Problem Based Learning: five things to ask yourself before you start a PBL scenario

Adriann Haney | 11/09/2012

Problems are tricky. Solving a problem presents a challenge. Meeting that challenge usually demands initiative, good judgement, creativity and expertise.

We celebrate heroes bold enough to face a challenge, and applaud the insight that steers their course. Problems (or should we say problems overcome) are at the heart of all good storytelling: and good stories are memorable and immersive. This is why L&D experts love Problem Based Learning scenarios. In business, no one appreciates the power of good storytelling better than the training manager, so devising the complex scenarios required for Problem Based Learning presents course designers and L&D professionals with a meaty challenge that’s always difficult to resist.

But the immersive experiences that Problem Based Learning produces aren’t necessarily suited to every training requirement. Truth is: some training just isn’t that big a problem.

Not sure if a Problem Based Learning strategy is the right approach for the training challenge you’re faced with right now? Here’s five questions you should ask before committing the time and resources that PBL requires.

1. Do you need troubleshooters?

Problem Based Learning is fantastic at developing problem solving abilities but troubleshooting isn’t right for every training requirement in every business. Think about the skill you’re trying to develop. Is it essentially a drill and practice skill, or is it a skill that really depends on an ability to make good judgement calls?

The clue here is in the name. Problems are exceptions in business: they’re not the norm. So it follows that problem based teaching is best equipped to help workers overcome the difficult scenarios that hinder operational progress rather than the routine scenarios that keep operations ticking smoothly.

2. Are the learners new to the job or do they have some experience?

Training medical staff how to use a new piece of apparatus is not the same as training them how to act in emergency situations or deal with difficult patients. Equipping a mechanic with the essential knowledge required to properly service a vehicle is a routine training task where problems shouldn’t be anticipated. Training the same mechanic to diagnose engine failure is an exceptional scenario that requires experience and analytical skills.

Problems are tricky, debatable things that can be resolved successfully via numerous different courses of action. Workers need to think, analyse and troubleshoot their way through complex Problem Based Learning scenarios. If your training requirement is not tricky then you don’t have a requirement for Problem Based Learning.

3. Will my learners solve problems on their own or in teams?

Whether it’s live or online: Greater realism leads to deeper engagement. Conventional training methods like classroom and face-to-face are routinely offered in partnership with eLearning to deliver effective problem based training, so it pays to know exactly where and how your scenarios will fit into the business’s wider learning mix.

If your students share a common geography, could the multimedia, animations and graphics you create for online courses also be used to support a live, classroom learning event ? If you’re designing materials for geographically dispersed groups could they be shared shared via blogs, discussion boards or wikis? Problem Based Learning requires time and resources, so it pays to make sure these resources can be deployed right across the learning blend.

4. Are Subject Matter Experts available to help you devise the right scenarios?

You’re trying to convert workers who understand process into workers experienced enough to address problems whenever process fails. But problems are unpredictable: they occur without warning.

Building scenarios for these, apparently, unpredictable situations isn’t as difficult as it seems. Any HR professional with a knowledge of critical incident technique knows that L&D experts can anticipate the future by studying the past.

When scoping out scenarios for your Problem Based Learning courses, talk to the best experts your business has to offer. Get them to describe the challenging situations they’ve found themselves in and the decision making that got them through. Study what they have to say in detail and you’ll start to identify the common behaviour that gets the most experienced workers out of most situations.

5. Do I have the time and resources required to design, develop and test Problem Based Learning?

It’s important to remember that actually solving the “problem” scenario is not the only end goal in Problem Based Learning: what you really want to inspire is a behavioral change that equips workers with the expertise they need to overcome any problem. To do this you need to build highly realistic and specific scenarios that your students can believe in, but you also need to support their learning with a diverse array of options and support materials. Just like in the real word, Problem Based Learning needs to offer a variety of routes towards an acceptable solution.