2d. Problem-Based Learning

Evan Glazer
The University of Georgia


Samstonian is a small suburban town about thirty minutes south of a large metropolitan area. Most of the residents work for Nikron, a packaging factory on the outskirts of town. Local social, cultural, and fundraising events are often partially sponsored by Nikron making the company an engrained and influential component of the community. In essence, Nikron and the townspeople have a symbiotic relationship; without the factory, Samstonian would suffer unemployment, and without the people, the factory would have a manpower shortage.

The town’s daily newspaper, the Samstonian Chronicle, recently published a disturbing front-page photograph of the Samstonian River located one-half mile from the Nikron factory. Beneath the headline, “What’s Wrong with the Water?,” at least twenty dead fish were shown floating near the riverbank. The article stated that the reasons for this incident were unknown, but that there was cause for great concern because the river was the main source of the town’s water supply.

Some suspicion arose among the residents of Samstonian about the possibility that the factory was dumping pollutants in the Samstonian River. In response to this media attention and public scrutiny, Nikron issued a public statement declaring their deep concern about the matter but rejecting any blame for the recent fish kills. Because of the company’s desire to maintain strong relations with the community, Nikron welcomed the town’s help in further investigating the incident. In an effort to build credibility in their statement, Nikron opened their facility to all concerned citizens for public inspection.

Mr. Fred Samples, a chemistry teacher at Samstonian High School, took advantage of this opportunity by inviting his class to address the problem: Is the town’s water supply being contaminated by pollutants from the factory? Mr. Samples knew this question was significant and expected his class to spend several weeks addressing the problem. He first asked his class to formulate research questions to analyze this problem. The students determined that they should investigate the following questions:

  • Why are fish dying in the Samstonian River?
  • What is the history of the level of toxins discharged by the factory?
  • What types and quantities of toxins are present in the Samstonian River?
  • What types and quantities of toxins are present in the local water filtration system?

The class was divided into four teams with each addressing a single question. The school media specialist, Mr. Harrington, was brought into the class to discuss the resources available to the students for their research. Mr. Samples asked each group to devise a proposal for a final product that would represent their research efforts. The groups could compose a news story, write a research report for Nikron or to the Environmental Protection Agency, create a documentary, develop a legal brief for a court case, or other projects that the groups could develop. In their proposals, the groups were to provide a detailed description of the project and an itemized breakdown of the manner in which their projects would be assessed. Following submission, the proposals were reviewed and negotiated with the teacher. The media specialist also reviewed each of the proposals and provided recommendations for sources and strategies to gain access to relevant information.

The groups used the feedback from their teacher and the media specialist to devise a set of methods and strategies to answer their questions. As the students developed their ideas, they realized that they would need to obtain water samples from the water filtration plant, various locations in the river, and from the town’s tap water; air samples from the factory; autopsy results from samples of dead fish from the river; and toxin analysis records from the county’s environmental health office. In response, Mr. Samples arranged field trips to the Nikron factory, the Samstonian River, and the county environmental health office. Mr. Harrington helped to locate potentially useful databases from these sources. He also spoke to each of the groups about strategies for finding information while in the field collecting data.

The students collected data and worked in their teams to address a focus question. The group investigating the death of the fish decided to make further contacts, such as meeting with the newspaper reporter who broke the story, and interviewing townspeople who regularly fished in the river. Before dissecting some of the fish, the groups consulted the library, the Internet, and their biology teacher to learn more about the typical life cycle and common diseases in this species of fish. Using this information, along with information about toxins obtained from the other groups, the group determined the cause of death in the fish they dissected. They looked for more dead fish and a relationship between cause of death in the previous fish samples. In addition, they caught live fish of the same species and tested them for traces of toxins.

The quality of students’ findings depended on synthesizing their information with the results of the other groups. They compared their lab results with those of the other groups for relationships between the toxins in the fish or water with the pollutants emitted from the factory. This analysis helped the group make some initial conjectures about the cause of fish deaths in the Samstonian River. They then returned to their data to test their hypothesis and developed a project to represent these findings.

Simultaneously, the other three groups were conducting similar searches for information, contacts with experts, lab tests, conjectures, and analyses to support their findings. Throughout the process, Mr. Samples helped to extend students’ thinking by asking questions about their strategies and arguments. Although he had a background in chemistry and toxicology, Mr. Samples was not an expert in all areas of the students’ inquiry. Instead, he helped the students find sources and reflect in ways that would expand their thinking and address the overall question of study.

After the groups presented their findings about their subquestions, Mr. Samples revisited the original question with the entire class: Is the town’s water supply being contaminated by pollutants from the factory?

The students’ responsibility was then to synthesize all of the findings and produce an argument affirming or refuting this question. Mr. Samples chose to engage the students in a mock trial, The People of Samstonian vs. Nikron Corporation, in which the class would present both sides of the case; in addition, a jury would determine the outcome. The jury was not only to analyze the evidence and arguments presented in the trial; they were to examine the moral, ethical, social, and economic implications of the case.


For a description of the differences between Project-based Learning and Problem-based Learning, click here.

Problem-based inquiry is an effort to challenge students to address real-world problems and resolve realistic dilemmas. Such problems create opportunities for meaningful activities that engage students in problem solving and higher-ordered thinking in authentic settings. Many textbooks attempt to promote these skills through contrived settings without relevance to students’ lives or interests. A notorious algebra problem concerns the time at which two railway trains will pass each other:

Two trains leave different stations headed toward each other. Station A is 500 miles west of Station B. Train A leaves station A at 12:00 pm traveling toward Station B at a rate of 60 miles per hour. Train B leaves Station B at 2:30 pm for Station A at a rate of 45 miles per hour. At what time will the trains meet?

