Problem-Based Learning


The second quote that I am choosing to reflect upon is, “adults are problem-centered, not subject-centered, and desire immediate, not postponed application of the knowledge learned” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 53).  According to Merriam and Bierema this is the fourth assumption of andragogy.  They go on to write that, “Problem-centered learning is preferred by adults because it is more engaging and lends itself to immediate application, which in turn solidifies the learning” (p. 53).

In the field of occupational health and safety (OHS) it is very important to have the necessary skills to solve problems of immediate concern.  For example, in the situation of a serious accident in the workplace, such as a fatality, the root causes of the incident must be controlled as soon as possible in order to prevent future recurrences.  Solving this problem in a timely manner is critical and students in my OHS diploma program need to have the necessary skills to accomplish this.


This quote resonated with me because of my strong belief in its application to the real world, primarily in the transition from schooling to the workplace.  My first reflection centered around 21st century learning skills and I believe that problem-centered learning is a natural extension to that discussion, as exercises and activities in this realm of learning lend themselves to building these skills and developing lifelong learners.

As I began to research problem-centered (often referred to as problem-based) learning, I found my thoughts on the matter summarized quite nicely.  Rimal et al (2015) instituted a problem-based learning (PBL) approach in an undergraduate dentistry program in Nepal.  The study, which seemed very relevant to my teaching circumstances in Qatar, suggested that students’ involvement in PBL “helped them learn from each other’s experiences, refine ideas, consolidate what they know, and rehearse arguments that will orient them well in clinical years” (Rimal et al, 2015, p. S45).  Further, Nitin et al (2014) studied PBL as an effective learning tool in a community medicine program in a developing country.  That paper outlined the observations of previous research studies on PBL and noted, “students learning by the PBL approach had enhanced problem-solving abilities, had marked improvement in higher-order thinking skills, and had better profession-specific skills, communication skills, and teamwork” (Nitin et al, 2014, p. 137).

Further to my reflection on 21st century learning skills, and being able to produce lifelong learners through my OHS diploma program, it certainly seems like more PBL exercises and activities should be implemented in my courses, especially considering that these studies discuss the benefits of PBL, which are exactly what I am trying to achieve with my students.


It dawned on me that the best example of PBL in my present teaching situation is our annual skills competition for health sciences students.  Students work as part of interprofessional teams that rotate through a set of scenarios developed by instructors.  The students are judged on a number of factors including teamwork, communication, and assertiveness.  One scenario involved a construction worker that had amputated his hand with a circular saw.  When the students arrive at the scenario and find the injured worker, the OHS student is required to secure the scene, preserve the evidence, and notify key personnel, which includes paramedics.  A paramedic student then arrives on the scene and must work with the OHS student to address the situation.  Students have fifteen minutes to work through the scenario and try to score points by carrying out the requirements.  It is a high pressure PBL scenario that requires the students to demonstrate their knowledge under time constraints and work together to deal with the circumstances.  Overall, the students enjoy this day and they often consider it the highlight of the academic year.  The issue, upon further reflection, is that this should be occurring much more frequently and informally throughout my program.  Therefore, I must incorporate more PBL activities in my courses.


In order to address the need to incorporate more PBL in my teaching, I began to investigate how to develop PBL activities and run them in my classroom, especially in regards to assessing students.  I found that very recently, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) called for proposals to advance student success through faculty intentionality, transparency, and problem-centered learning.  Salis et al (2016) addressed transparency and problem-centered learning at Queensborough Community College of City University of New York.  Regarding transparency, the study recognized the importance of setting clear goals and expectations for students during problem-centered learning activities.  It went on to recommend engaging in extensive class discussions on assignment learning goals, requirements, and expectations; directly linking assignments with the identified course learning outcomes; wording assignments clearly and providing a rationale for the assignment; allowing students to explore the topic and voice their opinions; connecting assignments to real-world applications; and providing opportunities for reflection (p. 16).

Acosta-Morales et al (2016), under the same project proposal from AAC&U, investigated problem-centered learning at Philadelphia Community College.  The study indicated that disseminating the “Problem Solving VALUE Rubric” to students satisfied some of the issues around transparency and helped in the assessment of problem-centered learning activities (p. 13).  The Problem Solving VALUE Rubric published by AAC&U defines problem solving as, “the process of designing, evaluating, and implementing a strategy to answer an open-ended question or achieve a desired goal.”  The rubric assesses the ability to define the problem, identify strategies, propose solutions/hypotheses, evaluate potential solutions, implement solutions, and evaluate outcomes.

In my teaching this year, I plan to develop more small-scale scenarios – at least one in every course – ensuring transparency in the learning outcomes of the assignment and assessing students using the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric.         


Acosta-Morales, O., McCool, E., Murphey, K., Stephens, M., (2016). Increasing underserved student success through factuly intentionality in problem-centered learning. Peer Review, Winter/Spring 2016, AAC&U, 12-14.

Bierema, L.L., Merriam S.B., (2014). Adult learning linking theory and practice. John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Joseph, N., Rai, S., Madi, D., Bhat, K., Kotian, S.M., Kantharaju, S., (2016). Problem-based learning as an effective learning tool in community medicine: Initiative in a private medical college of a developing country.  Indian Journal of Community Medicine, Vol 41, Issue 2, 133-140

Rimal, J., Paudel, B.H., Shrestha, A., (2015). Introduction of problem-based learning in undergraduate dentistry program in Nepal.  Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, Vol 5, Supplement 1, S45-S49

Salis, A., Ferrari-Bridgers, F., Kaur, S., Stroubakis, K., Traver, A., Zhelezcheva, T., (2016). Advancing student success through faculty intentionality in problem-centered learning. Peer Review, Winter/Spring 2016, AAC&U, 15-17.