What is your problem? Apps that can help problem-based learning exercises

Willowbl00, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Interested to know more about the practices and theories behind problem-based learning (often shortened to its acronym PBL), the Active Learning Network set up a problem-based learning exploration hour last month which was attended by a number of educationalists across the UK. The idea was simply to pass forty-five minutes together and discuss PBL theory and how it could be applied in our individual contexts and disciplines.

Problem-based learning has been described as a pedagogical strategy that uses open ended problems that mirror real-world problems. The central idea is that the tutor introduces problems to which the students must suggest solutions that require them to engage in the topic content. Many advantages to student learning have been cited in cases where a PBL approach to teaching has been taken, such as increasing student engagement, motivating peer interactions and the acquisition of life-long learning skills. The approach can be made to work well in all disciplines if ground rules are set and agreement is reached with assessment boards, although the theory behind it emerged from medicine and has greatest uptake in applied disciplines, the sciences and business studies. 

Tools for PBL

There are many technologies that can make PBL more effective. In each case it will of course depend on the problem and discipline and what follows is by no means an exhaustive list.

Mindmapping tools

The nature of open-ended problems is that finding a solution requires planning. For many of us, mind-mapping tools are the first step in the planning process. They can help students connect the problem they have been asked to consider with concepts presented by the tutor and their own personal experiences and previous learning. They help provoke students to think out of the box and as a result bring out novel ideas. At Sussex staff and students have the mind mapping software, Mindview. If students are working in a team Coggle, Mindmeister, Bubbl.us or even Padlet are also good apps. Last month we blogged on whiteboards which can often be used in the same way.

Note-taking tools

PBL often requires fieldwork where note-taking tools can be really useful. OneNote is a feature rich Microsoft product for note taking and portfolio building. Other note taking tools include Evernote, which is awesome, Otter.ai which specialises in voice notes and Google Keep, which is integrated with Google suite of apps. These applications allow you to share notes, but another favourite app is Mural which is another whiteboard app that can be used for group notes. 

Group working tools

PBL exercises are often done in groups. In Canvas you can set up Groups and the groups have areas where they can post announcements, have discussions with one another and share files. Sometimes tutors set up a Padlet wall within the group spaces for the students to use. Students can also use alternative tools to manage their groups and we have a Canvas site for students dedicated to the smooth running of study groups.

Challenges of using PBL in teaching 

When done well, PBL encompasses the entire curriculum design. It often requires rethinking of traditional learning objectives, the teaching methods and assessments of a module. This is challenging for module convenors when teaching on an existing module. The introduction of PBL needs to be thought about well in advance and the changes approved by the appropriate boards. PBL can be introduced on a small scale though, although unless done with care, students can resist doing PBL tasks which do not align with the learning objectives and/or assessments. 

If you would like to consider using innovative teaching approaches to your teaching such as PBL, please contact us at tel@sussex.ac.uk

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Posted in Learning Design, Learning Technologies

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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