Monday, August 1, 2011

Problem-Based Learning - Creating Authentic Learning Experiences

Defining “Authentic”
One of the buzzwords around education these days is the term “authentic” – authentic learning, authentic tasks, and authentic assessment. According to social constructivists, the term “authentic” refers to learning that takes place in environments that are similar to real-life situations. Students must be actively engaged in creating meaning by linking new information to their own previous experiences. According to Younghee Woo, “if the learning tasks are authentic, then students can make direct connections between the new material and their prior experience. They can also apply the new learning to their current practice and future activities.”
Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat
Educators are encouraged to adopt student-centred learning practices where authentic learning opportunities are embedded into course design. This classroom shift puts learners in the driver’s seat and the role of teacher changes to one of support and facilitation. In this model of learning, teachers guide students to construct their own meaning.
Problem-Based Learning
One strategy suggested for creating authenticity in the classroom is through the use of Problem-Based Learning (PBL). In contrast to traditional instruction, PBL begins with a realistic, relevant problem. According to Deana Halonen, students are presented “real-life, open-ended problems with many correct answers possible.”
Students can work collaboratively by taking on different roles to solve the problems. For example, when studying Weather in Grade 5 Science, students could assume the role of meteorologist and be presented real-world situations that are relevant to the geographical area in which they live. In NASA’s Let’s Go to Mars! Adventure, students must decide which items to take along during their journey to Mars. Through problem solving and trial and error, students choose the items that they feel will be most beneficial. There is no one right answer and students must use critical thinking skills to determine which items are best.
The PBL model can also be used for independent study, but Halonen stresses that the active, cooperative nature of PBL allows for the development of life-long learning skills such as group communication, research and problem-solving.
Advantages of PBL
Halonen outlines numerous advantages for introducing PBL into the classroom, such as:
  • Students show better recall of information.
  • Students report higher levels of motivation and student satisfaction.
  • The learning is interdisciplinary.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving skills are developed.
  • Students learn to work cooperatively.
  • PBL addresses individual learning styles or multiple intelligences.
 For younger students and/or for teachers new to this method of instruction, a more formal, step by step structure may need to be developed to help guide learners the first time through this process.  Regardless of the level of teacher involvement, PBL always begins with students’ prior knowledge. Then, students help to develop the learning plan.
PBL and Distance Learning
Effective communication and collaboration are critical skills for PBL to work most effectively. For online or distance courses, this can be trickier and requires more organization. Using a Course Management System (CMS) like Moodle or Blackboard , or a online social learning service like Edmodo, teachers can activate online dialogues through discussion forums. Teachers may choose to post conversation starters, or may assign groups of students to moderate discussion depending on the students’ age and comfort level with the technology.
Google Docs is another useful tool for the PBL classroom. This web-based tool allows students to work collaboratively to research answers from any location. In the Sun West School Division, students in Brenna Siroski’s Grade 11 Biology class use Google Docs to share research information. By colour coding their contributions, group participants can easily identify information from each member. This helps Siroski when it comes to assessment.
PBL Resources
For more resources on ways to bring PBL into your classroom, be sure to check out
-          Tech and Learning Blog featuring 20 web links to get you started with PBL


  1. Here's a little testimonial from an instructor's perspective. As you know, Jade, we've been using authenticity as a rallying point for much/most of our program. Even when we're doing abstract and theoretical work, we try to ground it in authentic contexts. Our design and evaluation courses, have taken it even further, and I've got to say it is the best thing we've ever done with our program. In some classes we work together with real clients on ID other kinds of design work, and the excitement I feel as an instructor is unbelievable. It's a high wire act, and it is a very difficult way to teach in many ways, given the uncertainty that is involved at every stage of learning, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. If anyone's interested, here are a couple of YouTube videos we made to describe the design of the ID classes. Part 1: and Part 2:

    I'm glad to see you've highlighted the key features of PBL. There are many flavours of authentic learning environments out there, and this is definitely a great one for teachers to know about!

  2. The University of Saskatchewan College of Ag Bioresources and Technology developed an excellent PBL Bio 20 course. There are 4 case studies, each connecting directly to curriculum content. By the end of the course, all objectives have been taught using this model. All case studies start with a problem, then move to what students already know, and invite students to determine what questions they need to ask and so forth.

    The students were reluctant to say the least when Brenna started the process. I did a quick Edmodo poll near the end of the course to assess their feelings about the course and discovered that tover half did prefer this method of learning. The emphasis on student's taking charge of their own learning is intimidating for some. The role of the teacher, then, becomes even more critical.