Reading this question, one might respond, “Who cares?”, or, “Why do we need to know this?” Such questions have created substantial anxiety among students and have, perhaps, even been the cause of nightmares. Critics would argue that classic “story problems” leave a lasting impression of meaningless efforts to confuse and torment students, as if they have come from hell’s library. Problem-based inquiry, on the other hand, intends to engage students in relevant, realistic problems. Several changes would need to be made in the above problem to promote problem-based inquiry. It would first have to be acknowledged that the trains are not, in fact, traveling at constant rates when they are in motion; negotiating curves or changing tracks at high speeds can result in accidents. Further, all of the information about the problem cannot be presented to the learner at the outset; that is, some ambiguity must exist in the context so that students have an opportunity to engage in a problem solving activity. In addition, the situation should involve a meaningful scenario. Suppose that a person intends to catch a connecting train at the second station and requires a time-efficient itinerary? What if we are not given data about the trains, but instead, the outcome of a particular event, such as an accident?

Why should we use problem-based inquiry to help students learn? The American educational system has been criticized for having an underachieving curriculum that leads students to memorize and regurgitate facts that do not apply to their lives (Martin, 1987; Paul, 1993). Many claim that the traditional classroom environment, with its orderly conduct and didactic teaching methods in which the teacher dispenses information, has greatly inhibited students’ opportunities to think critically (Dossey et al., 1988; Goodlad, 1984; Wood, 1987). Problem-based inquiry is an attempt to overcome these obstacles and confront the concerns presented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. (A Nation at Risk, 1983)

Problem-based inquiry emphasizes learning as a process that involves problem solving and critical thinking in situated contexts. It provides opportunities to address broader learning goals that focus on preparing students for active and responsible citizenship. Students gain experience in tackling realistic problems, and emphasis is placed on using communication, cooperation, and resources to formulate ideas and develop reasoning skills.

What is a framework for problem-based inquiry? Situated cognition, constructivism, social learning, and communities of practice are assumed theories of learning and cognition in problem-based inquiry environments. These theories have common themes about the context and process of learning and are often associated. To provide a structure and rationale behind problem-based inquiry, some of its prominent characteristics will be discussed in reference to the scenario presented at the beginning of the chapter.

First, learning events are situated and assume meaning within particular contexts. In other words, learning is most meaningful and is enhanced when students face a situation in which the concept is immediately applied. For example, the students in the scenario want to learn about the anatomy and life cycle of a fish because they perceive that this information might be useful in determining the cause of the fish kill in the Samstonian River. This belief contradicts many traditional curriculum models, including those using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a basis for creating instruction. In a traditional biology class, students learn about the anatomy and life cycle of a fish before they understand how the information might be useful. In problem-based inquiry situations, students are presented with an application and perform analysis, perhaps even before they know or understand the concepts involved in the situation. Further, in problem-based inquiry all knowledge and skills in situated environments are directly relevant to the context; whereas some traditional curricula incorporate basic knowledge and skills that may never be applied. Varying perspectives about learning are present in this fish example. A proponent of Bloom’s Taxonomy would hold that students will more successfully learn about fish if they first understand facts about its anatomy and later apply this knowledge in an application such as determining the cause of death through dissection. On the other hand, an educator with the situated learning perspective believes that students are less likely to make a connection between book knowledge and application unless they learn about fish anatomy by practical application; thus, the situated learning perspective suggests that participation is a crucial element in learning.

Another important principle rooted in problem-based inquiry is that definitive answers do not exist independently of the learner’s knowledge and experience. In the fish kill scenario, the teacher has no solution to the problem and does not guide students to reach that conclusion. Instead, knowledge is constructed within each individual or community based on the learner’s or community’s prior knowledge, values, beliefs, and perspectives. Consequently, a single event or item of information can be perceived differently resulting in multiple interpretations and understandings. Mr. Samples expects students to reach different conclusions, perhaps even from the same information. However, because the course each group of students chooses to pursue is based on their values and perceptions, they will likely follow different paths to arrive at their conclusions. This method of learning differs substantially from instructional models that emphasize the attainment of behavioral objectives as the goal of learning. Classical behaviorist approaches to instruction emphasize learning as a process by which students acquire predetermined knowledge and skills, most often structured and guided, step-by-step, by information processing methods. Constructivist approaches to learning, on the other hand, stress the general strategies and processes to attain broader goals without relying on specific information or methods that lead to sequential steps in logic and reasoning. In the fish kill scenario, Mr. Samples’ primary goal is to help students develop thinking and problem-solving skills that will empower them to create an argument that reflects their individual research questions and the overarching problem. In sum, a problem-based inquiry approach is often too complex to resolve by directly guiding learners to specific pieces of knowledge or an existing solution. Instead, the ideas are generated within the individual and the community based on their different experiences, the types of information they find, and ways of understanding that information.

