Problem-based education; changing the model

MIT loves hands-on learning. We see it everywhere, in lab classes, in the UROP programs, even in the motto itself, Mens et Manus. Many of the best classes at the Institute are centered around the union of hands-on learning and lecture-style learning, encouraging students to take the concepts and equations from lectures and apply them to different real world hands-on applications. This model has been tremendously successful and has helped propel MIT and its students to the place it is today.

Despite its past success, the traditional intersection between classroom and hands-on learning is being disrupted by online education. Online education offers students a chance to learn the same concepts and equations that are currently taught during a lecture, but at the pace of each individual student, combined with instantaneous feedback. MIT has been proactive thus far, helping to drive online innovation and studying the ways in which it can impact residential education. Particularly promising is the way in which online education, like edX and MITx, opens new avenues for combining lecture style learning with hand-on learning. Online education has the potential to transform hands on learning by centering education on real world problems and empowering students to learn, on their own, the concepts, equations, and analytical tools necessary to solve these problems.

Today, hands-on learning is driven by lecture-based learning. First, students learn some concept or equation in lecture, and then they are asked to apply what they have been taught in the form of some project or lab. Imagine, however, if the reverse were true: students are first challenged with some project or lab; and in order to complete the challenge, the students need to learn the same course material normally covered in lecture. However, instead of learning the concepts and equations during a traditional lecture, the students in this class teach themselves these concepts using online tools like edX. This approach offers several advantages over the traditional concept first model.

One of the biggest benefits of this change is that every topic covered is naturally embedded in a real world application. Rather than teach students about circuits in a vacuum, a student would be forced to learn how to build circuits so that they can create a processor for the robotics project they are working on in class. Embedding the material in a real world application better engages the student and shows them why a particular concept is useful.

Over the course of a semester long project, such as building a robot, the students are naturally exposed to the same concepts, topics, and equations that are taught during a traditional class. However, now the students have an incentive to teach themselves the material: completing their project and creating something cool. As the students complete the project, they both continue to learn and apply new to material, as well as integrate the new concepts with what they have previously learned. Most importantly, for the first time, the hands-on learning drives the online learning; students learn equations in order to solve a specific challenge they face in their project. When students can learn equations and lectures online, project based education becomes feasible and can change the way real world applications, hands on learning, and theoretical learning are integrated.

A second important benefit of problem-based learning with online material is that it frees up class time for more student-professor interactions. Now that class time is no longer dedicated to lecturing, the professors can use that time to meet with students and groups to talk about their project, offering guidance about what online material to cover, answering questions the students may have, even walking the students through mini-problems and case studies designed to illustrate different concepts. The goal is to use class time to provide face-to-face interactions that the student cannot get elsewhere.

Part of this could include professors talking about problem-solving strategies with the students, showing them how they think about the aspects of the problem. Class time could also be used for student presentations about ideas they have for the project or about the work they have done. It may even include Socratic Seminars, where students discuss case studies of problems similar to the one on which they are focusing. Of course, students can also use class time to work on their project, working in the lab or researching in the library. When students learn equations outside of class, professors become free to use class time to better engage students with the material and its applications, and students can use the professor’s time more effectively, focusing on the specific concepts and applications that they have found challenging.

The benefits of problem-based learning can be realized through several models. Some classes could provide students with a single challenge or problem that the students work on all semester long. The different parts of the problem cover all the material in the class’s curriculum. Other classes might give students the change to propose their own problem or project and use each student’s project to teach the course material. Some classes might have students work in small groups on problems, while others may have students work individually. It may even be possible for an entire class to work on one problem, with the work divided up amongst the students.

Incorporating problem based learning into an education also promises new ways for student driven demonstrations of learning. Either in place of or in addition to more traditional exams, students can work with the professor to design their own way to demonstrate what they have learned. This could be through traditional methods like papers, posters, and presentations, but it could also be through the completion of interactive online demos, making a video tutorial, building a website where people can learn about a topic, or even some sort of service project. With each problem comes unique ways for students to demonstrate mastery of course material.

