This article explains how to use 5 problem-centered to design training for real-world problem-solving skills. These methods are – Problem-based learning (PBL), Project-based learning, Scenario-based learning (SBL), Case-based method (CBM), and Simulation-based learning.
Problem-centred training design has proven its effectiveness in equipping learners with real-world problem-solving skills. Problem-centred training design is depicted through several terms with similar basic intents of developing higher-ordered problem-solving skills in employees/learners. This article will explain 5 most common methods: Problem-based learning (PBL), Project-based learning, Scenario-based learning (SCL), Case-based method (CBM), and Simulation-based learning. Also, two variations namely Problem-based case learning (PBCL) and focussed discussions is explained briefly. To teach general and complex problem solving and troubleshooting, following 7 methods are used:
The first set of three methods are generally called “Inquiry-based learning” (Buch and Wolff, 2000). If we think of Problem-based learning, Scenario-based learning, and Project-based learning as a continuum, then Problem-based learning would fall on the left-hand side of the scale while Scenario-based learning falls somewhere in the middle and Project Based Learning falls on the right-hand side of the scale. Thomsen et. al (2010) explained that “At one end of the spectrum is problem-based learning where ‘the problem’, which generally has a predetermined outcome, is used to direct the students to both acquire and assimilate the necessary knowledge in the process of solving it. In PBL the solution may be less important than the new knowledge gained during the process.”
Problem-based learning (PBL) is both a teaching method and an approach to the curriculum. It consists of carefully designed problems that challenge students to use problem-solving techniques, self-directed learning strategies, team participation skills, and disciplinary knowledge.
PBL was pioneered in the medical school program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in the late 1960s by Howard Barrows and his colleagues (Neville, 2009). Advocates of problem-based learning assume problem-solving should be the intellectual focus of curricula (Barrows, 1986, 1996; Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980).
The learning process in PBL starts with solving problems, instead of content. Barrows and Tamblyn (1980, p. 1) explained that learning in PBL “results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem so it is important that the problem is encountered first in the learning process.” Howard Barrows (1996) lists the six original characteristics for the problem-based learning model employed in the medical school as follows:
In PBL learning, students learn how to analyze a problem, identify relevant facts and generate hypotheses; identify necessary information/knowledge for solving the problem and make reasonable judgments about solving the problem. This approach was much closer to the real-life situation. PBL is also argued as a learning method that can promote the development of critical thinking skills (Serkan & Odabasi, 2009).
The practical side of this approach is that learning starts with a problem. If problem-solving is the primary job of the participants, then starting the training with a problem puts them closer to the reality of their jobs and they instantly start connecting with the content. Moreover, they themselves get involved in the process of learning.
In PBL, learners are not passive information receivers anymore. They are expected to more actively engage in their learning process. Therefore, you should take into accounts of learner’s motivation, background and learning habits before you think about employing PBL into the classroom.
Any subject area can be adapted to PBL with a little creativity. While the core problems will vary among disciplines, there are some characteristics of good PBL problems that transcend fields (Duch, Groh, and Allen, 2001):
Project Based Learning is similar to Problem Based Learning with some characteristics differences. Thomsen et. al (2010) explained that “At one end of the spectrum is problem-based learning where ‘the problem’, which generally has a predetermined outcome, is used to direct the students to both acquire and assimilate the necessary knowledge in the process of solving it. In PBL the solution may be less important than the new knowledge gained during the process. At the other end of the spectrum is Project-based learning, where ‘the problem’ is more open-ended and the focus is on the application and assimilation of previously acquired knowledge, in the development of a solution.”
David (2008) states that core idea of project-based learning is that learner’s serious thinking is triggered using real-world problems and they can newly acquired knowledge in problem-solving contexts. On the role of teacher, David (2008) asserts that “The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills, and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience”.
Research also indicates that learners are more likely to retain the knowledge gained through this approach far more readily than through traditional textbook-centered learning. In addition, learners develop confidence and self-direction as they move through both team-based and independent work. Assessments in this method are more job-focused and learners can quickly connect to real-life issues.
