Used since the 1960s, many teachers express concerns about the effectiveness of problem-based learning (PBL) in certain classroom settings.
Whether you introduce the student-centred pedagogy as a one-time activity or mainstay exercise, grouping students together to solve open-ended problems can present pros and cons.
Below are five advantages and disadvantages of problem-based learning to help you determine if it can work in your classroom.
If you decide to introduce an activity, there are also design creation steps and a downloadable guide to keep at your desk for easy reference.
Advantages of Problem-Based Learning
1. Development of Long-Term Knowledge Retention
Students who participate in problem-based learning activities can improve their abilities to retain and recall information, according to a literature review of studies about the pedagogy.
The literature review states “elaboration of knowledge at the time of learning” — by sharing facts and ideas through discussion and answering questions — “enhances subsequent retrieval.” This form of elaborating reinforces understanding of subject matter, making it easier to remember.
Small-group discussion can be especially beneficial — ideally, each student will get chances to participate.
But regardless of group size, problem-based learning promotes long-term knowledge retention by encouraging students to discuss — and answer questions about — new concepts as they’re learning them.
2. Use of Diverse Instruction Types
You can use problem-based learning activities to the meet the diverse learning needs and styles of your students, effectively engaging a diverse classroom in the process.
In general, grouping students together for problem-based learning will allow them to:
- Address real-life issues that require real-life solutions, appealing to students who struggle to grasp abstract concepts
- Participate in small-group and large-group learning, helping students who don’t excel during solo work grasp new material
- Talk about their ideas and challenge each other in a constructive manner, giving participatory learners an avenue to excel
- Tackle a problem using a range of content you provide — such as videos, audio recordings, news articles and other applicable material — allowing the lesson to appeal to distinct learning styles
Since running a problem-based learning scenario will give you a way to use these differentiated instruction approaches, it can be especially worthwhile if your students don’t have similar learning preferences.
3. Continuous Engagement
Providing a problem-based learning challenge can engage students by acting as a break from normal lessons and common exercises.
It’s not hard to see the potential for engagement, as kids collaborate to solve real-world problems that directly affect or heavily interest them.
Although conducted with post-secondary students, a study published by the Association for the Study of Medical Education reported increased student attendance to — and better attitudes towards — courses that feature problem-based learning.
These activities may lose some inherent engagement if you repeat them too often, but can certainly inject excitement into class.
4. Development of Transferable Skills
Problem-based learning can help students develop skills they can transfer to real-world scenarios, according to a 2015 book that outlines theories and characteristics of the pedagogy.
The tangible contexts and consequences presented in a problem-based learning activity “allow learning to become more profound and durable.” As you present lessons through these real-life scenarios, students should be able to apply learnings if they eventually face similar issues.
For example, if they work together to address a dispute within the school, they may develop lifelong skills related to negotiation and communicating their thoughts with others.
As long as the problem’s context applies to out-of-class scenarios, students should be able to build skills they can use again.
5. Improvement of Teamwork and Interpersonal Skills
Successful completion of a problem-based learning challenge hinges on interaction and communication, meaning students should also build transferable skills based on teamwork and collaboration.
Instead of memorizing facts, they get chances to present their ideas to a group, defending and revising them when needed.
What’s more, this should help them understand a group dynamic. Depending on a given student, this can involve developing listening skills and a sense of responsibility when completing one’s tasks.
Such skills and knowledge should serve your students well when they enter higher education levels and, eventually, the working world.
Disadvantages of Problem-Based Learning
1. Potentially Poorer Performance on Tests
Devoting too much time to problem-based learning can cause issues when students take standardized tests, as they may not have the breadth of knowledge needed to achieve high scores.
Whereas problem-based learners develop skills related to collaboration and justifying their reasoning, many tests reward fact-based learning with multiple choice and short answer questions.
Despite offering many advantages, you could spot this problem develop if you run problem-based learning activities too regularly.
2. Student Unpreparedness
Problem-based learning exercises can engage many of your kids, but others may feel disengaged as a result of not being ready to handle this type of exercise for a number of reasons.
On a class-by-class and activity-by-activity basis, participation may be hindered due to:
- Immaturity — Some students may not display enough maturity to effectively work in a group, not fulfilling expectations and distracting other students.
- Unfamiliarity — Some kids may struggle to grasp the concept of an open problem, since they can’t rely on you for answers.
- Lack of Prerequisite Knowledge — Although the activity should address a relevant and tangible problem, students may require new or abstract information to create an effective solution.
You can partially mitigate these issues by actively monitoring the classroom and distributing helpful resources, such as guiding questions and articles to read. This should keep students focused and help them overcome knowledge gaps.
