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#1 Tips for Planning Successful Problem-Based Learning in Your Math Classroom

Written By: Julia Watson, Ph.D., Exemplars Consultant and Gifted and Talented Specialist

In this blog, Dr. Julia Watson provides insight on Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and offers suggestions on how teachers might go about incorporating PBL into their classrooms. It is published as a two-part series. The first segment features background information on PBL and its benefits on student learning, while the second will focus on steps for implementation.

If Train A leaves the station at 9:53 a.m. and is traveling at 32 mph, when will Train B that leaves the same station, traveling at 40 mph, overtake Train A?

Do any of you recall this mathematical challenge from your former education days? As a student, I found myself wondering “Who cares?”  After all, there was no train where I lived …

What does this imply for problem-based learning? I hope the answer is apparent– providing students with realistic, intriguing, open-ended tasks can engage those (of us) who don’t care about Train A OR Train B.

What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)?

PBL is a focused, experiential learning opportunity organized around the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems that “leads to relevant and connected learning for students.” (Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy 2011)

Why use PBL?

Research indicates:

  • When students are asked to respond to situations that arouse their curiosity they display improved academic performance. (Engel and Randall 2009)
  • Challenging students to use higher-level thinking to solve complex problems is “superior when it comes to long-term retention, skill development and satisfaction of students and facilitators.” (Strobel and VanBarneveld, 2009 44)

What are the roles of students in PBL?

Students participating in PBL become:

  • Engaged by problematic situations.
  • Active learners.
  • Higher-level thinkers.
  • Self-directed learners and problem solvers (learning how to learn).
  • Decision-makers about the nature and structure of their own learning.

(Adapted from Barell 2010 and Torp and Sage 2002)

What are the roles of facilitators in PBL?

Facilitators engaged in PBL become:

  • Co-investigators who model using the problem-solving process.
  • Designers of learning experiences who determine the desired outcomes of the experience.
  • Coaches who ask questions.
  • Monitors of the learning experience who provide feedback to students.

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