Problem-Based Learning and Problem-Solving Tools: Synthesis and Direction for Distributed Education Environments

Article excerpt

How the design and implementation of problem-solving tools used in programming instruction are complementary with both the fundamental theories of problem-based learning (PBL) and the pedagogy and practices of distributed education environments is examined. A discussion of how such learning tools can be used to bridge the constructivist foundation of PBL with the needs of distributed education is suggested. How combining PBL, web-based distributed education, and a problem-solving environment can create effective learning environments in a variety of disciplines and modes is examined in this article.


Discussions of pedagogy and instructional design often entail their impact upon the cognitive systems of learners, knowledge transfer, and efforts to organize, facilitate and evaluate learning activities (Bloom, 1956; Mayer, 1983; Gagne, 1985; Bransford & Vye, 1989; Mayer, 1996; Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996; Bransford & Schwartz. 1999). Learning systems have, over the past 20 years, undergone a demonstrable shift in focus from those based on instructivist theory and approaches (logical positivism and identifiable/ fixed truth) to constructivist concepts (knowledge as a social construction) and practices, particularly as they take shape in the activities comprising problem-based learning (PBL) (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; 1994). A technological shift has accompanied this pedagogical shift. The Internet has made possible a transformation and increase in the methods of implementing the best practices and reaching greater numbers of potential learners through systems of distributed education.


Grabinger (1995, p. 667) summarized the differences between "old" and "new" assumptions about learning and offered a concise set of distinctions that contrast instructivist and constructivist approaches to learning. Whereas the "old" school posits that "People transfer learning with ease by learning abstract and decontextualized concepts," the "new" school of thought would have it that "People transfer learning with difficulty, needing both content and context learning." In the past, learners were thought to be "receivers of knowledge." Now, "Learners are active constrnctors of knowledge." Behavior, in the stimulus and response sense of the word, as the primary vehicle for learning is an old assumption, whereas cognition "in a constant state of growth and evolution" is the new assumption. Consequently, learners are not "blank slates ready to be filled with knowledge;" they "bring their own needs and experiences to learning situations," where "skills and knowledge are best acquired within realistic contexts [a nd] assessment must take more realistic and holistic form."

Over 30 years ago, Canada's McMaster University's School of Medicine began a program of instruction that was "student-centered [and] problem-based, [in which] small-group learning took shape" (Camp, 1996). This is the core of problem-based learning, described by Savery and Duffy (1995) and summarized below as the outcome of constructivism, consisting of the following four tenets:

1. Understanding is based on experiences with content, context, the learner's goals, and so forth, and these factors are inextricably woven together. Thus, understanding is a construction that is unique to the individual.

2. Meaning is not transmitted, although it may be tested for compatibility with the meanings of others. From another perspective, cognition may be regarded as being distributed rather than individually localized.

3. Puzzlement is the factor that motivates learning.

4. Social negotiation and the ongoing testing of the viability of existing concepts in the face of personal experience are the principle forces involved in the evolution of knowledge (Greening, 1998, p. 1-2).

Savery and Duffy (1995) set out the following "instructional principles" deriving from constructivism:

* Anchor all learning activities to a larger task or problem. …