Problem-based learning method

Since May 2021, the University of Bordeaux has been working on the development of the toolbox on problem-based learning. Here are the essential points of this active pedagogy.

Implementation of a PBL sequence:

The problem-based learning method is divided into three main phases:

1) On face to face or on line class, students are grouped in teams and work together to solve a problem situation. Guided by a student booklet, they will explore the problem, determine the new skills and knowledge needed to solve the problem, and develop an action plan.

2) Each student will carry out the action plan: this may include research, interviewing, and practical work.

It is essential that the tasks in the action plan not be separated so that each student acquires all the knowledge and skills involved. If the work was divided up and then returned after this phase, this feedback would be equivalent to a peer-to-peer transmission of knowledge, which is strays from active learning.

3) Back in the classroom (face-to-face or distance learning), the groups share their learning, and then prepare together the answer to the problem situation. Thereafter, they will assess themselves and the group work in order to highlight the knowledge and skills acquired, both disciplinary and transversal.

Tutor Role:

Groups are guided through Phases 1 and 3 by tutors who may be teachers or advanced students. Guided by a tutor booklet, they will respond to students’ requests by asking questions, not giving answers. They will make sure that students have identified all the knowledge and skills they need to know, that they do not divide up the tasks in the second phase, and they will help the students to deepen their discussions.

Writing a problem situation:

This task is probably the most important and difficult task when designing your problem-based learning. You need to create a stimulating problem that immerses and motivates the students. This can be done through the realism of the situation which is close to a professional context, touches of humor, possibly provocation, or at least a controversy leading to a position.

This problem must be “open-ended”, there are several possible solutions or answers. The important thing is the students’ path of reflection, which allows them to acquire learning – the final result does not matter. It is called a “complex problem” because it cannot be solved by one person in one session. It raises subjacent problems. It must take into account the level and pre-requisites of the students, and be in coherence with the targeted learning outcomes.

Finally, the problem situation must lead the students to cooperate in groups.

Differences between problem-based and project-based learning:

The problem-based approach necessarily takes place in groups. It is the students who analyze the problem situation based on implicit elements present in the statement. They are the ones who develop their action plan. They have to design a solution. There is a metacognition stage, where the students identify the learning outcomes they are aiming for and then evaluate them at the end of the sequence.

The project-based approach can take place either in groups or individually. It is the teacher who clearly defines the problem. It is also the teacher who gives the steps of the action plan. At the end of the sequence, the students must design a deliverable, not a solution.

In both approaches, the teacher has a guiding role. The students are placed at the center of their learning as in any active pedagogy, and the students are confronted with elements of the socio-professional world. Finally, both approaches encourage self- and peer assessment.