Problem-based inquiry is also based on a view that learning occurs through social interactions whereby an outside source can help individuals extend their learning. This frame of reasoning suggests that understanding of an idea or concept becomes limited at some point and approaches a barrier called the zone of proximal development. This zone can occur along varying levels of understanding among individuals, depending on the extent of their expertise. In order to extend understanding past this barrier, the individual must interact with a person or medium that holds new information, thus allowing new perspectives to arise. In the fish kill scenario, Mr. Harrington and Mr. Samples serve as expert sources who promote problem-solving strategies, information-gathering tactics, and research methodologies that were previously unknown to students. In addition, the teacher continually identifies potential flaws in student reasoning and uses questioning as a means of extending their awareness to think about the task in a different way. If Mr. Samples does not interact with a group that has erroneous judgments, the students may not understand that they are making an error until they face a subsequent interaction that contradicts their logic. For example, the students may eventually find diseased fish in a river with low toxic levels or listen to another source providing a counter example to the group’s argument. In addition to the teacher’s influence on student learning, resources external to the local learning environment–such as information from a book, an expert opinion on the Internet, or input from the media specialist and biology teacher–contribute to the development of an evolving framework of ideas. These types of external interactions can help students leave the zone of proximal development, expand their understanding to develop emerging thoughts, and then repeat the cycle when learning again ceases to progress. In the complex situations associated with problem-based inquiry, multiple learning cycles co-exist and develop simultaneously, each emphasizing different concepts or strategies. Systemically, learning an idea probably does not cease altogether, but instead, fades while understandings of other concepts are enhanced according to the needs and goals of the individual and learning community.

Lastly, problem-based inquiry values the presence of a learning community. The community takes on a view that advancement in thinking and addressing the problem occurs through social interactions that emphasize joint enterprise, shared repertoire, and mutual engagement. Through joint enterprise, the class shares a common goal (such as solving a problem) whereby each person in that class invests time and energy and is committed to help accomplish that goal. In order to sustain this interest, students are treated as legitimate participants in the research process, analysis, and presentation of the findings. That is, even though they are novices at some tasks, Mr. Samples legitimizes their contribution by creating an environment in which students share a common repertoire involving activities that contribute to the overall findings such as continual inquiry, data collection, problem solving, and higher-ordered analyses. Furthermore, Mr. Samples promotes joint enterprise to address the problem among class members by fostering mutual engagement. In essence, students are viewed as equal contributors who work together to solve the problem. Each person’s contributions are valued and considered in the overall decision making process. This type of interaction is often different from traditional classrooms where the teacher’s actions and decisions determine the direction of learning and products that students create. In this setting, the students and the teacher contribute equally to the content and method of learning in an effort to resolve the overall problem.


<embed src=”http://www.coe.uga.edu/epltt/animation1.swf” quality=”high” pluginspage=”http://www.macromedia.com/go/getflashplayer” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” width=”550″ height=”400″>

Caption: The flash animation above depicts the assembly of a puzzle. The pieces represent the components of problem-based learning. The first piece shows a question mark and represents the problem or general question. The second piece fits into the first one and represents student centered learning. The third piece connects to the second and represents collaboration among students to address the initial question. The fourth piece completes the puzzle and represents the learning that took place in trying to solve the problem. The final picture of the animation shows the completed puzzle and adds a picture of children cheering in joy at having solved the problem on their own. Solving the problem or answering the question takes place successfully after all characteristics of problem-based learning are in place. This animation was designed and developed by Julie Criser Pate, Cathy Garmon, Amy Lee, Karen Mobley, Tim Nielson, and Hsiao-Wei Wen

The fictitious scenario and activity with Mr. Samples’ class involving the fish kill near the Nikron plant highlights some common characteristics in problem-based inquiry instructional models:

  • The activity is grounded in a general question about a problem that has multiple possible answers and methods of addressing the question
  • Learning is student-centered; the teacher acts as facilitator
  • Students work collaboratively toward addressing the general question
  • Learning is driven by the context of the problem and is not bounded by an established curriculum

Figure 1. The problem-based inquiry learning space: The center of PBL is students working on a problem. Teachers, additional coaches, and other resources provide guidance and support for the students.

These characteristics will be described in detail, highlighting and reflecting on various actions and events from the scenario presented at the beginning of the chapter. Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between these factors.

Activity is grounded in a general question about a problem that has multiple possible answers and methods of addressing the question.Each problem has a general question that guides the overall task followed by ill-structured problems or questions that are generated throughout the problem solving process. That is, in order to address the larger question, students must derive and investigate smaller problems or questions that relate to the findings and implications of the broader goal. The problems or questions thus created are most likely new to the students and lack known definitive methods or answers that have been predetermined by the teacher. In the fish kill scenario, students derive four questions to address the main problem of determining whether the factory is polluting the water supply. There are multiple means of addressing these questions depending on the available resources and strategies that the students employ. Further, their list of questions is not necessarily comprehensive. As they collect information and data in their research, they may realize that there are other questions or issues that should be included in their list. The quality of their conclusions to the overall problem in the mock trial depends on how well the students synthesize information and develop an argument based on their findings from the smaller questions.

Learning is student-centered; the teacher acts as facilitator. In essence, the teacher creates an environment where students take ownership in the direction and content of their learning. In the scenario, Mr. Samples gives the students the overall problem and asks them to define the means by which they should address it. The students develop subquestions to investigate, suggest methods to collect data, and propose a format for presenting their findings. For example, the group investigating the types and quantities of toxins present in the Samstonian River determined that they should collect samples from various locations in the river. The teacher’s role, in this case, is to help provide access to this resource by arranging a field trip to the river. He and the media specialist also encourage students to use other resources such as historical data, books, the Internet, and experts, to help support their arguments. In addition to creating learning opportunities for the students, the teacher manages the overall structure and progress of the activity ensuring that students submit proposals, methods, and results. As a manager, Mr. Samples is aware of the different strategies and content each group is investigating, he also assumes the responsibility of recommending peer consultations with members of other groups. Mr. Samples and Mr. Harrington’s consultation with groups is also important because they focus on teaching the processes and strategies associated with information gathering, research, and problem solving. In effect, this cognitive mentorship helps students organize the direction of their learning as well as understand how their strategies connect to the broader goal of solving the overall problem.