Project learning is also an effective way to integrate technology into the curriculum. A typical project can easily accommodate computers and the Internet, as well as interactive whiteboards and range of real-world technologies, gadgets and communication devices. By bringing real-life context and technology to the curriculum through a PBL approach, learners are encouraged to become independent workers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners.
The best application of such method is applying the thinking and hands-on skills. This is a very powerful technique for designing complex problem-solving training where variables cannot be documented to the highest degree and where developing participant’s creativity is also a goal of the training.
The method best suitable where the challenge is to develop skills and perspective of employees which includes personal and social responsibility, planning, critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity; strong communication skills, both for interpersonal and presentation needs; cross-cultural understanding; visualizing and decision making; knowing how and when to use technology and choosing the most appropriate tool for the task, to name a few.
Another subset of inquiry-based learning evolved was Scenario-Based Learning. Scenario-based learning lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum and different scenarios may be more ‘problem’ or ‘project’ like.
Scenario-based learning is based on the principles of situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991), which argues that learning best takes place in the context in which it is going to be used, and situated cognition, the idea that knowledge is best acquired and more fully understood when situated within its context (Kindley, 2002).
Scenario-based learning (SBL) uses interactive scenarios to support active learning strategies such as problem-based or case-based learning. It normally involves students working their way through a storyline, usually based on an ill-structured or complex problem, which they are required to solve. In the process, students must apply their subject knowledge, and critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a safe, real-world context. SBL is often non-linear and can provide numerous feedback opportunities to students, based on the decisions they make at each stage in the process.
Scenario-based learning may be self-contained, in that completing the scenario is the entire task, or it may be the first part of a larger assignment requiring the student to complete the scenario, and then provide a written or oral reflection and self-assessment on the process (Terry Stewart, Massey University).
SBL can be used in a wide range of contexts, but it works especially effective when used to simulate real-world practice, providing opportunities which may be difficult for students to experience within the confines of a course. SBL can be used as part of either formative or summative assessment
SBL usually works best when applied to tasks requiring decision-making and critical thinking in complex situations. Tasks that are routine for the students will require little critical thinking or decision-making and may be better assessed using other methods.
Clark (2009) is a big proponent of this method making case for SCL as a mechanism to accelerate expertise. She specifies the following checklist to assess whether SBL is the right choice (cited from Terry Stewart, Massey University).
The next major philosophy called the Case Method was developed at Harvard Business School in the 1970s by Barnes and Christensen, and it remains a widely used method today in business, law, and education (Barnes, Christensen & Hansen, 1994).
The Case Method is predicated on the assumption that the “real world is messy” and that there are many variables that can be considered in managing real problems. The class is given a complex problem, the case, to analyze outside of class. The case is aligned with the course learning objectives and usually is designed not to have a single correct answer, but to have multiple reasonable approaches or solutions.
This method situates the knowledge in real-world contexts. Here, the cases provide the primary occasion for learning, rather than serve secondarily illustrations or applications and thus prepare the problem solvers with basic skills in the context of a real problem. The cases that contextualize knowledge may be drawn from real-life examples, or they may be imaginatively assembled for an educational context) (Allchin, N.d.).
Using a case-based approach engages students in a discussion of specific scenarios that resemble or typically are real-world examples. This method is learner-centered with intense interaction between participants as they build their knowledge and work together as a group to examine the case. The instructor’s role is that of a facilitator while the students collaboratively analyze and address problems and resolve questions that have no single right answer.
However, the limitation of this method is that not all case-based learning is problem-based and not all cases may be real. The best benefit of the case-based method has been in honing learner’s ability to use evidence by including both quantitative and qualitative data of varying degrees of relevance (including potentially irrelevant data) presented in a range of forms (narrative, quotes, tables, charts, graphs).
Lateef (2010) states that “Simulation is a technique for practice and learning that can be applied to many different disciplines and trainees. It is a technique (not a technology) to replace and amplify real experiences with guided ones, often “immersive” in nature, that evoke or replicate substantial aspects of the real world in a fully interactive fashion.”
