Saturday, April 6, 2013

Goals and Strategies of a Problem-based Learning Facilitator

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. , & Barrows, H. S. (2006). Goals and Strategies of a Problem-based Learning Facilitator. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1(1).

This article addresses specific strategies used by an expert problem based educator to facilitate his classroom.  The class is a med school class where students are attempting to diagnose and illness based on the information they have been given.

My goal in reading the article was to identify useful strategies I might want to incorporate into my own classroom when running a problem-based session.  Additionally I wanted more information about problem-based learning and what it looks like in practice.

Additionally,  the article had information about how what educators want out of their classroom influences the model the use in their classroom.  Also, the article touched upon what a student-centered classroom is and it’s importance in a problem-based classroom.

An Explanation of Problem Based Learning
According to Silver and Barrows, problem-based learning is an active learning method based on the use of ill-structured problems as a stimulus for learning (Barrows, 2000). Ill-structured problems are complex problems that cannot be solved by a simple algorithm. Such problems do not necessarily have a single correct answer but require learners to consider alternatives and to provide are reasoned argument to support the solution that they generate.   (p22)

This definition of pbl is similar to ones I have seen, but I am not sure that the goal is always to have problems that cannot be solved using simple algorithms.  In Mathematics I have seen PBL used to establish and understand algorithms that can be used and applied easily afterwards.  So in a sense, simple algorithms can be used once they have been introduced and understood through the use of an introductory problem.

One key element to establishing a pbl classroom is a student-centered approach.  The authors contrasted this approach with a teacher-centered approach.  Characteristics of a student-centered approach include:

  • The pursuit of ideas
  • Getting students to think about how they thing - metacognitive
  • Analyzing theories and deriving formulas
  • Student driven discussion
  • Teacher as facilitator and scaffolder
Characteristics of a teacher centered approach include
  • Acquisition of facts
  • Teacher lead, teacher dominates the discussion
  • Questions which have short correct answers for which the teacher already knows the answer.

Educational and Performance Goals For PBL
In this case study the facilitator identified five educational and three performance goals:

Educational Goals:
1. explain disease processes responsible for a patient’s symptoms and signs and describe what interventions can be undertaken,
2. employ an effective reasoning process,
3. be aware of knowledge limitations,
4. meet knowledge needs through self-directed learning and social knowledge construction,
5. evaluate their learning and performance. The facilitator’s performance goals were to

Performance Goals:
1. keep all students active in the learning process,
2. keep the learning process on track,
3. make the students’ thoughts and their depth of understanding apparent, and
4. encourage students to become self-reliant for direction and information.

The educational goals refer objectives to be learned, performance goals support behaviors that lead to the learning goals.    With the exception of the first educational goal, all of these goals could be used in my classroom.

Strategies used by the expert facilitators
1.  Pushing For Explanations:
This is a strategy of asking for students to be explicit about their thoughts.  In this example it involved pushing a student to elaborate upon multiple sclerosis as a diagnosis.  But I see wide application for it in my classroom.  So often student give operations as answer “multiply” or “divide” or “KFC”.  Sometimes this is students playing the odds but other times students believe this is the correct response and might be right but they have never articulated or even really pushed themselves to think about why.  This is exactly the thing that excites me about pbl, getting students to think more deeply about ideas rather than just applying procedures.  The stated goals for this approach were to construct causal models and to help students realize limits of their knowledge. (p28)

2.  Revoicing:
Taking the ideas put fourth by a student and restating them.  This can be done to clarify what is being said for others. legitimize the ideas of low status students, help to keep important ideas alive and subtly influence the direction of the conversation.  This is a technique I use already in the classroom but have also noticed that I can misuse it to put ideas or explanations that I am searching for into the mouths of students.

3.  Summarizing:
Having a student summarize the discussion is a strategy suggested to keep a conversation from stalling.  It can also be used as a check on quiet students to make sure they are staying involved even if they are not being especially vocal.  It also provides students with practice in articulating the process.  In the article this was the medical diagnostic process but this applies to mathematics problems as well.  It also allows facilitator to see what information was deemed important or relevant by the students in order to solve the problem.

I wonder what types of strategies I can use besides summarization to achieve understanding check-ins and also how to get students to to speed who have not been paying attention.  Reflecting on some of my students this year a couple of them have some difficulties talking aloud in class and also sometimes “zone out” during discussion.  Some of those students have IEPs but no all of them do.

4.  Generating Hypotheses:
The articles suggest that asking students to generate a hypothesis can help students become aware of the limits of their knowledge.  Additionally it can help the focus they’re data gathering and problem solving approach.  The authors suggest that this strategy might be useful in getting students to identify concepts and areas that they are not sure about and provide a list of topics for self directed learning.

Self directed learning will need to be one of the cornerstones of my program, especially because the classroom is untracked and so many of the students tend to be a different levels.

Other strategies listed in table by the authors, but not directly given their own topic heading by the authors included
Use of open ended and metacognitive questions
Map between symptoms and hypothesis
Check for consensus that the white board reflect discussion:  the use of a specific type of board setup is discussed briefly in this article but is talked about in more detail in other PBL articles.  IT will be useful to read more about this and look at using that setup next year.
Cleaning up the board
Creating learning issues
Encouraging constructions of visual representations: There are entire articles dedicated to the use of mind mapping and graphic organizers for PBL, I think these will be very useful for me next year especially when trying to get my 8th graders to express their thoughts in journals.

A question that I still have after reading this article is whether the type of PBL discussed in this article is the same type I have witnessed at Exeter and the type that I am thinking about implementing in my own classroom.  My question remains because the type of questions in this case study differs in its depth from the type that I have seen in mathematics classrooms.  The Exeter problems sets are not always given in the context of a real life application, there are usually several assigned per night and lack the depth of the problem given to the class in this article.

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