Students work collaboratively towards addressing the general question. Mr. Samples facilitates this type of environment by emphasizing the existence and development of a learning community. All of the students work together to attain the shared goal of producing a solution to the problem. Mr. Samples creates an environment in which mutual reliance gives students an active voice and a contribution toward reaching the goal. For example, students take on individual responsibilities such as finding information and resources, making calculations, and performing analyses in coordination and collaboration with the direction and ideas of the group. As a consequence, group progress depends on each individual’s contribution. On a larger scale, groups take on similar responsibilities by addressing their research questions but not exclusive of the learning community, because groups rely on each other for consultation about their strategies and findings. For example, the group addressing the cause of death of the fish in the Samstonian River needed information from the group that studied the different toxins present in the river. Consequently, the groups codepend on each other’s performance and contributions in order to make their own advances in reasoning toward answering the research questions and the overall problem.

Learning is driven by the context of the problem and is not bounded by an established curriculum. In this environment, students determine what and how much they need to learn in order to accomplish a specific task. Consequently, acquired information and learned concepts and strategies are tied directly to the context of the learning situation. For example, in the chapter scenario, the students who are trying to explain the fish kill decide that they need to learn more about the fish species’ lifecycle and diseases before they begin the dissection process. The teacher’s responsibility in this case is not to act as an expert and dispense knowledge to the students but to serve as a facilitator, manager, and strategist providing consultation and access to resources. Because the students have generated the research questions, Mr. Samples does not expect to be able to answer all of their content questions; thus, the locus of learning responsibility is placed in the hands of the students. He believes that an external resource, such as information from a library, another teacher, a media specialist, or an expert source on the Internet can help advance the students’ thinking and understanding. Consequently, learning is not confined to a preset curriculum. The teacher does not define the topics of learning based on his knowledge of chemistry and expects that learning will incorporate multidisciplinary components, such as principles of biology, mathematics, and rhetoric.

The Samstonian River fish kill scenario does include some elements that are not necessarily present in all problem-based inquiry models, such as a problem that has direct implications on the local community, and student access to resources outside the classroom. These additional factors may create more relevance and influence student motivation for learning; however, they may not be included in other problem-based scenarios, because subject areas such as history and geography are not always immediately relevant. For example, the question, “How should ballots in Florida have been counted during the 2000 presidential election?” could be the foundation for a problem-based inquiry activity that has no immediate bearing on the local population as the students may not live in Florida or have access to Florida research sources. Regardless, this question is based on evaluating a historical outcome that cannot influence the actual results unlike the problem posed at the beginning of the chapter; however, students’ analysis in both questions has relevance because a presentation of their findings can influence society’s future thought and actions.

Creation of a final product is not a necessary requirement of all problem-based inquiry models. In the fish kill example, the teacher assigns the students the creation of a proposal for a product that will later serve as evidence in a mock trial. Project-based learning models most often include this type of product as an integral part of the learning process because learning is expected to occur primarily in the act of creating something. Unlike problem-based inquiry models, project-based learning does not necessarily address a real-world problem, nor does it focus on providing argumentation for resolution of an issue. In a problem-based inquiry setting, there is greater emphasis on problem-solving, analysis, resolution, and explanation of an authentic dilemma. Sometimes this analysis and explanation is represented in the form of a project, but it can also take the form of verbal debate and written summary.

Instructional Models and Applications

There is no single method for designing problem-based inquiry learning environments. Various techniques have been used to generate the problem and stimulate learning. Promoting student-ownership, using a particular medium to focus attention, telling stories, simulating and recreating events, and utilizing resources and data on the Internet are among them. Three instructional models that implement problem-based inquiry will be discussed next with particular attention to instructional strategies and practical examples.

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional strategy in which students actively resolve complex problems in realistic situations. It can be used to teach individual lessons, units, or even entire curricula. PBL is often approached in a team environment with emphasis on building skills related to consensual decision making, dialogue and discussion, team maintenance, conflict management, and team leadership. While the fundamental approach of problem solving in situated environments has been used throughout the history of schooling, the term PBL did not appear until the 1970s and was devised as an alternative approach to medical education. In most medical programs, students initially take a series of fact intensive courses in biology and anatomy and then participate in a field experience as a medical resident in a hospital or clinic. However, Barrows (http://www.pbli.org/faculty/hsb.htm) reported that, unfortunately, medical residents frequently had difficulty applying knowledge from their classroom experiences in work-related, problem-solving situations. He argued that the classical framework of learning medical knowledge first in classrooms through studying and testing was too passive and removed from context to take on meaning. Consequently, PBL was first seen as a medical field immersion experience whereby students learned about their medical specialty through direct engagement in realistic problems and gradual apprenticeship in natural or simulated settings. Problem solving is emphasized as an initial area of learning and development in PBL medical programs more so than memorizing a series of facts outside their natural context.

In addition to the field of medicine, PBL is used in many areas of education and training. In academic courses, PBL is used as a tool to help students understand the utility of a particular concept or study. For example, students may learn about recycling and materials as they determine methods that will reduce the county landfill problem. In addition, alternative education programs have been created with a PBL emphasis to help at-risk students learn in a different way through partnerships with local businesses and government. In vocational education, PBL experiences often emphasize participation in natural settings. For example, students in architecture address the problem of designing homes for impoverished areas. Many of the residents need safe housing and cannot afford to purchase typical homes. Consequently, students learn about architectural design and resolving the problem as they construct homes made from recycled materials. In business and the military, simulations are used as a means of instruction in PBL. The affective and physiological stress associated with warfare can influence strategic planning, so PBL in military settings promotes the use of “war games” as a tactic for facing authentic crises. In business settings, simulations of “what if” scenarios are used to train managers in various strategies and problem-solving approaches to conflict resolution. In both military and business settings, the simulation is a tool that provides an opportunity to not only address realistic problems but to learn from mistakes in a more forgiving way than in an authentic context.

