Problem Based Learning (PBL) –Practical Structures and Reasons for PBL in the Classroom

Week Seven

Differentiating Instruction through Technology
with Dr. Lee Graham

Problem Based Learning (PBL) –Practical Structures and Reasons for PBL in the Classroom

Essential question: What practical structures could we use to implement PBL in our classrooms?

Learning through experience allows students to use thinking strategies connected to content to solve problems. Working together in groups, students begin with a problem (or essential question) to establish what knowledge they will need in order to bring together the pieces into a completed project. Students participate in self-directed learning (SDL), in a group as well as individually within that group. This includes planning who will fulfill each role in a group. The teacher facilitates this process as they guide students to “develop 1) flexible knowledge, 2) effective problem-solving skills, 3) SDL skills, 4) effective collaboration skills, and 5) intrinsic motivation” (Hmelo-Silver, 2004).

When I use novels to teach, often the students need to stop briefly to reflect on the character’s traits and the problems characters face in the story. After reflecting, the problems could be resolved by the reader if he/she were in that situation, they engage in problem-solving discussion. This works best when the student’s are able to relate to the lives, scenes, and/or situations of the characters in that novel so they may resolve meaningful problems. Sometimes students will go back to the text to remind another student of a certain point or fact that needs to be addressed from the story. According to Hmelo-Silver, “By articulating incorrect knowledge, learners have the opportunity to revise their false beliefs when they are confronted with correct knowledge” (2004, p. 250). This extends to nonfiction content discussions as well. At our school, our students need to express themselves as often as possible, both verbally and in writing. Discussions in small groups and on blogs are both ways for them to articulate their thinking. When students have discussions in online environments, research has found that “as the number of users increases, there is an increase in confusion from the simultaneous communications that may inhibit problem solving” (Yun-Jo An, p. 2).

Cognitive scaffolding for an informal discussion method does not need to be in Standard English, yet a discussion word bank and the facilitator’s insistence that these words be used as part of the discussion, guides our English Language Learners toward being able to use Standard English across content areas. Also the provision of partial outlines, sentence or paragraph frames, and lists of words to use to support different paragraph types (i.e., compare/contrast, etc.) helps students problem solve through discussion in a more self-directed way. In Yun-Jo An, students may begin going through a rigid structure for the process in order to minimize time spent in trial and error, but at the same time, students need “to gain valuable problem-solving strategies that can be learned when they make an action plan based on their knowledge and experience, revise their plan, and manage unexpected problems” (p. 14). The best way to facilitate seems to be to provide structure to small groups as needed, but not rigidly.

We are currently changing our school model, starting about three years ago now. The transition to less dependency on the teacher and more dependency on peers has been beneficial, yet as stated by Jones, “the replacement of the traditional teacher role by the facilitator which may make it difficult for trainees to emulate good teachers as role models” (p. 3, 2006) has not been easy. Through grant funding, we have had provisions for webinars, people to come out and facilitate training, the opportunity to send teachers to see first hand, in Texas, the model we base our new model on for the dual language program. Without extensive grant provisions, many of these opportunities would not exist. So the transition from traditional teaching to facilitative teaching is much steadier and continuous that it would have otherwise been.

In an article by Barber, King, & Buchanan (2015), I found a table that helped me really visualize how PBL, Authentic Assessment and Digital Communities work together. Here are two that stood out for me from page 60:

“Problem Based Learning: Real world situations, Digital tools vary Authentic Assessment: Real world tasks, Digital modes of assessment
Digital Communities: Real world student narratives; Digital Moments to narrate learning and share stories”

The three headings provide a framework for beginning a design for designing a digital community learning plan.

Starting students in PBL as young students captures their natural tendency to investigate. They are already curious and continuously asking questions. Studying deeply on a single topic and teaches them decision making skills as they learn directly and interactively. Young students need PBL to help them develop their social emotional skills, purposefully with a motivation to learn:

At this site, PBL is described with multiple videos of PBL in action, teacher discussions, and a wealth of resources: I clicked on just one resource, Game Based Learning, and video clips of students using game based learning in a variety of subjects, K-12, came up.


Barber, W. King, S. & Buchanan, S. (2015). Problem based learning and authentic assessment in digital pedagogy: Embracing the role of collaborative communities. The Electronic Journal of eLearning, 13(2), 59-67.

Edutopia: Retrieved March 2 from:

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266. Retrieved on March 9 at: on March 9, 2015

Jones, R. W. (2006). Problem-based learning: description, advantages, disadvantages, scenarios and facilitation. Anaesthesia and intensive care,34(4), 485. Retrieved from: On March 9, 2015.

Sam Houston State University; Retrieved on March 2 from:

Yun-Jo, A., & Reigeluth, C. M. (2008). PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING IN ONLINE ENVIRONMENTS. Quarterly Review Of Distance Education, 9(1), 1-16. Retrieved from: on March 9, 2015.

1 thought on “Problem Based Learning (PBL) –Practical Structures and Reasons for PBL in the Classroom

  1. lucassara12

    I really liked the video you found on edutopia. I had found the same article but in my clicking I did not notice the video. I liked the steps it laid out for implementing a quality PBL unit: real-world connection, core to learning, structured collaboration, student driven, multifaceted assessment.

    I also really like that you already use reflection in your classroom. I build this into my labs but other than that I don’t do much reflection. I think after reading about PBL a big key in why it works is reflection and collaboration. Students should be constantly talking because this is how they process information. I think this is key to making them lifelong learners as the video pointed out.


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