Problem-based learning: the solution to the skills gap?

In the 2019 QS Global skills gap report, the top five skills that employers identified as a missing in most graduates were:

  1. problem-solving
  2. communication
  3. teamwork
  4. data skills
  5. resilience.

Research in Canada suggests that undergraduate students increase their problem-solving skills in year one but then see no increase in their course’s second and third years. University lecturers can introduce active learning methodologies such as problem-based learning to narrow this skills gap and better prepare graduates for the workplace. 

Problem-based learning is a student-centred approach to learning and teaching. Barrows and Tamblyn introduced the method in the 1960s to teach students at the medical school at McMaster University. Students use trigger material to identify an open-ended problem that they then attempt to solve. The process teaches students to take responsibility for their learning, acquire knowledge independently, communicate, work in a team, problem-solve, and present information. 

In problem-based learning (PBL) students use “triggers” from the problem case or scenario to define their own learning objectives. Subsequently they do independent, self directed study before returning to the group to discuss and refine their acquired knowledge. Thus, PBL is not about problem solving per se, but rather it uses appropriate problems to increase knowledge and understanding.

British Medical Journal (BMJ)

The students are required to determine their own goals to the presented scenarios or problems through group discussions. Once they have defined the problem, they map out what they know already that will help solve the problem and attempt to determine what else they need to find out. Students then identify how and where they can find this information through research articles, journals, web materials, textbooks and set off individually to collect it. The group then comes to bask together to organise their research, produce a solution to the problem, and then present it.

The teamwork element is key to the methodology. Students work in groups of 8 to 15 to collect each individuals knowledge and ideas, differing perspectives, perceptions, and come up with multiple solutions to the problem. Discussions, both online and face to face are essential, and collaborative research methods are crucial. 

Introducing a new teaching method is challenging for both the lecturer and the student, especially when shifting from a tutor-led to a student-led way of working. Students are comfortable with their current role in the classroom and lecture hall and have developed the skills supporting the traditional delivery methods. The resources and space required for collaborative learning and the access to research materials can also stress the university infrastructure. A common issue for students when introduced to problem-based learning is information overload. Students need help to identify the boundaries of their research, or they keep going. Sweller and Cooper in 1985 suggested that students should first learn through worked examples and then gradually be introduced to problem-based learning with a gradual ‘fading’ of support given by the academic.

The problem-based learning process

Problem-based learning is a clearly defined method with a set process. 

The Maastricht seven-jump process:

  1. Clarify terms
  2. define problems(s)
  3. Brainstorming
  4. structuring and hypothesis
  5. Learning objectives
  6. Independent study
  7. Synthesis

Let me know on Twitter if you have tried or are going to try problem-based learning.

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