Figure 2. The PBL learning space: Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional strategy where students actively resolve complex problems in realistic situations.

Designing the Learning Environment

The following elements are commonly associated with PBL activities:

Problem Generation The problems must address concepts and principles relevant to the content domain. Problems are not investigated by students solely for problem solving experiences but as a means of understanding the subject area. Some PBL activities incorporate multidisciplinary approaches, assuming the teacher can provide and coordinate needed resources such as additional content, instructional support, and other teachers. In addition, the problems must relate to real issues that are present in society or students’ lives. Contrived scenarios detract from the perceived usefulness of a concept.

Problem Presentation. Students must “own” the problem, either by creating or selecting it. Ownership also implies that their contributions affect the outcome of solving the problem. Thus, more than one solution and more than one method of achieving a solution to the problem are often possible. Furthermore, ownership means that students take responsibility for representing and communicating their work in a unique way. Predetermined formats of problem structure and analysis towards resolution are not recommended; however, the problem should be presented such that the information in the problem does not call attention to critical factors in the case that will lead to immediate resolution. Ownership also suggests that students will ask further questions, reveal further information, and synthesize critical factors throughout the problem-solving process.

Teacher Role. Teachers act primarily as cognitive coaches by facilitating learning and modeling higher order thinking and metacognitive skills. As facilitators, teachers give students control over how they learn and provide support and structure in the direction of their learning. They help the class create a common framework of expectations using tools such as general guidelines and timelines. As cognitive modelers, teachers think aloud about strategies and questions that influence how students manage the progress of their learning and accomplish group tasks. In addition, teachers continually question students about the concepts they are learning in the context of the problem in order to probe their understanding, challenge their thinking, and help them deepen or extend their ideas.

Student Role. Students first define or select an ill-structured problem that has no obvious solution. They develop alternative hypotheses to resolve the problem and discuss and negotiate their conjectures in a group. Next, they access, evaluate, and utilize data from a variety of available sources to support or refute their hypotheses. They may alter, develop, or synthesize hypotheses in light of new information. Finally, they develop clearly stated solutions that fit the problem and its inherent conditions, based upon information and reasoning to support their arguments. Solutions can be in the form of essays, presentations, or projects.

An Online Example

Crime and Punishment: Case Negotiation in the Criminal Justice System http://www.udel.edu/inst/problems/negotiations/

In this activity, students are asked to resolve a court case related to a drunk driving accident. The defendant, Sam Sad, ran a red light into oncoming traffic and killed a passenger who was not wearing his seatbelt. Students are asked to play the roles of the prosecutor, defense attorney, victim, and defendant, and to determine a course of action for this case. They weigh the evidence and issue a negotiated plea, a decision to drop some or all charges, or a decision to go to trial on the original or reduced charges. To assist them in their role playing, the students are given a paragraph of information about the different roles that they are to assume.

Groups are asked to discuss the following questions before role playing:

  • What legal issues will be involved in this case?
  • What evidence will be important?
  • What more do you need to know to negotiate a resolution to this case?

After students assume their roles, they meet in smaller teams to address different options and strategies. They are provided with the following set of focusing questions to help formulate their ideas:

  • What are your interests and priorities in the upcoming negotiation?
  • What do you need to learn to be an effective negotiator for this case?
  • What sources might you consult to develop this knowledge?
  • How will you allocate the responsibilities within your team to develop the required knowledge?

A list of online resources related to legal advice and drunk driving is available for students to use in gathering information to create and support their arguments.

The teams reconvene and identify their interests based on their findings, and then negotiate a resolution to the case.

Anchored Instruction

Anchored instruction is a framework for learning that emphasizes complex problem solving in integrated learning contexts. Integrated learning contexts take on the form of drawing realistic connections, making learning meaningful for students, and forming connections within and between content domains. Learning and teaching activities are designed around an “anchor” which is often a story, adventure, or situation that includes a problem or issue to be resolved and that is of interest to the students. Instructional materials include resources students can easily explore, such as videodiscs or interactive computer simulations, as they decide how to solve a problem. An anchored instruction activity supports learning opportunities that relate to and extend thinking to other content areas.

The term anchored instruction was coined by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV) from their work in the Jasper Woodbury Adventure Series (http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/projects/funded/jasper/default.html). In these activities, students view a story that ultimately leads to a dilemma the students need to resolve. The story serves as an anchor to ground their initial ideas, formulate strategies to solve the problem, and later as a source of information. Students primarily use middle grades mathematics to solve problems in the context of settings from other domains, such as science and history. Solving the larger problem often requires that students generate subquestions that help guide or support their thinking. They review parts of the story to find information that will support these smaller questions and then use additional resources to acquire information or skills to help them answer their questions. For example, if the goal of the main problem is to find a way to rescue an injured eagle using a lightweight glider, then students might need to calculate the mass of both the eagle and the plane’s pilot, and determine a relationship between the mass in the plane and its capacity for air travel.

Anchored instruction activities have been used in a variety of contexts outside of mathematical problem solving and the CTGV. The Voyage of the Mimi is a series of adventure stories in which a scientist and teenaged assistants explore humpback whales and then later a Mayan civilization. Anchored instruction has been useful in teacher education programs where technology training has been investigated in problem-solving situations by use of various multimedia tools. Other educators have used movie trailers and sports videos, along with their transcripts, as a mechanism to learn about language and creative writing.

