Have you ever asked yourself these questions? How do I get more of my students to think? Why do some of my students seem to lack the ability to go beyond factual knowledge to a deeper understanding of material? Why do some students have difficulty connecting basics to related applications?
by Hal Portner
Regular contributor to the Gazette
May 1, 2008
As I discussed in two prior Teachers Net Gazette issues, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) prepares students to think critically and analytically and to find and use appropriate learning resources. PBL is an instructional method that motivates and challenges students not only to think, but to learn to learn while working cooperatively in groups in order to seek solutions to real world problems. PBL problems are designed to engage students’ curiosity and stimulate learning.
My two previous articles introduced and defined PBL, described the PBL process, outlined the teacher’s role in its implementation, and discussed and provided examples of effective PBL problems. This third and final article on PBL suggests ways to organize and structure a class so as to get the most out of PBL.
The personal organization of the teacher and the organization of the classroom during a PBL class are paramount to its success. Here are some ways to accomplish both.
Be clear about your purpose for deciding to use PBL, the procedures you will use, and your expectations.
Assign students to groups arbitrarily, such as alphabetically, for example. Four students per group is a good size.
Set up your room so that you are accessible to all groups and have room to walk easily from one group to another.
Supply each group with masking tape, a stapler, related texts and reference material, and online computer access. Provide each student with a copy of the problem and set of PBL “ground rules.”
Anticipate questions and concerns and be ready to handle them.
If students are not used to working together in problem-solving groups (a common business practice, by the way), or even if they are, the following suggestions will provide a sense of order to what might seem to some an unstructured process.
Introduce (or review) the process at the beginning of the each class.
In addition to providing a printed copy of the problem to each student, it is a good idea to also read it aloud to the class and even post enlarged copies in the room.
Furnish printed questions related to the problem (with space provided for individuals to write notes, reflections and answers). An additional copy is furnished to each group. The group’s copy is turned in as a summary of the group’s work at the end of the period.
If appropriate, write a problem out on more than one page so that each page unravels a new aspect of the problem. Then give out the pages one at a time, requiring that each group’s summary of their work is handed in before the next page is provided. Suspense is a good motivator.
Assess progress at regular intervals. If necessary, interrupt group work to correct misconceptions, or to bring groups up to par with one another.
Periodically, allow time for class discussion of their approaches to the problem.
PBL involves group work. How will you grade students who work in groups? Here are some suggestions.
Require and grade some type of group project from each PBL session. Weight and average in these grades with individual grades.
Grade participation as well as quality of product.
Occasionally, require an individual project, such as a “one-minute” paper about an issue learned from a problem. This rewards students who were actively involved and discourages “freeloading.”
Design test questions that reflect not only the content of the problem but also the thinking/problem-solving process used.
Some Value Added Benefits of PBL
Through involvement with PBL, learning becomes an interactive endeavor for students, and therefore more engaging. Your class is one of actively engaged creators-of-ideas-and-solutions rather than docile, passive recipients-of-knowledge.
And you, the teacher, will also be kept on your toes – and therefore open to fine tuning your own practice. There will always be new problems to research and write, and old problems to refine.
My two earlier articles on Problem Based Learning and a helpful video:
Note: Some material for this series of articles is adapted, with permission, from the essay “But I Teach a Large Class . . .” by Linda Dion, appearing in issue number 50 of About Teaching, a newsletter of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness, University of Delaware.
Hal Portner is a former K-12 teacher and administrator. He was assistant director of the Summer Math Program for High School Women and Their Teachers at Mount Holyoke College, and for 24 years he was a teacher and then administrator in two Connecticut public school districts. From 1985 to 1995, he was a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Certification and Professional Development, where, among other responsibilities, he served as coordinator of the Connecticut Institute for Teaching and Learning and worked closely with school districts to develop and carry out professional development and teacher evaluation plans and programs.
Portner writes, develops materials, trains mentors, facilitates the development of new teacher and peer-mentoring programs, and consults for school districts and other educational organizations and institutions. In addition to Mentoring New Teachers, he is the author of Training Mentors Is Not Enough: Everything Else Schools and Districts Need to Do (2001), Being Mentored: A Guide for Protégés (2002), Workshops that Really Work: The ABCs of Designing and Delivering Sensational Presentations (2005), and editor of Teacher Mentoring and Induction: The State of the Art and Beyond (2005) – all published by Corwin Press. He holds an MEd from the University of Michigan and a 6th-year Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in education admin¬istration from the University of Connecticut. For three years, he was with the University of Massachusetts EdD Educational Leadership Program.