How's and Why's of PBL










The How’s and Why’s of Problem-Based Teaching

Beyond surface knowledge, creative problem-solvers require deeper understandings, cognitive flexibility, and interpersonal skills.

By Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd

Director, Design Learning Network

Hattie’s ground-breaking research and synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses has taught us that problem-solving teaching best practices (effect size, 0.61) are far more effective than problem-based learning experiences on their own (effect size, 0.15). We now know that it is essential to focus on the application of knowledge, not simply its development of knowledge. (Hattie, 2009).

What level of impact might creative problem-based teaching and learning have on learners’
content knowledge as they engage in critical and innovative thinking?

Hattie, John. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge, 2009.


The Application of Knowledge is at the Heart of Successful Problem-Based Learning

Hattie (2009) discovered that problem-based learning is frequently focused on surface level knowledge (passive learning) which can have limited if not negative effects (0.15). That said, when students engage in deeper learning (active knowledge and understanding) prior to problem-solving, the outcomes can have positive effects (0.61). Problem-based teaching prepares students to search for meaning, understanding, application, and principals of the underlying the knowledge – rather than reproduction or acquisition of surface knowledge.

The act of problem-solving is significantly enriched when instruction guides learners as they develop the cognitive flexibility to fully understand problem statements and to represent those understandings via diagrams, figures, and sketches. Furthermore, these learning experiences result in even greater positive effects when collaboration and the development of interpersonal skills are integrated. Creative problem-solving requires learners to:

·         Practice key concepts and vocabulary before being challenged to understand the problem

·         Obtain/create a plan to a solution

·         Carry out the plan

·         Examine the solution


Creative Problem-Based Instructional Takeaways

These effective teaching practices are fundamental elements of the design learning process – a process that intentionally engages and prepares creative problem-solvers to:

·         Define or determine the cause of the problem

·         Identify, prioritize, and select alternatives for a solution

·         Use multiple perspectives to uncover issues related to a particular problem

·         Design an intervention plan

·         Evaluate and reflect on the outcome