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Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

“Not having heard something is not as good as having heard it; having heard it is not as good as having seen it; having seen it is not as good as knowing it; knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.” -Xun Kuang, Chinese philosopher who lived from 312-230 BC.

2,500 years ago, Confucius emphasized active student participation as a prerequisite to authentic learning. About a hundred years later, Socrates utilized a method of vigorous shared dialogue between teacher and students to prompt deep thinking and knowledge acquisition. The dominant 20th-century teaching method was Lecture-Based Learning (LBL) accompanied by note-taking. Now in the 21st-century, we are witnessing an increasing number of educators returning to the timeless teaching principles of Confucius and Socrates.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching strategy in which students are presented with complex real-world problems or challenging questions that are used as a catalyst to prompt student learning and collaboration toward a resolution. The PBL process was developed in the 1950s for medical education and has since been adopted by thousands of teachers of business, math, science, social studies, and several other subjects. PBL is not primarily about arriving at a specific solution or answer, but rather about motivating students to acquire understanding. The carefully crafted and sequenced questions require students to first master concepts and skills. PBL may be used as the primary instructional method of a course or just as one of many instructional methods utilized in the same course.

PBL requires teachers to take an active role in facilitation through coaching students through obstacles, modeling necessary skills, and guiding group discussions. Science Outside creates several original case studies and other activities that work well in the PBL paradigm, by serving as trigger material to prompt curiosity, and utilizing a carefully sequenced set of questions interspersed with progressive reveals of additional information that may cause students to revise earlier-held views. Many of our case studies close with open-ended summative questions that are less focused on the answer than they are on the robust (yet respectful) debate they spark between students.

The following YouTube video is a great (and fun) introduction to PBL:

What is Problem-Based Learning? In Less Than 5 Minutes (I Promise)

If you are interested in learning more about PBL, we encourage you to explore the following links:

Center for Teaching Innovation (Cornell University)

Institute for Transforming University Education Problem Library (University of Delaware)

Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning (University of Illinois)

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