Problem Based Learning

Wendy Newstetter
Wendy Newstetter
Director of Learning Sciences Research

How would you define this big idea?

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an educational approach that uses a problem as the starting point for learning. The idea is that in working towards a problem solution, learners on a problem solving team identify the topical areas relevant to the problem, conduct individual searches of that material out of class, and bring what they have learned through their research into the problem space. Individual learners are charged with making their findings accessible and learnable to others on the team. Another feature of PBL is that the problem be complex enough to demand the integration of multiple sources of disciplinary knowledge to reach a problem solution. The overall goal of PBL is to have students practice viewing problems from multiple disciplinary perspectives or to develop cognitive flexibility.

Why is this big idea important for sustainable communities?

Problem-based learning is an appropriate pedagogical approach for apprenticing students to the complexity of creating sustainable communities. By working through a series of complex problems in a term, the teams and individual members repeatedly practice looking at the levels of complexity inherent in bringing technological solutions to communities that are facing socio-technical dilemmas. There are never single right answers. There are conflicts and trade-offs. Designing problems at the appropriate level of complexity that allow students to experience the varied aspects of sensitively engaging communities and their existing knowledge and needs while finding relevant technologies puts learners in the shoes of actual decision seekers and makers.

Learn more:

Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E. "Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn?." Educational psychology review 16.3 (2004): 235-266.

Savery, John R., and Thomas M. Duffy. "Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework." Educational technology35.5 (1995): 31-38.

Newstetter, Wendy C. "Designing cognitive apprenticeships for biomedical engineering." Journal of Engineering Education 94.2 (2005): 207-213.