Figure 3. The Anchored Instruction learning space: Anchored instruction focuses on an ‘anchor’ that includes an interesting problem. Through teacher guidance and the use of additional resources that require student exploration, student learning experiences can be extended to other areas of the curriculum.

Designing the Learning Environment

The following stages are commonly associated with anchored instruction activities:

Introduce the anchor. Create a situation, story, or experience with information that will engage students in a complex problem. Students should feel that their problem-solving will serve a purpose, such as contributing to the story line by helping someone else or themselves. The presentation medium should be flexible enough to allow students to easily search for information; thus, videodiscs are more efficient than videotape, and hypertext is preferable to regular text.

Develop a shared experience around the anchor. Students revisit the story or engage in activities and become more familiar with and knowledgeable about a particular concept. The teacher might initially provide more guidance in acquiring the concept, but ultimately, students assume control over the application of the concept to resolve a smaller problem within the actual story line.

Expand the anchor. Students are given more autonomy to do independent or group research to clarify and locate hidden or missing information relevant to the problem. The information may be in the storyline itself or in related external resources.

Use knowledge as tools for problem solving. Students use the information or clues in the anchor and develop a plan to resolve the larger problem. They may need to ask subquestions in order to discern additional information or patterns that will help complete the overall task. Throughout this phase, the teacher probes students’ understanding and challenges students’ strategies to examine their reasoning and scaffold the problem-solving process.

Work on projects related to anchor. Students explore related content presented in the anchor to deepen their understanding of the concepts and to connect their knowledge to other disciplines. They might read more about the subject area, explore a related story, engage in a related simulation, create a project, or design a web site.

Share what was learned. Students present their findings on the problem as well as connections to their extended learning. This phase allows students to make contributions to the learning community by sharing the strategies used to resolve the overall problem. The teacher should emphasize alternative problem solving methods, as well as common themes, among the different groups to help synthesize and broaden understanding.

An Online Example

The Mapamatic Desert Challenge

This java-based mathematics activity created by the BBC aims to apply elementary-level arithmetic skills in a problem-based environment. The goal of the activity is to drive an automobile to a final destination without colliding with an obstacle or running out of fuel. The user is provided with a budget to purchase gasoline along the way, but prices vary among gas stations. In addition, the gas stations do not necessarily accept the same currency which means users must make side trips to banks to exchange their money. There are multiple routes, obstacles, gas stations, and banks to choose from, but not all will help the automobile reach the final destination. In addition, various map layouts are available which modify the difficulty level of the situation. The simulation, then, becomes the anchor for student exploration, testing, and fact-finding. Rather than observing a story, as in the Jasper Woodbury Adventure Series, learners become participants in the story by controlling the car in the simulation. Granted, it is sometimes necessary for teachers to create an introductory scenario to add suspense or increase student motivation so that the simulation seems more like a story. This strategy is used in many modern video games to situate players and aid in the perception that the game serves a greater purpose.

This complex simulation relies on generating and managing strategies throughout the problem-solving process. Each pathway is constructed by the user’s strategies, including careful hypothesizing, measuring, testing, and monitoring progress. That is, there is no single predetermined method or pathway that ensures success in this environment. Students are provided a variety of measuring and calculating tools such as rulers, protractors, and calculators that are adjustable on the screen. Opportunities are provided to make measurements and calculations before moving the automobile and then test hypotheses. Students monitor their progress by watching the vehicle’s fuel gauge as they travel. They must plan their route taking into account the distance that they can travel with their available fuel before going to a gas station or bank.

The task of reaching a final destination provides the structure and direction for learning; it also encourages the use of metacognitive strategies. The system also provides tools to support thinking and monitor progress. The situated environment creates a motivating experience for students because they take responsibility for designing, executing, maintaining, and adjusting a plan though a problem- solving process.

This activity does not strictly adhere to all components in anchored instruction because there are no resources available to extend learning to other content areas. However, because the simulation requires an Internet connection, teachers can create extension activities by having students explore web sources related to banking, fuel efficiency and prices, travel, and geography.


A WebQuest is a web-based, inquiry-oriented activity through which students examine evidence about a particular topic and then respond to an issue or make a decision from a particular point of view. The activity is grounded in an open-ended question based on a realistic event or applied context that can facilitate multiple reactions or viewpoints. WebQuests often address problems, but often simply attempt to promote awareness and representation by activities such as producing a variety show that captures the life behind people in the Harlem Renaissance. Students use a series of links compiled by the teacher to learn about the overarching question while gathering evidence that will support their arguments or defend their point of view. The WebQuest site (http://webquest.sdsu.edu/) designed by Bernie Dodge includes examples of model classroom projects and training materials to aid in the design of instructional materials.

An electronic support community (http://webquest.org/) is available to reinforce understanding, promote collaboration, and provide individualized assistance in the design and implementation process of WebQuest activities. There is also a resource for a fee to help you build webquests and house them on a server. It is a very nice resource for a nominal fee. It is called QuestGarden and is available at http://webquest.org/questgarden/author/ Teachers can participate in a synchronous chat environment in a shared meeting place to consult with experts or share and debate views about learning and design. In addition, they can also pose questions about WebQuest development or collaborate in activities by subscribing to an electronic listserv. Teachers seeking guidance or feedback on their WebQuest design may also submit their activities for review.

Figure 4. The WebQuest learning space: Teachers provide students with a series of Internet links for solving a given problem. The problem is solved as the students create a final product.