Advocates of online learning make many promises about the way in which it can transform and improve residential based learning. Online supplemented problem based learning is just one way those promise can be realized. Problem-based learning strengthens the connections between real world applications of course material and the theories and equations on which the material rests. With online education, applications of learning can become the center of education, encouraging the students to learn the theory outside the classroom so that they can fully appreciate its implications and apply them to the problem at hand. At the same time, online education frees up the problem based classroom to focus on enhanced student-faculty interactions and more effective face-to-face interaction. In short, problem-based learning is one potential model that combines online and residential education in order to realize many potential benefits.

Henry Borenson over 5 years ago

In the above article the expression "hands-on learning" is used to refer to the application of theoretical knowledge to the solution of real-world problems, such as building a circuit to accomplish a specified purpose.

The term "hands-on learning" also has another meaning, especially in the lower grades. It refers to using concrete materials or pictorial representations to enable young students to grasp what might otherwise be abstract concepts.

Consider, for example, the problem (2/3)x equals 4/5. If one takes a rectangle and divides into thirds, two of those thirds are 4/5, and hence one of those thirds is 2/5. Hence, the full rectangle, or x, is 6/5. This is the same answer obtained in multiplying 4/5 by 3/2, but it enables the student to appreciate why we do so. Likewise, hands-on methods can enable elementary school students to solve equations such as 4x plus 3 equals 3x plus 9 with full understanding.

Jennifer DeBoer over 5 years ago

I greatly appreciate this timely article. You provide an insightful perspective not only on the importance of problem-based learning (PBL) from a learner's point of view but also on the placement of PBL in the new landscape of diffused online learning. I have two main comments to add, and I post them separately here.

Classes, in particular in engineering, have traditionally been taught by beginning with a theoretical framework and then moving to examples of this theory in the real world. A four-year plan looks the same, starting off with the core theoretical classes and moving to design projects in the last semesters of an undergraduate degree. However, this choice isn't necessarily grounded in educational principles. In fact, there is not much conclusive research that would support either order.

That's not to say there aren't some provocative examples of a course or curriculum that focuses on PBL first and foremost. A great example at the curriculum level is the Department of Civil, Environmental Geomatic Engineering at the University College of London, which, about ten years ago, flipped its curriculum upside-down and changed first year courses to be heavily design-focused and situated in real-world contexts. I've also seen students really engaged from the beginning of a course or workshop by engineering problems based on real-world issues like the "Grand Challenges for Engineering" (issues like providing access to clean water). And, as you mention, there are some great PBL classes at MIT.

There is a good deal of established research on problem-based learning in the classroom, which might be useful to add to your discussion. You have identified an important area for new research, though. We haven't quite figured out the best way to "do PBL" online. Further, we haven't found that magical blend of online and in-person problem-based learning work yet.

Jennifer DeBoer over 5 years ago

The future for online learning as a complement to the residential experience is an open question. Does this future lie in the online space providing the more "theoretical" background information for in-person problem-solving? Maybe. But, I think we should be careful before we decide that (a) the online space cannot be used for PBL and (b) learning the more theoretical material can be relegated to an online space where the student learns it on his or her own. If the traditional lecture-based presentation of theory doesn't work well (and it often doesn't), why would the same material and presentation style work for students working alone online? The development of online courses as well as the merger of online and in-class problem-based work should be done carefully and conscientiously. We as educators are faced with this real-world engineering problem, and we have to consider all of our resources and constraints in the open, ambiguous space of blended learning today.

Thank you again for highlighting this issue, and I hope the MIT community will continue to grapple with the questions you've posed.

John Veranth about 5 years ago

I have always been problem focused in my thinking, and that affected how I learned at MIT and ever since. Going way back to the WWII generation (e. g. my Father-in-Law MIT '42) and up into the 60's students came to MIT with lots of prior hands-on technology experience. Examples include ham radio, summer jobs, chemistry sets with real dangerous chemicals. The theory of the courses could build on a real-world foundation.

A challenge today is develop a combined real-world background and academic curriculum the is relevant to the 21st century.