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Digital Pedagogy - A Guide for Librarians, Faculty, and Students

This guide is meant to inform the user about Digital Pedagogy. It includes information on educational theory, a collection of case studies, and resources relevant to the study of digital pedagogy.

Problem Based Learning

Problem Based Learning (PBL) as a Pedagogical Approach

PBL is an instructional method that is a hands-on, active investigation and resolution of problems that might be found in the real world. It was originally founded in the 1960s at the Medical School at McMaster University. It emphasizes the approach of the teacher as facilitator, and is most often used in higher education. It has been adapted in numerous settings and is particularly prominent in the areas of business, dentistry, health sciences, law, engineering, education, and so on.

It is characterized by the following:

  • challenging, open-ended problems with no one “right” answer
  • problems being context specific
  • students are self directed, active investigators in small collaborative groups
  • problems are identified and solutions are agreed upon and implemented
  • teachers guide the learning process and create an environment of inquiry

The process has been described in the following way:

“Rather than having a teacher provide facts and then testing students ability to recall these facts via memorization, PBL attempts to get students to apply knowledge to new situations.”

Problem based learning can help to:

  • develops critical thinking and creative skills
  • improves problem-solving skills
  • increases motivation
  • helps students learn to transfer knowledge to new situations

(adapted from "Problem Based Learning," Learning Theories, 

Problem Based Learning and Constructivism

In "The Process of Problem Based Learning: What Works and Why,"  Schmidt et al. frame PBL within a constructivism, by examining the pedagogical process, which is as follows:

  • learners are presented with a problem in order to activate their prior knowledge
  • prior knowledge is then built upon further as the learners collaborate in small groups to construct a theory or proposed mental model to explain the problem
  • As learners continue to study related resources, their initial mental model is further modified and refined
  •  learners’ preconceptions are activated, they become more easily able to identify gaps in their prior knowledge
  •  Motivational processes support these cognitive changes. Situational interest is aroused by the enigmatic nature of the problem and acts as the motivating force that drives the learner to engage with the literature and to continue to seek relevant information until his or her hunger for new information related to the problem is satisfied (the situational interest hypothesis). 

There are numerous reasons that PBL is used. In the introduction to Problem Based Learning: A Research Perspective on Learning Interactions," Hmelo and Evensen point out that the current workplace of the 21st century requires professionals that have extensive knowledge, but who also know how to apply that knowledge and to problem solve, as well as function as part of a team. The very nature of PBL requires students to acquire these skills. 

Benefits for students of project-based learning include the following:

  •  Increased attendance and self-reliance
  • improved attitudes toward learning
  • academic development tends to be equal to or better than traditional models
  • students take on greater responsibility for their own learning
  • tends to address the needs of a broader range of learning styles

PBL changes traditional approaches to education in the following ways:

  • There is no one solution to the problem and the process is iterative
  • Atmosphere that tolerates error and change
  • Students design the process for reaching a solution and thus feel self directed
  • Assessment is taking place continuously 

Adapted from "Intel Education: PBL,", 2004.