WebQuests follow a recommended design structure which includes an introduction, a task, a process for accomplishing the task, web resources, an evaluation rubric, and a conclusion. This design is intended to support the development of a WebQuest without restricting creativity in the appearance and content of the activity. That is, within the structure, teachers can create a wide range of tasks including developing an argument based on a perspective, interacting with an expert, analyzing data, or designing a plan. Teachers are provided a variety of tools throughout the creation process, including aids for search techniques, creation of evaluation rubrics, web page design strategies, task characteristics, and checklists for monitoring progress.

Designing the Learning Environment

The following elements are commonly associated with WebQuest activities:

Introduction. Background information is provided and context for the activity is set. The problem or controversy and its origin are discussed.

Task. An interesting question or dilemma with multiple interpretations is created. Students can take on their own perspective or role-play to find strategies to defend a particular position. In this section, the goal and purpose of the activity are outlined so that students understand what they are expected to accomplish by completing the activity.

Process. The steps learners should consider to accomplish the goals of the activity are described. General strategies are reviewed about finding useful resources, organizing information, interacting and forming conclusions with team members, and using guidelines for a final presentation or product. The teacher provides guidance through questions that will help students think about the situation and reflect on their roles, but excessive structure that could limit student creativity and extensions should be avoided.

Resources. Links are provided to external web resources that will help students think about different factors and perspectives that influence the overall problem. These links should be organized or annotated so that students understand the type of information each link provides. Additional sources can be suggested, if available, such as access to expert sources or periodicals that may not be available online.

Evaluation. A grading rubric is created so that students understand what is expected of them and how they will be assessed. Both the students’ products and processes in the activity might be included as part of the grading scheme. Products may include the content of a project, argument in a presentation, and quality of supporting work. Process can include research strategies, organization, and collaborative effort.

Conclusion. The learning experience is summarized and student accomplishments are reviewed; students are reminded what they have learned through the activity. The boundaries of the activity may be extended by asking reflection and extension questions for students to consider for further potential learning pursuits. Connections are drawn to students’ lives, current events, or related topics in the curriculum.

An Online Example

Searching for China http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/China/ChinaQuest.html

In this activity, students examine the foreign policy tension between the US and China and then propose a plan that benefits people from both countries. Students are placed into groups that must investigate and present the issues from the viewpoints of various interested parties such as business investors, human rights activists, and United States senators. Each group develops an action plan that will address foreign policy based on a negotiation of their assigned perspectives. Developing such a report requires that they acquire an understanding of foreign relations with China from these different roles and then gather evidence to create a compromise plan that will reflect all of the principals’ perspectives. Their group reports are to present their values while addressing issues such as spiritual understanding, world peace, economic growth, and preservation of cultural treasures.

The web site provides a list of links for exploring diverse Chinese issues. Students are asked to spend about 30 minutes assembling background information on China from one of the sites and then to meet in groups to share and address the most important issues they have found from each of the sites. After the discussions, their individual roles are explored in detail by examining their dossiers and answering a series of reflection questions. For example, a museum curator will investigate the question, “What is happening to Tibetan culture?” by exploring three related web sources and inferring a theme common to all of the resources referred to as “one truth.” After answering a set of questions in this format, the students summarize their findings by formulating an action plan statement that represents their point of view such as “What should be done to preserve cultural treasures?” When students have explored their individual roles, they generate a group report supporting a negotiation of their values in the form of a unified plan. The group is asked to address the major issues in the foreign policy agreement and how they might impact other goals. Students develop a set of resolutions based on these arguments and then make a prediction for potential outcomes and future prosperity.

Students then submit their reports for feedback from a variety of sources such as electronic bulletin boards or even public officials (the author recommends that teachers check with their school’s policy before pursuing this action). The WebQuest concludes with a summary of the learning activity and issues to further think about such as the differences in the countries’ populations, history, and political systems. The conclusion focuses on the students’ success in addressing and reasoning through a complex task as well as being empowered with strategies to research and resolve difficult issues. (Top)

Conclusions and Implications

Problem-based inquiry approaches to learning provide students with strategies and experiences that empower them to become critical consumers of information and tackle authentic problems through group problem-solving. While these attributes help students prepare for active citizenship in a rapidly changing world, the structure of most schools often hinders the implementation of problem-based inquiry models. Pragmatic factors such as class period length, access to resources, standardized testing issues, and the activities in a typical school day affect what is learned. Cultural factors, such as the student-teacher relationship, the teacher and text as expert sources, and student responsibility affect how learning occurs. Thus, several implications arise concerning the need to restructure education in order to fully adopt and obtain the learning benefits associated with problem-based inquiry.

The school day should provide students with opportunities to explore ideas in greater depth. Students in many middle and high schools take five to eight courses that last from forty to sixty minutes each. This class structure encourages learning content in segmented blocks through information processing approaches. As a consequence, the curriculum is faced with emphasizing breadth of content whereby new ideas are taught each day in a linear fashion based on the concept introduced the previous day. On the other hand, real-world problems such as those addressed in a problem-based inquiry model, incorporate concepts that do not necessarily lie along a predetermined pathway of knowledge and skills. Greater attention is given to fewer concepts that have direct relevance to students’ lives. More time is needed to allow opportunities to explore complex situations in depth. Even though real-world problems are not resolved in a single day, a school day with larger blocks of time better supports approaches to problem-based inquiry. Implementing problem-based inquiry in a system with short class periods ultimately derails the momentum of learning because students must continually start, stop, and recall information and procedures more frequently.

