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Most people recall their high school and undergraduate education in fragments. Atoms possess a property called valency. Great Britain has no constitution, but is a constitutional monarchy. Many students have trouble using such discrete, disembodied facts. Yet most people define "education" as the delivery and storage of such "facts" and think of lectures as the most efficient form of delivery. However, how many of us can accurately and concisely explain how blood courses through the body? How changes in interest rates affect stock market indicators or currency exchange rates? And how does a bill move through Congress?

This paper introduces a version of active learning called problem-based learning (PBL).

Several factors are reshaping the educational environment and compelling teachers to reconsider how and what to teach. Business is restructuring. Government is trying to restructure. Our economy and culture are in flux. Why should schools and their curricula and their teaching techniques remain unchanged during this revolution in every other aspect of our lives?

Government officials, taxpayers, parents, and business leaders are demanding curricular and administrative reform to relieve pressures arising from budget woes, competing public desires, a rapidly changing workplace and marketplace, and declining student achievement on social science subjects ranging from geography and history to civics and world affairs. Many communities and educators want teachers to address violence, poverty, inequalities, and intolerance in schools and society. Community leaders and business leaders want schools to foster skills that students can take to their future careers. Indeed, business communities in several states are founding and funding alliances between state governments, business, and industry. Business executives and government officials want schools to improve students' skills in order to reduce welfare burdens and to improve individuals' ability to contribute productively to the national economy and corporate competitiveness.

What are the advantages of PBL?

Six sets of criteria offer reasons for considering PBL as an augment to one's standard teaching repertoire.

1. From teachers: Many students retain information and concepts better using PBL than using other teaching methods because PBL employs an integrated set of teaching techniques. These techniques embody the basic premise: many students will better learn information if they need to use it, and they will better see the need to use it as they try to solve specific problems. The approach encourages students to learn in a hands-on style in the context of a problem, to use immediately the knowledge they discover, to apply the information, and to teach or explain to others. With these techniques, especially in combination, students retain dramatically more information.

2. From students, educational psychology: PBL is a form of "active learning", which educational research demonstrates is the most effective technique for students to learn, apply, integrate, and retain information. Many students also prefer to learn in this active style.

Over 68% of the students are most excited by the external phenomena of people, events, and experiences rather than the internal world of ideas and concepts. Externally-oriented students learn most comfortably by devoting their energy and attention outwardly toward experiences, interactions, and talking. These students learn best by acting and discussing, then generalizing from the specific situation to broader conceptual or theoretical themes. While many courses contain some "active" activities, most courses do not emphasize them, thus skewing the learning experience away from active learners. Conversely, internally-oriented students learn best by directing their energy inwardly toward thinking, feeling, reflecting, and writing. These reflective students, comprising about 29% of the general and student population, learn best by doing what we typically call "studying" - that is, by mentally pondering and rehearsing specific material. These are the activities and skills emphasized in most courses.

3. From cognitive development: PBL moves students from the brute collection and comprehension of facts to application, analysis, and evaluation. These are the highest levels of cognitive development, a standard classification in educational development.

4. From intellectual development: PBL moves students from crudely dualistic and idiosyncratically subjective notions of knowledge into an appreciation of knowledge and decision-making as contextually-relative. These are the highest levels of intellectual and ethical development, another standard model in educational achievement.

5. From educational psychology, theories of learning: The cycle of learning moves students through several stages of learning. Further, PBL's student-centered format moves students from passive recipients of knowledge to active learners and participants.

6. Business, government, parents, society: PBL meets the express goals of business, government, and parents by developing in students basic competencies and skills that will improve their competitiveness in the workplace. Students also develop personal qualities of discipline, tolerance, and creativity, as well as the socially desirable qualities of working with others, compromise, teamwork, leadership, organization, and cooperation.

PBL does not require complete or fundamental change in one's teaching strategy. PBL can become an effective augment to current techniques and preferences. Indeed, activities may spark excitement and interest in your active learners without confounding reflective learners. By combining PBL with traditional writing and testing assignments, all students acquire a "fuller" learning experience. Thus, each student participates in a set of activities that, as a whole, challenge and build upon her/his skills and preferences.

What is PBL?

PBL is a teaching approach that requires students to take responsibility for their learning by placing them in groups to confront problems given to them by the teacher, who facilitates their explorations and efforts. As students engage the problem they identify basic principles and concepts, develop a core stock of knowledge, integrate and organize their knowledge, develop critical thinking and other skills, and learn to learn.

1. Problems Organize the Learning Environment

Students are presented with a problem or scenario: e.g., legal dispute, policy proposal, ethical dilemma, puzzling conditions. Such problems may appear in a written case, a video clip, a journal article, an editorial, a vignette, or any other workable vehicle. Students will not possess enough prior information to immediately solve well-devised problems based on concrete, open-ended situations. Indeed, information necessary to devise a solution is not provided in the problem; students must identify, locate, and use appropriate resources.

2. Much Learning Occurs in Groups

Organized into groups of 5-9 students, the students embark on a cycle of learning. Analysis, research, and reporting are three important stages, with discussion and feedback from peers and teacher at each stage. Students' initial analysis involves assuring that everyone in the group understands the basic concepts, characterizing the nature and scope of the problem, and arranging information into three categories:

- what is known?
- what is needed?
- what should be done?

After listing what is known - whether from the problem, previous knowledge, or personal experience - the group members should devise a specific statement of the problem. This statement may be based on discrepancies in data, incongruous events, anomalous conditions, or the needs of clients, constituents, or policymakers. The category "should be done?" helps students assign responsibilities for research (the next stage of the cycle). In this stage students shape the problem in their terms by dividing the tasks and delegating to group members the responsibility for researching needed information. This stage also elicits and activates students' existing knowledge, a crucial step in learning new information.

In the subsequent research stage, students collect necessary information on specific learning issues raised by the group. Students may conduct library searches, seek sources on the Internet, collect data, and/or interview knowledgeable authorities. Students teach themselves, thereby becoming responsible for their learning, as they research their learning issues. Further, they come to see the complexity and texture of the problem and, perhaps most important, may realize that information is not an end in itself. Rather, information is a means to the ends of managing problems competently.


Last, students report their findings to the group. At this moment individual students become "experts" and teach each other. Depending upon the scope and purposes of the problem, subsequent discussion may generate a possible solution or new learning issues may arise for the group to explore. Final solutions are reported to other students, to the class as a whole, and/or to the teacher. At this stage, the teacher's feedback addresses whether the original learning issues were resolved and whether the students' understanding of the basic principles, information, and relationships is sufficiently deep and accurate.