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Problem-Based Assignments Solve Real-World Issues

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this blog post by Eye On Education's Senior Editor, Lauren Davis.

Last month, I blogged about the differences among problem-based, project-based, and inquiry-based learning. Let’s take a closer look at problem-based learning, where students work on investigating and resolving a real-world problem. I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers who want to try this method in the classroom but aren’t sure how to get started. Nancy Sulla to the rescue! In her book, Students Taking Charge: Inside the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom, she offers the following clear, step-by-step guidelines for creating problem-based assignments.

Start with the standards. Identify the content, skills and concepts you plan to cover in a specified unit of time, such as a three-week period.

Think application. Ask yourself, “When would someone use this knowledge in the real world? So what? Why?”

Think authenticity and relevancy. Students always want to know why they have to learn something. Authentic assignments show them why! Students are more motivated when they’re given work that is realistic and that reflects something they might actually have to do in the real world, beyond school doors. Here’s what inauthentic vs. authentic assignments look like:

Inauthentic: Create a model of an ecosystem and describe the lifecycle and food-chain relations to it.
Authentic: A local building contractor is planning to bulldoze all of the trees in a nearby copse. These are some local groups appealing to save the trees. Your job is to identify one type of tree indigenous to the area and design a presentation to convince the contractor to spare the trees based on the impact it will have on the local ecosystem (Sulla, 23).

Think open-endedness. In other words, make sure your assignment has no one right answer. For example, if you are teaching topography of a certain area, you could have students create a salt-and-flour map. Students would have to do research and create a replica, and they might have fun doing so, but they’re really just regurgitating knowledge. Instead, "asking a student to determine where the next airport should be built is an open-ended problem that exists in the realms of both the known and unknown. Students research the area, including the location of existing airports. They must then propose a location for the next airport, and substantiate their decision. No one right answer exists, as the 'right answer' is yet unknown" (Sulla, 24).

Think product. Consider how students will present their solution to the problem. “Avoid thinking along the lines of a project, with ‘glue and glitter flying.’ A product could be a poem, a persuasive letter, a webpage, an annotated bibliography, or a series of graphs, as well as the more project-oriented posters, skits and multimedia presentations" (Sulla, 24).

Think content. Make sure you don’t let the bells and whistles of a multimedia presentation overwhelm the actual content. Yes, it’s important for students to present the content in an engaging way, but you don’t want students to spend so much time looking for a fun visual that they’re not really learning the heart of the material.

Here are some additional examples of problem-based learning assignments:

Science example: Some researchers think that we can use certain types of bacteria to clean up radioactive pollution in water. Not everyone agrees. Have students use the scientific method, evaluate data on bacteria, and decide how one bacteria or a combination of them would work effectively as microscopic radioactive pollution eaters. Then have students decide how to present their work (Sulla, 150).

Math example: Indoor ski slopes are gaining popularity. Have students explore existing indoor slopes and develop a plan for their own. They should use their knowledge of coordinate planes, slopes, lines and graphing linear equations. They should design three unique ski slopes for varying abilities, draw them on graph paper and include the corresponding linear equations.


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