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Excerpts from “Ask Not Only ‘What Can Problem-Based Learning Do For Psychology?’ But ‘What Can Psychology Do For Problem-Based Learning?’ A Review of the Relevance of Problem-Based Learning For Psychology Teaching and Research”

Excerpts from “Ask Not Only ‘What Can Problem-Based Learning Do For Psychology?’ But ‘What Can Psychology Do For Problem-Based Learning?’ A Review of the Relevance of Problem-Based Learning For Psychology Teaching and Research”

Problem-based learning (PBL) is more than a pedagogical method (sometimes referred to as a didactic approach). It is an orientation to teaching and learning falling under the broad umbrella of student-centered, inquiry-based, or active learning approaches (Barrett, 2005; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). PBL was pioneered in the 1960s in the Medical School at McMaster University, Canada (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980) [. . .]. The fundamental principle of PBL is to equip students with an investigative approach and to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their learning. As the main processes of PBL are rooted in problem solving, self-directed learning, and group interaction, this places psychology very much at the center of how PBL works and how it may be understood as a teaching and learning approach. [. . .]

Two students experimenting in a chemistry class.


When students problem solve, either working together or individually, they are able to have control in their learning, building upon past knowledge and using new skills when challenges arise. This is an example of problem-based learning.

PBL places open-ended problems rather than defined curriculum content at the heart of learning (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). A problem in PBL is an issue that is investigated, discussed, and analyzed, which could take the form of a puzzle, a scenario, or a case study (Barrett, Cashman, & Moore, 2011). As there are no fixed and final solutions and numerous ways to solve these problems, students can study the same problem but learn different things from their engagement with it. The problems are used to stimulate the learning of students who are normally required to work collaboratively in small groups in order to identify what is “unknown” about the problem. Students will then conduct individual research to obtain content information, before returning to the group to collectively devise an appropriate response and a possible and plausible “solution” to the problem. As students are required to actively take responsibility for what and how they learn, PBL is not simply another method of teaching and relies on a very different philosophical approach to more tutor-centered pedagogies (Dolmans, Wolfhagen, van der Vleuten, & Wijnen, 2001; Savin-Baden, 2000, 2003). It also necessitates a fundamental revision of the roles of students and teachers, respectively. The main goal of PBL is to help students become self-directed learners, who are able to seek out, apply, and reflect critically on knowledge, especially as this applies to professional contexts (Hmelo-Silver & Barrows, 2006; Hung, Jonassen, & Liu, 2008). [. . .]

PBL is often imagined as a single general education strategy, but in reality there are a number of PBL models (Barrows, 1986), as can be illustrated by the Aalborg (Kolmos, Fink, & Krogh, 2006), Maastricht seven-step (van Berkel, Scherpbier, Hillen, & van der Vleuten, 2010), and open-ended PBL (Boud, 1985; see also Davidson & Howell Major, 2014) models, with the former including project-based PBL. These models differ in terms of whether they require a tutor at every session (Maastricht) or not (Aalborg), whether they involve many short problems (Maastricht) or longer projects (Aalborg and project-based PBL), and whether there are a series of steps to be followed (Maastricht) in terms of guiding collaborative work in groups. There are also variations in how PBL is integrated into curricula, ranging from PBL approaches underpinning a whole program of study through to the use of PBL in a single module or session. Savin-Baden (2000), when outlining the different models and modes of PBL, notes that the decision over which specific model to use will, in part, be dependent on the discipline within which it will be used. In addition, those disciplines with more specific and clearly defined core curricula may find it harder to adopt the open-ended approaches to knowledge acquisition and transfer inherent in PBL. [. . .]

Source: Wiggins, S., Chiriac, E. H., Abbad, G. L., Pauli, R., & Worrell, M. (2016). Ask not only “What can problem-based learning do for psychology?” but “What can psychology do for problem-based learning?”: A review of the relevance of problem-based learning for psychology teaching and research. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 15(2), 136–154. Copyright © 2016 SAGE Publications

Problem-based learning (PBL), although an instructional strategy, offers information about how to apply constructivist-based strategies to one’s own learning opportunities. PBL emphasizes learning environments that encourage learners to discover possible answers themselves, rather than simply presenting the information to the learners. Finding answers using one’s own construction of the problem is an ideal environment for learners. Strategies for applying PBL include presenting learners with open-ended problems, encouraging questions, suggesting that there are no fixed processes or solutions, and nurturing opportunities for group interactions. In addition, PBL introduces variables that become applicable to our Chapter 6 discussion about humanism and learning: self-regulation, self-directed learning, and authentic learning.

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