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Problem based learning: transitioning to an online / hybrid learning environment

A few weeks ago I attended a short presentation by Prof. Meena Iyer from Missouri University. Prof. Iyer spoke about how she moved her PBL module from using a traditional, mainly face-to-face approach, to an online / hybrid approach. Here are my notes.


“All life is problem solving” – Karl Popper

How do we get students to think like professionals in the field?
How do we foster group interaction in online spaces?
How do I assess learning in online spaces?

PBL addresses the content issue, as well as enhancing critical thinking through the collaborative solving of authentic, real-world problems


  • PBL → solving problems is the tool, learning is the goal
  • Traditional → content is the tool, problem solving is the goal

PBL is all unstructured (but it can be scaffolded), and there’s not necessarily a right/wrong answer

Six steps to problem solving (IDEALS):

  • Identify the problem (What is the real question we are facing?)
  • Define the context (What are the facts that frame this problem?)
  • Enumerate the choices (What are the plausible actions?)
  • Analyse the options (What is the best course of action?)
  • List reasons explicitly (why is this the best course of action?)
  • Self-correct (What did we miss?)

The problem should be authentic and appealing (a mystery to solve)
Clearly outline expectations for each step of the process

Why move from face-to-face to online?

  • In F2F, you can only move forward at the speed of the slowest learner
  • Significant time requirements for F2F
  • Identify…can be anonymous online → fewer preconceived biases among students


  • How do you transition F2F to online
  • What tools are appropriate / feasible / viable / affordable?
  • How do you do collaborative work when everyone is online at different times?


  • Cases are presented in multiple formats / media
  • Introductory week to familiarise students with online environment. In addition to learning the content and critical thinking, students also have to learn about PBL
  • Scenarios are released in 2 stages over a 2 week period
  • Scenarios are accompanied by a set of probing questions to stimulate discussion
  • Teacher provides support during the discussions
  • Students must also design their own case
  • Assessment is based on content and depth
  • Wiki used for question / answer. Each student must answer each of the questions, each answer must be different i.e. must add to what has already been added (this means that the question can’t just be a knowledge question)
  • Discussion boards are used for students to dissect the cases (All and Group)
  • Each group assesses their own knowledge base, and define what the gaps are, and therefore what they need to find out (who provides the links to the resources, or can students use any resources?)
  • At least 3 posts per student, including: Summarise and question one citation; Answer another students’ question; Follow up any discussion on their own posts
  • Reading assignment: written, critial appraisal of a published article relevant to the case study. This summary must be posted online.

Important for students to learn how to share information in supportive environments


  • What parts of the process need to be assessed?
  • What parts can be graded as a group?
  • What needs to be submitted for individual assessment?
  • What are the time constraints for the grading?
  • How do you balance grading workload with the need to externally motivate student performance?
  • There is also a syllabus quiz to ensure the students actually know the content


  • Make the problem compelling
  • Outline expectations
  • The problem analysis should relate to the professoinal field
  • As student proficiency develops, withdraw support
  • Use learning issues to encourage EBP
  • Ensure that solution development is based on critical appraisal


  • Barrows, HS (1996). Problem based learning in medicine and beyond: a brief overview. New directions for teaching and learning
  • Barrows HS & Tamblyn, RM (1980). Problem based learning: an approach to medicla education. New York, Springer Pub. Co.
  • Hmelo-Silver, C (2004). Problem based learning: what and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3)



Posted to Diigo 06/04/2010

    • THE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT TECHNIQUES (SETs) are fifty field-tested learning activities that one or more college teachers have found effective in engaging students. Each SET promotes active learning by requiring students to participate in activities such as reading, writing, discussing, problem solving, or reflecting.
    • “Seminar” helps students prepare for and participate in an in-depth, focused, and meaningful small-group discussion of a text. Students bring their marked-up copies and essay to class, and they use these as their ticket to participate in a highly structured small-group discussion.
    • The structure of the small-group discussion provides even shy and diffident students and non-native speakers with a platform to practice their voice.
    • 1.  Select a text that is conceptually rich
    • 2.  Craft a prompt for a writing assignment that connects to the reading
    • 3.  Create a handout that provides students with directions for both the reading and discussion
    • 4.  Outside of class, students read the document, marking and then prioritizing the passages that they found to be most interesting, provocative, puzzling, and so forth and that they want to discuss with the group. They also write a brief essay in response to the instructor-developed prompt. This preparation is their ticket to a small group
    • 5.  The teacher forms prepared students into groups of 4-6. (Either dismiss unprepared students, or allow them to observe in fishbowl fashion, sitting in chairs outside a group, listening to the discussion but not participating.)
    • 6.  In round-robin fashion, each student selects one of his or her high priority passages
    • and then briefly explains why it was selected
    • 7.  After every student has contributed, students respond to what they heard from one or two of the other participants
    • 8.  Students enter into a free-flowing discussion, sharing what they learned or found most meaningful, and as much as possible connecting their comments to specific passages in the text.
    • 9.  After discussion, students add further comments, reflections, or insights as a postscript to their essays and submit them to the instructor.
    • This technique is designed for a face-to-face environment. However, the basic steps can be adapted for an online class
    • Most students will need guidance on how to read critically and how to contribute effectively to the discussion
    • 1.  What does the text say?
    • 2.  What does the text mean?
    • 3.  Why is this important?
    • When assessing seminar behaviors one can ask, How does a person contribute to the seminar? To what degree does he or she engage in the following three kinds of behaviors?
    • A.  Introduce substantive points
    • B. Deepen the discussion
    • C.  Facilitate group exploration