Standardized tests should also incorporate complex real-world problems in order to be more comprehensive as assessment instruments. If one of the goals of education is to prepare students for a productive workforce, and modern business engages employees in complex projects that require higher-ordered thinking, then the educational system is obligated to make provisions that embody these skills in ubiquitous assessment instruments. Because the scores of standardized tests are sometimes, unfortunately, used to measure learning and the success of a school, test content and question types send a message to teachers and students about what type of learning is valued. The majority of questions on most standardized tests target lower-ordered thinking skills and can be answered in less than one minute. While these questions assess what students understand and what they can recall, the tests often do not allow students to express their problem-solving and critical thinking abilities in novel situations. Test creators are discouraged from creating questions that require higher-ordered thinking questions for many reasons. Such problems take longer to answer and grade; they potentially reduce reliability due to partially subjective grading in essay responses; and they affect the validity of test scores when fewer questions are asked. In light of these challenges, unfortunately, few instructional practices will change toward addressing societal goals until they are reinforced on nation wide standardized tests.

Finally, teachers must rethink their roles from instructor to facilitator and collaborator. Generally, teachers determine what and how students learn from their subject-area knowledge and from primary sources such as textbooks. An advantage to this situation is that students receive similar learning experiences that can be accurately and consistently measured according to a series of objectives; however, learning in these situations is based on the teachers’, and textbook authors’, values regarding which topics are important. Furthermore, the learning environment in this situation is bounded by these sources, neglecting opportunities for continued exploration or deeper analysis using other sources, such as technological tools, Internet references, students, and teachers. When solving real-world problems, additional resources expand opportunities for students to present varying perspectives that are not necessarily tied to the views of the instructor. Hence, in inquiry-based environments, teachers should relinquish some control over content. Teachers need to recognize that students may not naturally develop, believe, or accept their particular arguments or points of view. Also, in a problem-based inquiry approach, students must be given greater control over the direction and content of their learning. If teachers accept students as equal contributors to the learning community, then less emphasis will be placed on teacher- presented information. Instead, teachers can then take responsibility for facilitating learning so that analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and extension of information by students assumes its proper role. (Top)

Reflection Questions

The following questions are an effort to reflect upon, explore, and extend the concepts presented in this chapter.

  1. Consider the scenario presented at the beginning of the chapter. If this type of event occurred in your local neighborhood or school, do you think the chemistry teacher should engage in this type of activity? Would your opinion change if your child was in the chemistry class? If not, why not? If so, what would you change about his instructional methods?
  2. Should all teachers use problem-based inquiry as a method of instruction?
  3. Which of the three instructional models presented in this chapter most closely aligns with your teaching philosophy? Explain why.
  4. Find an interesting web-based activity that you think employs problem-based inquiry. Note the URL and explain why it is a problem-based inquiry activity. Also, discuss why this particular activity appeals to you.
  5. Can every real-world problem be addressed through a problem-based inquiry instructional model? Explain why or why not, citing examples.
  6. A large number of frogs are becoming deformed around the country. The Deformed Frogs Mystery project examines whether the deformation is a result of parasites or environmental chemicals. Is this activity an example of problem-based inquiry? If so, which instructional model, if any, is used in this learning environment?
  7. Choose one of the instructional models and describe how the learning environment would change if a different instructional model were used. For example, suppose the problem-based learning activity about the litigation in the drunk driving case used a different instructional model, such as anchored instruction or a WebQuest. How would the resources, instruction, and student activities change with this new model while still addressing the same problem(s) of determining an appropriate resolution to the case?
  8. Problem-based inquiry instructional models support learning as a social process that involves student construction of ideas. How would the instructional strategies and the learning environment change if learning did not take place in a social setting, such as in a home schooling setting? How would the instructional strategies and the learning environment change if learning did not involve the student construction of ideas?
  9. The implications of this chapter suggest that schools need to be restructured in order to experience all of the benefits of problem-based inquiry. Suppose a school day or particular curriculum cannot change immediately. For example, class periods are fifty minutes in length, classroom resources are restricted to the library, the curriculum among a group of teachers is driven by the context of a textbook, etc. In this situation, is it possible to engage students in a problem-based inquiry activity? If not, explain why not. If so, what restrictions or limitations are placed in this type of situation that affect learning and learning outcomes?
  10. What are some of the weaknesses and limitations of using problem-based inquiry as a means of instruction?


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Goodlad, J. L. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw Hill.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, L. M. (1987). Teachers adoption of multimedia technologies for science and mathematics instruction. In R. D. Pea & K. Sheingold (Eds.) Mirrors of minds: Patterns of experience in educational computing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Paul, R. W. (1993). Critical thinking: How to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.), Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: MA: Cambridge University Press.

Wood, K. D. (1987). Fostering cooperative learning in middle and secondary level classrooms. Journal of Reading, (30), 8, 10-19.

Online Resources

Problem-Based Learning

Sanford PBL Initiative: http://www.samford.edu/pbl/what3.html

Founders of PBL: http://www.pbli.org/pbl/pbl.htm

High School PBL activities: http://score.rims.k12.ca.us/problearn.html

Skills to Enhance PBL: http://www.med-ed-online.org/f0000009.htm

Text sources on PBL: http://www.pbli.org/bibliography/articles.htm

Anchored Instruction

Cognitive Constructivism & Social Constructivism: Anchored Instruction: http://www.coe.uh.edu/~ichen/ebook/ET-IT/ai.htm

Anchored Instruction and Its Relationship to Situated Cognition: http://inkido.indiana.edu/w310/response.html

Design and Development Tips: http://www.edtech.vt.edu/edtech/id/models/anchored.html

Adventures of Jasper Woodbury: http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/projects/funded/jasper/Jasperhome.html

Anchored Instruction Examples from Penn State: http://www.ed.psu.edu/nasa/achrtxt.html


The WebQuest page: http://edweb.sdsu.edu/webquest/webquest.html


APA Citation: Glazer, E. (2001). Problem Based Instruction. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from  http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/