But if you foresee facing these challenges too frequently, you may decide to avoid or seldom introduce problem-based learning exercises.
3. Teacher Unpreparedness
If supervising a problem-based learning activity is a new experience, you may have to prepare to adjust some teaching habits.
For example, overtly correcting students who make flawed assumptions or statements can prevent them from thinking through difficult concepts and questions. Similarly, you shouldn’t teach to promote the fast recall of facts.
Instead, you should concentrate on:
- Giving hints to help fix improper reasoning
- Questioning student logic and ideas in a constructive manner
- Distributing content for research and to reinforce new concepts
- Asking targeted questions to a group or the class, focusing their attention on a specific aspect of the problem
Depending on your teaching style, it may take time to prepare yourself to successfully run a problem-based learning lesson.
4. Time-Consuming Assessment
If you choose to give marks, assessing a student’s performance throughout a problem-based learning exercise demands constant monitoring and note-taking.
You must take factors into account such as:
- Completed tasks
- The quality of those tasks
- The group’s overall work and solution
- Communication among team members
- Anything you outlined on the activity’s rubric
Monitoring these criteria is required for each student, making it time-consuming to give and justify a mark for everyone.
5. Varying Degrees of Relevancy and Applicability
It can be difficult to identify a tangible problem that students can solve with content they’re studying and skills they’re mastering. This introduces two clear issues.
First, if it is easy for students to divert from the challenge’s objectives, they may miss pertinent information.
Second, you could veer off the problem’s focus and purpose as students run into unanticipated obstacles. Overcoming obstacles has benefits, but may compromise the planning you did. It can also make it hard to get back on track once the activity is complete.
Because of the difficulty associated with keeping activities relevant and applicable, you may see problem-based learning as too taxing.
Steps to Designing Problem-Based Learning Activities
If the advantages outweigh the disadvantages — or you just want to give problem-based learning a shot — follow these steps:
1. Identify an Applicable Real-Life Problem
Find a tangible problem that’s relevant to your students, allowing them to easily contextualize it and hopefully apply it to future challenges.
To identify an appropriate real-world problem, look at issues related to your:
- Students’ shared interests
You must also ensure that students understand the problem and the information around it. So, not all problems are appropriate for all grade levels.
2. Determine the Overarching Purpose of the Activity
Depending on the problem you choose, determine what you want to accomplish by running the challenge.
For example, you may intend to help your students improve skills related to:
- Curriculum-aligned topics
- Processing diverse content
A more precise example, you may prioritize collaboration skills by assigning specific tasks to pairs of students within each team. In doing so, students will continuously develop communication and collaboration abilities by working as a couple and part of a small group.
By defining a clear purpose, you’ll also have an easier time following the next step.
3. Create and Distribute Helpful Material
Handouts and other content not only act as a set of resources, but help students stay focused on the activity and its purpose.
For example, if you want them to improve a certain math skill, you should make material that highlights the mathematical aspects of the problem.
You may decide to provide items such as:
- Data that helps quantify and add context to the problem
- Videos, presentations and other audio-visual material
- A list of preliminary questions to investigate
Providing a range of resources can be especially important for elementary students and struggling students in higher grades, who may not have self-direction skills to work without them.
4. Set Goals and Expectations for Your Students
Along with the aforementioned materials, give students a guide or rubric that details goals and expectations.
It will allow you to further highlight the purpose of the problem-based learning exercise, as you can explain what you’re looking for in terms of collaboration, the final product and anything else.
It should also help students stay on track by acting as a reference throughout the activity.
Although explicitly correcting students may be discouraged, you can still help them and ask questions to dig into their thought processes.
When you see an opportunity, consider if it’s worthwhile to:
- Fill gaps in knowledge
- Provide hints, not answers
- Question a student’s conclusion or logic regarding a certain point, helping them think through tough spots
By participating in these ways, you can provide insight when students need it most, encouraging them to effectively analyze the problem.
6. Have Students Present Ideas and Findings
If you divided them into small groups, requiring students to present their thoughts and results in front the class adds a large-group learning component to the lesson.
Encourage other students to ask questions, allowing the presenting group to elaborate and provide evidence for their thoughts.
This wraps up the activity and gives your class a final chance to find solutions to the problem.
Click here to download a condensed guide to designing problem-based learning activities, which includes advantages and disadvantages.
The effectiveness of problem-based learning may differ between classrooms and individual students, depending on how significant specific advantages and disadvantages are to you.
Evaluative research consistently shows value in giving students a question and letting them take control of their learning. But the extent of this value can depend on the difficulties you face.
It may be wise to try a problem-based learning activity, and go forward based on results.
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