Issues Magazine

Problem-Based Learning in Secondary Science

By Caroline Cotton

Problem-based learning is a strategy arising from the failure of some traditional learning methods to teach students to apply their knowledge elsewhere.

Have you ever been frustrated as an educator that students are simply absorbing information and regurgitating it?

Problem-based learning is a teaching strategy to overcome this frustration. The role of the teacher changes significantly, as does the way the student learns. Colleagues and educators around the world have found this method of teaching extremely beneficial, observing changes in the way students think and their comprehension of complex problems. Students have been found to retain knowledge of complex problems and their solutions for a much longer time compared with that of content taught by more traditional teaching methods.

The need for problem-based learning first arose in medical schools in the United States. Edwin Bridges and Philip Hallinger (in Problem-Based Learning in Medical and Managerial Education, 1993) reported on graduating medical students who were not able to remember much of what they had been taught and were not able to apply what they had learned to an unfamiliar situation. The conclusion was that students were not being taught to think. Problem-based learning encourages students to think and solve problems in a limited amount of time. It is designed to get students to apply their knowledge to help solve a problem.

Problem-based learning develops higher-order thinking skills. Higher-order thinking skills are seldom taught, but should be included as part of any curriculum. Problem-based learning teaches students to develop thinking skills such as the ability to hypothesise, synthesise, analyse, evaluate and generalise information rather than simply recall it. By solving problems, students also have the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills.

Typically, students work in groups to solve an unstructured and ill-defined problem. The student learning becomes self-directed. The students must work as a group and decide the best method of solving a given problem. The students are expected to produce and justify a solution to the problem in the time available. This group work has the aim of developing collaboration skills, generating discussion and developing conflict-resolution strategies, if required, in the students.

The role of the teacher changes from a knowledge provider to a coach or guide. The teacher aids the students to solve the problem by questioning the students, thus guiding their thinking. Therefore the teacher is acting as more of a facilitator and model.

For example, students may need to solve problems that arise when working in a group. The teacher needs to provide an environment where students feel comfortable discussing problems with one another and the teacher, if they arise.

The problem needs to be designed carefully. It needs to be real to engage the students and develop curiosity. Research has shown that students will engage much more if the problem is real. Designing a real problem allows students to make connections between prior knowledge and the problem. The problem needs to be challenging to the most capable students yet not discourage weaker students. The problem should allow the students to cover the required course content while being open enough to allow the students to develop problem-solving skills.

One problem-based learning method of solving a problem such as this is for students to fill in a table detailing what they know, what they need to know and what they don’t know. In the example shown in Table 1, students may have some knowledge about what form copper is found in, in the ground, as an ore. They can begin filling out the table. As students fill out the table they tend to begin thinking about what they need to know and what they don’t know.

This table forms the basis of their research. As they find out the answers to their questions, they will solve the problem, as more questions will be added to the table in the process.

Students that I have taught using problem-based learning found learning using this method much more rewarding. They enjoyed searching for the information to answer their questions rather than just being given it. Students realised how this would benefit them in the future, when they would have to do most things by themselves. They found the group work beneficial because they learned from one another when they shared their research.

One particularly capable student, who was a strong resistor to this teaching method initially, wrote a letter to me 18 months later and said he was now using this method in all his subjects, because he had developed some sound strategies for solving complex problems and found it very beneficial.

Once students have become accustomed to problem-based learning they become self-directed learners, are more questioning, collaborate well with others, reflect on their learning and learn methods and strategies to become good problem-solvers. Moreover, students develop higher levels of comprehension and develop more learning and knowledge-forming skills.