Problem Based Learning

About Problem-based Management Education

Problem-based learning (PBL) was first formally introduced by faculty in leading medical schools that were dissatisfied with the quality of the professional preparation they were providing to students (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Bok, 1989; deVolder & deGrave, 1989; Schmidt 1983; Schmidt, Dauphinee, & Patel, 1987). Knowledge application, problem-solving skills and attitudinal dimensions of effective medical practice were all areas that their own assessments identified as persisting weaknesses (Bok, 1989; Schmidt, 1983; Walton, 1989). Notably this self-critique was led by some of the top medical schools in several nations (e.g., Bok, 1989). PBL emerged as a response to these perceived weaknesses in the professional preparation of doctors. Subsequently, the designers of PBL sought to develop an approach to learning and teaching that would address the following goals:

  • Adapting to and participating in change,
  • Dealing with complex, swampy problems and making reasoned decisions in unfamiliar situations,
  • Reasoning critically and creatively,
  • Adopting a more universal or holistic outlook,
  • Practicing empathy, appreciating others' points of view,
  • Collaborating productively in groups or teams,
  • Identifying one's own strengths and weaknesses and undertaking appropriate remediation. (Engel, 1991, pp. 45-46)

The method that came to be known as problem-based learning emerged gradually over a 10-year period with numerous variants. However, at its heart, PBL has six defining characteristics:

  1. The starting point for learning is a problem.
  2. The problem is one that students are to apt face in the future workplace.
  3. Subject matter is organized around problems rather than the disciplines.
  4. Students assume a major responsibility for their own instruction and learning.
  5. Most learning occurs within the context of small groups rather than lectures.
  6. The solution to the focal problem has an implementation focus that goes beyond problem diagnosis and analysis. (Bridges & Hallinger, 1993, 1995)

As Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) note, in problem-based learning "the learning results from the process of working towards the understanding or resolution of a problem. The problem is encountered first in the learning process, rather than facts, models, conceptual frameworks, or other information. The problem serves as a stimulus and focus for problem-solving and learning."

Thus, the role of the focal problem in PBL is quite different from the typical use of problems in cases. In PBL, focal problems are not presented to students for the purpose of giving them practice in applying previously learned information; rather they are used as the stimulus for new learning. This is an important characteristic that distinguishes problem-based learning from other problem-oriented approaches such as the case method (Bransford et al., 1986; Bridges & Hallinger, 1995; Brown & Campione, 1981; Brown et al., 1983; Christensen, 1987).

Moreover, in PBL learning how to solve problems occurs in the process of learning the subject matter of the discipline rather than as a discrete skill (Prawat, 1989). Development of skills in problem-solving as an individual and as a member of a team are, therefore, explicit goals of PBL (McGuire, 1980; Norman, 1988; Schmidt & deVolder, 1984)

In contrast to the case method, in problem-based learning the learning objectives and activities are based on the knowledge and skills needed to address problems encountered in the field, rather than on discrete competencies or disciplinary domains (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Boud & Feletti, 1991; Coles, 1985). Knowledge derived from disciplinary domains remains important, but it is organized quite differently. The focus of managerial education, for example, turns from the concerns of the disciplines as conceived by scholars (e.g., psychology, sociology, MIS) to major problems that managers face in the workplace (Bridges & Hallinger, 1995).

Another critical distinction between PBL and the case method lies in the explicit use of cooperative group learning in PBL (Bridges & Hallinger, 1995; Dolmans et al., 2002; Schmidt & deVolder, 1984; Norman, 1988; Slavin, 1989). The essence of managerial work is being able to accomplish results through people (Bridges, 1977). We contend that in the current environment of decentralized organizations, training experiences should emphasize cooperative problem-solving and teamwork as key areas for leadership development. PBL does this in a more systematic and explicit manner than does the case method.

In PBL the learning experience is structured so as to emphasize implementation as well as analysis and reflection (Bridges & Hallinger, 1992, 1995). The most common forms of the case method ask participants to analyze and describe what they would do if they faced a particular problematic situation. In problem-based learning students are asked to develop a plan for responding to the situation and, to the extent possible, execute the plan through different forms of role-play. Thus, learners confront as directly as possible the implementation of their solutions as well as some of the potential consequences of their actions.

Research on problem-based learning, primarily conducted in medical education, provide reasonable though not inconclusive support for the effects of this approach. Bridges and Hallinger (1993) reviewed this literature and concluded with the following observation:

Although medical educators present a rather persuasive rationale for using PBL to train a physician, do they provide any evidence that the approach is a sound one? Yes, compared with traditional programs in medical education, PBL programs generally yield equal or superior results. (p. 263)

Numerous other reviews conducted before and since have drawn similar conclusions about the effects of PBL on students (e.g., see Albanese, 2000; Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Coles, 1985; Eisenstadt, Barry, & Glanz, 1990; Norman & Schmidt, 1992; Vernon & Blake, 1993; Walton & Matthews, 1989). While the differential effects of PBL on learning and problem-solving remain small, there is consensus that PBL produces amore enjoyable and motivational learning environment for students (Norman & Schmidt, 2000). That said, the debate over both the optimal conditions for use, the instructional process, as well as the appropriate modes of assessment of PBL continue (e.g., Albanese, 2000; Colliver, 2000a, 2000b; Newman, 2001; Norman, 2002; Norman & Schmidt, 2000; Tanenbaum, 1999).

Problem Based Learning

PBL is the learning that results from the process of working towards the understanding or resolution of a problem.

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