Problem-Based Learning

SIU has been at the forefront of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) since its inception. The late Dr. Howard Barrows, who was instrumental in creating PBL, was in residence at SIU until his retirement. The application of PBL at Southern Illinois University is seen in the Problem-Based Learning Curriculum of the medical school.

The faculty of SIU has worked closely with teachers and schools in many different disciplines and areas (secondary education, college, veterinary medicine, nursing, dentistry, chiropractic, physiotherapy, business administration, engineering, law, computer science, and social service agencies). The many workshops put on by the SIU faculty have attracted a broad range of teachers.

Although many of the sections in this website describe patient problems, PBL learning, and assessment processes in medicine, they can be seen as examples of PBL as an educational process for teachers outside of medicine. The intent of the PBL is to help you design problems in your area and apply PBL in your teaching programs.

PBL is a learner-centered educational method
In PBL, learners are progressively given more and more responsibility for their own education and become increasingly independent of the teacher for their education. PBL produces independent learners who can continue to learn on their own in life and in their chosen careers. The responsibility of the teacher in PBL is to provide the educational materials and guidance that facilitate learning.

PBL is based on real world problems
PBL is based on the messy, complex problems encountered in the real world as a stimulus for learning, integrating, and organizing learned information in ways that will ensure its recall and application to future problems. The problems in PBL are also designed to challenge learners to develop effective problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

The PBL learning process
In the PBL learning process learners encounter a problem and attempt to solve it with information they already possess allowing them to appreciate what they already know. They also identify what they need to learn to better understand the problem and how to resolve it.

Once they have worked with the problem as far as possible and identified what they need to learn, the learners engage in self-directed study to research the information needed by finding and using a variety of information resources (books, journals, reports, online information, and a variety of people with appropriate areas of expertise). In this way, learning is personalized to the needs and learning styles of the individual.

The learners then return to the problem and apply what they learned to their work with the problem in order to more fully understand and resolve the problem.

After they have finished their problem work the learners assess themselves and each other to develop skills in self-assessment and the constructive assessment of peers. Self-assessment is a skill essential to effective independent learning.

The PBL curriculum
The series of problems encountered by learners with this process make up the curriculum. The problems are put together as a group to stimulate learning of content appropriate to the course. In the PBL process learners characteristically learn far more in areas relevant to their personal needs.

The role of the PBL teacher
The principle role of the teacher in PBL is that of a facilitator or educational coach (often referred to in jargon of PBL as a "tutor") guiding the learners in the PBL process. As learners become more proficient in the PBL learning process the tutor becomes less active. This is a new skill for many teachers and specific training is required. (See workshops)

The learning group
Learning is ideally in small groups of 5 to 7 learners. As the group members work together to problem solve and learn, they acquire collaborative or team learning skills. In some settings, as in secondary education, learner groups may initially be much larger (15-35). But techniques can be used to compensate for the disadvantages of such larger groups.

PBL is a motivating way to learn
PBL is a motivating way to learn as learners are involved in active learning, working with real problems and what they have to learn in their study is seen as important and relevant to their own lives.

The objectives of PBL is to produce learners who will:

  • Engage the problems they face in life and career with initiative and enthusiasm
  • Problem-solve effectively using an integrated, flexible and usable knowledge base
  • Employ effective self-directed learning skills to continue learning as a lifetime habit
  • Continuously monitor and assess the adequacy of their knowledge, problem-solving and self-directed learning skills
  • Collaborate effectively as a member of a group

The PBL method developed by the PBLI and used at Southern Illinois University (SIU) is "authentic" and has a number of unique factors not found in many PBL approaches.

By definition, authentic learning involves the learner in activities and skills that are valued and used in the real world. This PBL method is authentic as:

  • The problems used are ill-structured messy problems like those the learner will encounter in the real world.
  • The learning process requires the skills expected of learners when they encounter problems in their lives and careers.

These are factors unique to the SIU approach:

  • The development of problem-solving skills is directly addressed in both the design of the problems used and facilitator skills employed by the tutors.
  • The PBL process is learner-centered at every step. At no time are learners told what they should learn or what resources they should use.
  • A major part of learner assessment in the curriculum is based on self and peer assessment.
  • Formal assessment in the curriculum is based on learner performance in problem solving, self-directed learning, and the extent and depth of knowledge associated with a problem.

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