Engaging Students in the Process of Learning Through Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

In “Engaging Learners: A Problem-Based Learning Approach,” presenters Terry Goodin, Christina Cobb, Jennifer Vannatta-Hall, Rudy Dunlap, and Lori Kissinger addressed various hands-on strategies for engaging learners in the classroom through what they describe as problem-based learning, or PBL. This type of learning, PBL, is structured by eight guiding principles, which includes introduction to the problem; learning objectives of the course; guiding questions for facilitating student involvement; resources for navigating students to solutions; a product that results from the students’ engagements with the problem; the amount of time needed to execute the event; and assessment techniques that allow the instructor to adequately evaluate the product produced during the event. As these principles make clear, PBL is organized around the problem and the instructor’s objective: what will the students learn from participating in the event or what does the instructor wish for the students to learn during the event? The answer to one of these two questions might give the instructor some insight into how one structures the learning event and the hypothetical products that might result from the event.

Most importantly, what distinguishes PBL from other traditional pedagogies is that the control of the lesson is wrested from the instructor and placed in the hands of students. In other words, rather than deliver a lecture or powerpoint presentation, the PBL event is privileged and allows students to engage directly with real-world problems that require real-world solutions. In essence, PBL allows students to apply knowledge as they’re cultivating the necessary toolkit to succeed during the event.

Working from their respective disciplines, which included Mathematics, Education, and Communications, the presenters offered real-life examples of incorporating problem-based learning into the classroom and discussed the advantages as well as disadvantages of implementing PBL into the classroom. One of the first things that struck me during this presentation is the importance of creating collaborative learning environments where students are called upon to control their acquisition of new knowledge. My courses always involve collaborative efforts, but this semester, I was able to locate a documentary on collaboration because students (generally speaking) hate collaborating with their peers. Titled Collaboration: On the Edge of a New Paradigm?, this documentary lends insight into the importance of collaboration for advancing knowledge both in the classroom and outside of it. What is more, this documentary emphasized the stakes of collaboration in various fields, especially technology. I tasked my ENGL 1020 students this semester with viewing and responding to the documentary in the form of a critical analysis of the film. From writing about the film and including research in their assignments, most of my students came to understand that collaboration is vital to succeeding and thriving in a new global economy that thrives from collaborative efforts.

A second thing that resonated with me was how important the framing and crafting of an assignment is in order for PBL to be successful. Indeed, in order for students to do well on the assignment, the teacher has to expend a great amount of energy crafting an assignment that has clear, understandable, and reasonable expectations. When the expectations of an assignment are unclear or completely unaddressed, the students are not set up for success. Speaking from personal experience, I attempt to be as clear in my expectations as possible for my students, especially during writing workshops, as I have discovered that clear and reasonable expectations for student assignments and classroom activities are really the only way for students to be successful in the class. What is more, establishing clear expectations for students’ assignments allows students to be accountable to the information disseminated in class. Because my courses (ENGL 1010, 1020, and 2020) are PBL focused, I am (or at least I attempt to be) clear in my expectations for students’ in-class activities and out-of-class activities, such as research papers and extended projects.

Next, in order for problem-based learning to be truly successful, the stakes attached to the assignment are imperative if we wish for the learning event to impact students’ engagement. In my experience, when the stakes of an assignment are linked to students’ lived experiences, they are more likely to get on-board with the lesson because they are able to see the lesson’s relevance in a big-picture context. 

Finally, one aspect of the presentation that seemed to counter some of the hands-on approach to learning is that one presenter argued that the end-product of a PBL event can be predicted. For me, this is not always the case; I cannot always foresee the problems and end-results that a student might encounter or create. Because my assignments are writing assignments, there is an incredible amount of creativity that influences the assignment. Granted, I do anticipate most of the issues that students will find only the journey to the final product, but not all of them. In fact, I think not always knowing the end-result of a PBL event is what makes PBL unique: it essentially requires that the instructor be incredibly vulnerable to not knowing. This vulnerability can be rather challenging, especially given our training as academics and being trained to always be in possession of “the answer.” But, as someone who emphases the process of learning over the final product, I think always knowing the end-result downplays the significance of cultivating students’ curiosities about the process rather than the product. 

Altogether, I really enjoyed both the theoretical and pragmatic aspects of the presentation, especially how the presentation affirmed that the learning situations I am creating for my students are conducive to PBL. I am also glad to see that some of my fears with PBL are shared by others, especially when we don’t know “the answer” for what the end-result might look like. In fact, I have come to accept the notion that not knowing what the final result might look like actually makes this style of learning that much better because it is driven by curiosity, the spark of intrinsic learning, rather than the final destination.