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Design Elements of Problem Based Learning


Savery & Duffy offer the following suggestions:


1. Anchor all learning activities to a larger task or problem. That is, learning must have a purpose beyond, "It is assigned". We learn in order to be able to function more effectively in our world. The purpose of any learning activity should be clear to the learner. Individual learning activities can be of any type -- the important issue is that the learner clearly perceives and accepts the relevance of the specific learning activities in relation to the larger task complex (Cognition an d Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV), 1992; Honebein, et.al, 1993).


2. Support the learner in developing ownership for the overall problem or task. Instructional programs typically specify learning objectives and perhaps even engage the learner in a project, assuming that the learner will understand and buy into the relevance and value of the problem (Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guzdial & Palinscar, 1991). Unfortunately, it is too often the case that the learners do not accept the goal of the instructional program, but rather simply focus on passing the test or putting in their time. No matter what we specify as the learning objective, the goals of the learner will largely determine what is learned. Hence it is essential that the goals the learner brings to the environment are consistent with our instructional goals.


There are two ways of doing this. First, we may solicit problems from the learners and use those as the stimulus for learning activities. This is basically what happens in graduate schools when qualifying exams require the student to prepare publishable papers in each of several domains (Honebein, Duffy, and Fishman, 1993). Scardamalia and Bereiter (1991) have shown that even elementary students can initiate questions (puzzlements) that can serve as the foundation of learning activities in traditional school subject matter. In essence, the strategy is to define a territory and then to work with the learner in developing meaningful problems or tasks in that domain. Alternatively, we can establish a problem in such a way that the learners will readily ad opt the problem as their own. We see this strategy in the design of the Jasper series for teaching mathematics (CTGV, 1992) and in many simulation environments. In either case, it is important to engage the learner in meaningful dialogue to help bring the problem or task home to the learner.


3. Design an authentic task. An authentic learning environment does not mean that the fourth grader should be placed in an authentic physics lab, nor that he or she should grapple with the same problems that adult physicists deals with. Rather, the learner should engage in scientific activities, which present the same "type" of cognitive challenges. An authentic learning environment is one in which the cognitive demands, i.e., the thinking required, are consistent with the cognitive demands in the environment for which we are preparing the learner (Honebein, et. al. 1993). Thus we do not want the learner to learn about history but rather to engage in the construction or use of history in ways that a historian or a good citizen would . Similarly, we do not want the learner to study science -- memorizing a text on science or executing scientific procedures as dictated -- but rather to engage in scientific discourse and problem solving (See Bereiter, 1994; Duffy, in press; Honebein, Duffy, & Fishman, 1993). Allowing the problem to be generated by the learner, an option discussed above, does not automatically assure authenticity. It may well require discussion and negotiation with the learner to develop a problem or task that is authentic in its cognitive demands and for which the learner can take ownership.


4. Design the task and the learning environment to reflect the complexity of the environment they should be able to function in at the end of learning. Rather than simplifying the environment for the learner, we seek to support the learner working in the complex environment. This is consistent with both cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989) and cognitive flexibility theories (Spiro, et al. 1992) and reflects the importance of context in determining the understanding we have of any particular concept or principle.


5. Give the learner ownership of the process used to develop a solution. Learners must have ownership of the learning or problem solving process as well as having ownership of the problem itself. Frequently teachers will give students ownership of the problem, but dictate the process for working on that problem. Thus they may dictate that a particular problem solving or critical thinking methodology be used or that particular content domains must be "learned". For example, in some problem based learning frameworks, the problem is presented along with the learning objectives and the assigned readings related to the problem. Thus the student is told what to study and what to learn in relation to the problem. Clearly, with this pre specification of activities, the students are not going to be engaged in authentic thinking and problem solving in that domain. Rather than being a stimulus for problem solving and self directed learning, the problem serves merely as an example. The teacher's role should be to challenge the learner's thinking -- not to dictate or attempt to proceduralize that thinking.


6. Design the learning environment to support and challenge the learner's thinking. While we advocate giving the learner ownership of the problem and the solution process, it is not the case that any activity or any solution is adequate. Indeed, the critical goal is to support the learner in becoming an effective worker/thinker in the particular domain. The teacher must assume the roles of consultant and coach. The most critical teaching activity is in the questions the teacher asks the learner in that consulting and coaching activity. It is essential that the teacher value as well as challenge the learner's thinking. The teacher must not take over thinking for the learner by telling the learner what to do or how to think, but rather teaching should be done by inquiring at the "leading edge" of the protégé’s thinking (Fosnot, 1989). This is different from the widely used Socratic method wherein the teacher has the "right" answer and it is the student’s task to guess/d educe through logical questioning that correct answer. The concept of a learning scaffold and the zone of proximal development as described by Vygotsky (1978) is a more accurate representation of the learning exchange/interaction between the teacher and t he student.


Learners use information resources (all media types) and instructional materials (all media types) as sources of information. The materials do not teach, but rather support the learner's inquiry or performance. This does not negate any kind of instructional resource -- it only specifies the reason for using the resource. Thus if domain specific problem-solving is the skill to be learned then a simulation which confronts the learner with problem situations within that domain might be appropriate. If proficient typing is required for some larger context, certainly a drill and practice program is one option that might be present.


7. Encourage testing ideas against alternative views and alternative contexts. Knowledge is socially negotiated. The quality or depth of ones understanding can only be determined in a social environment where we can see if our understanding can accommodate the issues and views of others and to see if there are points of view which we could usefully incorporate into our understanding. The importance of a learning community where ideas are discussed and understanding enriched is critical to the design of an effective learning environment. The use of collaborative learning groups as a part of the overall learning environment we have described provides one strategy for achieving this learning community (CTGV in press, Scardamalia et al, 1992, Cunningham, Duffy, & Knuth 1991). Other projects support collaboration by linking learners over electronic communication networks as they work on a common task, e.g., CoVis (Edelson & O’Neil, 1994), LabNet (Ruopp et al, 1993), provide an alternative framework.


8. Provide opportunity for and support reflection on both the content learned and the learning process. An important goal of instruction is to develop skills of self-regulation -- to become independent. Teachers should model reflective th inking throughout the learning process and support the learners in reflecting on the strategies for learning as well as what was learned (Schon, 1987; Clift, Houston, & Pugach 1990).

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