The primary premise of this method is handling situations as opposed to constituent tasks in a complex environment where the ability to handle several variables comes with practice and through situational thinking. In this method, real-life or close to real-life problems or challenges are simulated in a classroom environment or actual job environment. The participants are guided to perform their actual job task in the close to the real-life environment but are monitored. This provides them a risk-free option where they can learn from mistakes and trial-n-error.
Simulation-based training techniques, tools, and strategies can be applied in designing structured learning experiences, as well as be used as a measurement tool to assess competencies associated to complete the whole task and handle situations. This method is different from the problem-based, project-based or case-based method. Depending upon the domain it may or may not be cost intensive. However, in a given situation, the simulation-based method provides much more realistic skills in the actual on-the-job environment or closer to it. Steadman et al. (2008) found in their study that simulation-based method works better than problem-based method in making participants in acquiring critical assessment and management skills
This method is applied where the cost of performing the tasks in real life is not possible so often. Like military, warfare, disaster management, rescue operations, fire drills etc. Such opportunities cannot be created without risk of life and property. Cost aspect is also important. For example, flying an actual plane to learn how to fly it could be costly as well as dangerous. Another example is surgery and other medical areas where decision-making skills and motor skills need to be built with precision and a wide variety of situations are required to give all-rounded exposure to the participants.
However, this suffered from the constraints that all field problems may not be able to simulate or in several cases the boundary conditions of a problem are known fully. For example, a patient struggling with death cannot be simulated to that degree to provide a surgeon skill acquisition on complex decision making required in such instances. In those situations, they are exposed to series of progressive simulated challenges which increased in complexity and difficulty as they progress.
In a technical context, especially for teaching troubleshooting simulation-based teaching became very popular philosophy and these were extended beyond technical fields. This methodology gave a great success to issue based teaching by simulating it right within the training class. This offered close to real-world problem-solving.
Simulation method can be applied in several domains ranging from management strategic thinking to highly complex technical troubleshooting situations to life-n-death challenges. On a general level simulation based training method is generally applied where participants are required to attain:
– Complex Technical and functional expertise
– High level of precision and reproducibility of their skills
– High level of proficiency or mastery to certain minimum level before actually performing the job
– Higher order Problem-solving and decision-making skills
– Adapting to several unforeseen situations
– Interpersonal and communications skills or team-based competencies
– Actually performing high hands-on intensive task or thinking
– Involves high level of physical or metacognition
A focused discussion was another subtype of case-based technique in which trainer presents a case or a problem and then leads a discussion with the rest of the group. Cases are prepared in advance by the trainer to “capture real life situations in which a professional (representing the students who are training to adopt similar professions) confronts a dilemma common to the discipline.” (Armstong, 2004)
This method is generally applied in management, leadership, decision-making and critical inquiry type of training programs which are fundamentally driven by diverse views of the participants. While the essence of the method is still a case, but the focus is more on reasoning and discussion. In complex problem solving, the approach is used when the outcome is fuzzy or could take several different forms. For example, teaching aviation troubleshooting courses, this method can be used to discuss various possibilities and chalk out the plan of action to nail the real cause of the problem. In complex troubleshooting, the fuzziest part is going from suspect to the culprit causing the issue and it has been seen that focused discussion enhances the speed of learning.
Later case-based learning and problem-based learning was integrated into several attempts and. Problem-based case learning (PBCL) was basically a contemporary effort to integrated PBL and case method into one. The “real-time” aspect of the PBCL approach heightens the recognition that there are no pre-determined “correct” answers in most authentic business scenarios, but rather messy situations with multiple perspectives on the issues (Making Learning Real, n.d.).
Attri, RK (2018), ‘5 Problem-Centered Design Methods For Training Real-World Problem-Solving Skills’, [Blog post], Speed To Proficiency Research: S2PRo©, Available online at <https://www.speedtoproficiency.com/blog/problem-centered-methods/>.
Originally published June 7, 2015.