experience that allows them to reckon it in their own terms, this technique provides the opportunity for active learning. Also, PBL provides the opportunity to integrate diverse elements, such as case studies (the problem), group work (student teams), problem-solving (vocational learning-by-doing), Socratic method (teacher interaction with groups), and class discussion.
The mechanics of a PBL course are varied, as seen in the accompanying articles in this issue of About Teaching. These techniques are especially effective for courses in the natural sciences where the "solutions" to puzzles are more specific, but the routes are many. Law courses are similar. I teach International Relations, (IR) however, where solutions are indeterminant. Advancing and contesting proposed solutions is the political "stuff" of IR. In this light I modified liberally and eclectically the PBL framework for a Spring 1994 course entitled Contemporary Problems in World Politics. According to course ratings and end-of-semester comments, students enjoyed and valued both the course and the experience. So did I.
Rather than formal case studies, I used films and brief novels to illustrate the contemporary problems of war and violence, human rights, poverty and prosperity, and cultural clash. In each source the main character was a young adult confronting a difficult choice in a difficult situation. The weekly theme was "what would you do?". We drew conclusions about how such choices could lead to (or represent) global problems.
On Mondays, the class briefly discussed the works, noting key characters, problems, and relationships. We tried to connect the specific themes of the assigned work to larger global themes. Then students would break into their groups and I'd identify a specific or similar problem for them to discuss on Wednesday. For example, in Dawn, Elisha must decide whether to execute the captured British officer and in A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More must decide whether to compromise his principles or resist King Henry's wishes. I had them debate with each other, then vote. Intriguingly, more would have compromised their principles than not, but fully half would have executed the British officer. With this result, I divided the class into self-styled "executioners" and "compassionates." Each was to prepare a debate: to kill or not to kill? Come Friday, I reversed their roles. I had the spokesperson for the "executioners" argue the "compassionates" point of view, and vice-versa. The point was to illustrate how we can become prisoners of our own view of the world. If we can't appreciate the point of view of others, then we are reduced to violence, hence oppression and rebellion.
It is the same with PBL. By decentralizing the classroom, students discover the latitude to explore ideas and express themselves. They also find they must engage others and confront ideas novel to them. Not every student will appreciate or take advantage of the opportunities, but they will fare no less well than in a conventionally organized course. Indeed, in such proximity to energized students, they will observe the excitement of active learning. Those who become engaged will shine because they can radiate their creativity. Rather than perform on tailored assignments, such students can decide how to proceed and express themselves. These are essential skills for success in life. Why not emphasize them in the classroom?
As educators, we can easily convey information. We then become mobile, vocal encyclopedia. Yet is when we develop skills and foster learning, we become effective teachers. Many students think that "knowledge" means "information." As faculty, we realize that true knowledge implies understanding. Therefore, we need to provide opportunities for our students to foster understanding. PBL provides such opportunities. It may be adapted for myriad subjects, grade levels, or course structures. It can be used throughout a course or as a model for a single unit. Both teachers and students will be pleasantly startled by the results. It worked so well with 22 students that I'm currently using it for a graduate seminar and plan to employ it in an Intro section of 125 students.