Friday, February 24, 2006

The First in a Series of Observations of Problem Based Learning Classes

A Journal of Observations in Problem Based Learning
(PBL2) Classes

Week 4 (Wednesday, 22nd February, 2006)

Being present as a participating observer in a PBL2 class today, I found well motivated students working in groups and solving problems based upon scenarios outlined in the University’s PBL website (Go to ) following these links:-
           Problem Based Learning

Groups of up to four students, with roles (Math Expert, IT Expert, and so on) reported to each other on what each had been doing as homework – basically reporting to the group what they needed to know to fulfill their responsibilities to the group.

This particular scenario involved traffic problems in the UAE.

Working from forms that can be accessed online at the PBL site, students identified what aspect of the problem they needed more information on.

The next part of the lesson involved formulating research questions from these areas and using them later in actual research.

Students reported to me that they found this sort of activity useful, and their motivation to carry out the task bore this out.

With every piece of missing knowledge, each student was asked to justify wanting that particular information, citing how it would carry the problem solving exercise forward.  

The teacher – a Math teacher in UGRU – stated that prior to this type of learning, students in Faculty were returning to him asking him for help – they did not know where to begin their research.

Formulating research questions from acknowledged gaps in their knowledge is giving students much needed practical help with the puzzling questions of where to begin one’s search, what to search for, and how to refine that search in the face of a glut of information on the Internet.

These types of activities – formulating research questions – justifying the need to find out – conducting initial research – refining that search – reporting back to the group at every stage – are the basis of commercial activity in the world beyond the classroom – ‘the real world’.

Within the group, content and form – information and the language necessary to convey that information to others became indivisible, ensuring that any language learnt served the purpose of communicating ideas – the most basic function of language, and one that unreal situations in language classrooms often fail to deliver in any meaningful way.

Students quickly realize when they are being given hypothetical scenarios solely to get them to focus on particular grammar points, and just as quickly react against it, in my opinion.  The reverse was true in this particular case today; the students’ realization that they needed to communicate in ‘real’ English, as it were, to enable the group to be successful in its attempts at solving real and pressing problems meant that they were highly motivated, and that they almost certainly did not feel that they were merely jumping through hoops to please a teacher.

Language was being used to serve this most basic function, rather than the function of language being subverted to create unreal conditions in which specific language could be used – as can sometimes happen in a language classroom.

This brings me to another feature of the PBL sessions – that of the change in the role of the teacher in the class – away from a more traditional ‘font of all knowledge’ to a ‘facilitator’ – students learn what they need to learn, rather than what is inside the instructor’s head.

Certainly students need occasional guidance, prods in different directions, and assistance with language, but what they need above all is the freedom to explore the world they wish to enter.  PBL lets them experience that in the classroom – at least it did today

The next entry in this short journal will deal with other aspects of PBL in the classroom, and will hopefully shed some further light on its value, in itself, and applied to other areas of learning.

Robert L. Fielding


At 3:07 PM , Blogger T L Reynolds said...

I stidied problem-based learning in college but I never had the opportunity to see the process in action. your insight is helpful.


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