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What’s Your Problem?

Increasing Student Motivation and Quality of Participation in Discussions
through Problem-Based Learning

Jennifer Gurrie

August 8, 2003

Your first time teaching an online course isn’t going as well as you had hoped. You thought you posted interesting reading materials and asked students good questions to respond to in the discussion area. But so far, the quality and quantity of their participation has been low, and you aren’t sure why. What really has you concerned is the fact that future investments in online learning at your institution depend heavily on the success of this first-ever fully online course, and you know this lack of student engagement will be reflected in student evaluations and learning outcomes. What strategy will you employ to try and turn things around for the remaining 10 weeks of the semester?

The above scenario is not only very realistic, but also a great example of a special type of course content that might be used in a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) environment. Too often, I see online learning environments where students are asked to “read this and share your thoughts”, and this rarely results in high quality collaborative discussions. This observation, which I consider to indeed be a problem, inspired me to seek out alternative ways to engage students and increase their motivation to collaboratively think at higher levels. A tall order indeed.

In this quest for a solution, I discovered Problem-Based Learning, and although very little research has been conducted to determine the effectiveness of PBL in the online environment, I believe it embraces many of the concepts that have been identified as best practices in the online teaching and learning.

What is PBL?
By proper definition, Problem-Based Learning is an educational strategy that involves the presentation of significant, complex, and “real-world” problems to students, that are structured in such a way that there is not one specific correct answer or predetermined outcome. In this approach, students work in small groups to negotiate a common understanding of the problem (Merrill, 2001), identify areas that need to be researched, form hypotheses, and fully develop a solution that they can present to others. The teacher’s role is very different from the traditional one of lecturer, and I will explore that further in a later section. First, let’s look at how this approach to learning points to a solution to the problem I set out to address…and then some.

Learner Centered
One of the common criticisms of PBL is that, because it moves away from the traditional lecture, reading, and discussion model, less subject matter may be covered. The good news is that effective online learning environments have already recognized this shift as a beneficial one, and have embraced a new pedagogy that puts the student in the driver’s seat on the journey that is their learning path. In the PBL approach, the content (e.g., traditional lecture materials or assigned readings) is sought out as a part of the larger process of solving a problem. Students decide, often with the help of the instructor, what they need to know in order to successfully devise a solution, and then actively seek it out (amongst resources that may or may not be provided by the instructor). In this way, students are actually defining their own learning objectives, and the knowledge acquisition becomes a means to an end, rather than the end goal itself.

Realistic and Relevant
The most important quality of the problems presented to learners is that they are “ill-defined” – they are structured in a way that there is not one specific correct answer or predetermined outcome (DeGallow). This ensures that learners are challenged to tackle complex problems, much like the ones they are likely to face in life beyond the learning environment. After all, how often do you encounter a “well-structured” problem, where there is only one way to solve it? If “real life” problems were typically well-structured, we probably wouldn’t consider them problematic. So, by working to solve complex problems in realistic contexts, these learners don’t have much of a stretch when transferring the skills and knowledge they gain in the learning environment to other problems they encounter outside the classroom.

Since the traditional PBL methods prescribe that learners work in small groups to solve a problem, a very positive outcome of this experience is that students improve their interpersonal skills by working together toward a common goal (Jones). Collaboratively, they must come to a common understanding of the problem, and then identify what they as a group already know, as well as what areas they need to further research or investigate. They must come up with a plan of action, divide up tasks, and possibly conduct independent work that will ultimately effect the rest of the team. In a study of students who learned this way in medical school, researchers found that these students were less likely to choose solo or rural practices, possibly indicating their lasting preference for collaboration (Albanese, 1993). Wouldn’t we be doing society and future employers such a favor by positively influencing learner preference toward or comfort with collaboration?

It is not hard to imagine that this form of learning may be more interesting and engaging for students, especially if problems are relevant and personally important. Research has shown that students enrolled in problem based learning courses have a more favorable attitude toward their coursework, as well as higher retention rates than students in traditional instruction (Jones, 1996). In a study at Southern Illinois University, a PBL program experienced an 8% attrition rate, which is less than one third of the freshman attrition rate university-wide (Allen et. al.). With the dropout rates in online learning environments typically being even higher than traditional learning, this increased level of motivation and engagement certainly sounds like something from which we can benefit.

Another unique quality of PBL is that it focuses more on the process by which a solution is derived more than the actual solution. In this way, learners have the added bonus of gaining skills in problem-solving, which is often more valuable than memorizing specific steps to solve a problem that may never be used again. After all, how often in your life are you able to follow the exact same steps to solve two different problems? Isn’t it more valuable to have the skills needed to strategically address the complexities encountered in life? (Allen et. al.) The online environment offers unique opportunities for both instructors and students to analyze the collaborative problem-solving process, because there is often a written record of it left behind, which can be analyzed, evaluated and reflected upon.

Instructor Role
So, if the learners are solving all the problems, then what is the instructor doing? Since PBL is student-centered, and instruction is not direct, the most effective role of the instructor is one of coach or consultant. They serve as a subject matter expert and may help direct students to the sources of information they need in order to solve the problem. More importantly, the instructor will help the students assess and reflect on their own strategies by asking questions like, “what assumptions are you making here?” (DeGallow) This role of “guide by the side” is one that has already been embraced by those who employ best practices in online teaching - yet another reason this model of teaching would lend itself nicely to the online classroom.

Obviously, significant effort must be put into the design of the problems that are presented to students. Fortunately, there is a host of great information on the web that not only provides guidelines for problem development, but also many examples. Two sources of examples that I found particularly helpful are:

https://chico.nss.udel.edu/Pbl/ - University of Delaware PBL Clearinghouse
http://www.pbl.uci.edu/winter2000/pblproblems.html - Problem-Based Learning Faculty Institute at University of California, Irvine

Three major complaints from employers about college graduates are their poor written and verbal skills, their inability to problem solve, and their difficulties working collaboratively with other professionals (DeGallow). My observations of the lack of motivation and quality in student participation in online learning environments are certainly problematic and must be addressed in order to improve learning outcomes. Problem based learning is something that can address all of these needs, plus it sounds like a whole lot more fun for both learners and instructors. So, I can only leave you with one last question: what’s your problem?

About the Author
Jennifer Gurrie has been studying online teaching and learning for the past 5 years, both through her personal interest as well as through her job as Senior Product Manager for one of the major e-learning software vendors. In this position, she has the privilege of working with many faculty and students who are immersed in online learning environments.

Works Cited

Albanese, M. & Mitchell, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: A review of the literature, its outcomes and implementation issues. Academic Medicine. 68(1), 52-81.

Allen, J. Coulson, R. & Purichia, H. Problem based learning for integrated undergraduate curricula: A practical template. http://www.siu.edu/~corecurr/ExcellencePBL.html.

DeGallow, D. What is problem based learning? http://www.pbl.uci.edu/whatispbl.html

Jones, Diana. (1996). San Diego State University. http://edweb.sdsu.edu/clrit/learning tree/PBL/PBLadvantages.html
Merrill, D. First Principles of Instruction, submitted for publication to Educational Technology Research and Development, September 2001. http://id2.usu.edu/Papers/5FirstPrinciples.PDF


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