Understanding Problem -Based Learning

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This chapter focuses on Problem-based Learning (PBL). Enquiry-based Learning is defined in the first chapter as “a broad umbrella term used to describe approaches to learning that are driven by a process of enquiry,” O’Rourke and Kahn (2005:1). Within this context Problembased Learning is seen as a set of approaches under the broader category of Enquiry-based Learning. One of the main defining characteristics of Problem-based Learning, which distinguishes it from some other forms of Enquiry-based Learning, is that the problem is presented to the students first at the start of the learning process, before other curriculum inputs. Another defining characteristic of PBL is that in PBL tutorials students define their own learning issues, what they need to research and learn to work on the problem and are responsible themselves for searching appropriate sources of information. I understand Problem-based Learning not as a mere teaching and learning technique but as a total education strategy. Four components of Problem-based Learning, as a total education strategy, are:

ƒ PBL curriculum design
ƒ PBL tutorials
ƒ PBL compatible assessments
ƒ Philosophical principles underpinning PBL
These are discussed in turn. The chapter ends by highlighting some of the starting points and success factors to consider when starting a PBL initiative. I draw on my experiences as a Problem-based Learning course co-ordinator, tutor and researcher, together with my experiences of working as a PBL education development consultant with PBL initiatives in different universities and Institutes of Technology. I base this practical introduction to PBL on theory, research and practical experience. An important part of this chapter is the voices of PBL tutors. Quotations from PBL tutors are from my current doctoral research unless otherwise stated. DEFINING PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING

Since the first humans were on this earth there have been forms of Problem-based Learning as people tackled problems including the basic issues of survival, finding food and shelter and protecting themselves against enemies. What is being discussed in this chapter is a particular set of approaches of Problem-based Learning (PBL) in higher education. This Problem-based Learning follows the research of Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) and was first implemented in medical education in McMaster University in Canada in the 60’s. The rationale for this strategy centred on the argument that, based on their research on clinical reasoning, it was more effective to teach medical students through them solving problems than through the established traditional methods of medical education. Barrows (2000: vii) outlines the original motivation for the change to PBL:

They [medical students] were bored and disenchanted when medical education should have been exciting. The committee noted that medical education didn’t Terry Barrett 14
become exciting for students until residency training, when they were working with patients trying to solve their problems. They decided that from the beginning of school, learning would occur around a series of biomedical problems presented in small groups with the faculty functioning as “tutors or guides of education.” Having started with medicine in Canada, PBL has spread across the globe and across the disciplines. In exploring the issue of defining Problem-based Learning I consider: ƒ Barrows classical definition of Problem-based Learning

ƒ Essential features of PBL
ƒ My operational definition of PBL
ƒ A web-based definition of PBL
Barrows defines it as:
The learning that results from the process of working towards the understanding of a resolution of a problem. The problem is encountered first in the learning process (Barrows 1980:1 my emphasis)

That does not mean that there cannot be other curriculum inputs e.g. lectures, labs etc, rather, the students are presented...
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