PBL Defined


Savery, John. Overview of Problem-Based Learning. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning. 1.1 (2006). 9-20.


Savery describes the characteristics of PBL:

  • ill-structured
  • require collaboration
  • self-directed
  • tutor to ask questions
  • debriefing
  • peer and self-assessment
  • activities that are valued in real world
  • goals are knowledge-based or process-based

Savery then compares PBL with project-based, case, and inquiry learning to show why PBL excels at constructivist goals:


  • build context-specific vocabulary
  • build understanding of relationships between elements
  • as a group case, builds collaboration


  • more oriented to procedures
  • teachers instruct and coach


  • question-investigation-creation-discussion-reflection
  • tutor facilitates and provides information (versus facilitation only role in PBL)


The characteristics were clear and helpful, although the distinction between PBL and a case-based approach seemed marginal. The argument that cases diminish the learner’s role by defining an outcome seems weak; research suggests that students must be scaffolded up from “defined” to “ill-defined” problems; in addition, PBL (if indeed PBL is a microworld) is an authentic simplification of the real world.

Doorways and dilemmas in design

While I found myself combining the six (there’s that number again) doorways, I liked the ideas in this chapter, especially the concept that an ID model is not a history (chronological) but a way to self-assess and share with others. My slightly reduced set of doors was to design around:

  • an established goal
  • a key concept or skill
  • a key resource
  • a significant assessment
  • a favorite activity

I also liked the suggestion to fill in the backwards template with an existing lesson–and then complete the missing sections; this seemed a practical way to revise and implement instruction without the daunting task of starting over. However, some of the dilemmas seemed questionable while others seemed whiny:

  • Big ideas versus specific facts (I thought that’s what we were after)
  • Messy performance versus efficient tests (valid)
  • Teacher versus learner control (again,  that’s what we’re after)
  • Depth versus breadth (that question has been with us forever)
  • Comfort versus challenge (deal with it)
  • Design cycle versus teaching cycle (both are important)
  • Direct  instruction versus inefficient constructivism (that’s the nature of the beast)
  • Simplified versus simplistic (again, a perennial question)
  • Uniform versus personalized (valid, although it could have been couched as an ethical question; also what about uniformly personalized)
  • Well-planned versus open-ended (same as comfort/challenge)
  • Effective versus engaging (not a valid dilemma at all–forwards or backwards design can be both)
  • Great small units versus larger courses (great small units will aggregate to great larger courses)

Direct(ing) instruction

I liked the idea in this chapter of Wiggins that direct instruction is only one aspect of causing learning, and that design is perhaps more important. I especially appreciated the amplification of uncovering as way to provide hierarchy; that seemed to tie in with Ellen Gagne’s network/system ideas. I expected Wiggins to extend the concept of “textbook as information tool” to Google; I see my kids using Google to look up facts (dangerous, but I see the value) which could be a valid and innovative approach if they relied on the Internet for facts to keep their minds free for big ideas (I doubt they actually do that–they are probably keeping their minds free for social activities). That would tie in with Rousseau’s observation that the (unlearned) child sees objects (facts) but not the relationships that link those; the linking requires experience. Google provides the facts; immersive problems would provide the linking experience.

I loved the very practical suggestion to pull statements out of textbooks and turn them into questions, but I found myself wanting examples of how to provide appropriate (not over) simplification. Two strategy-application pairings provided clarity: direct instruction with discrete knowledge that asks students to hear and answer (seems like S-R); constructivist methods with ill-defined problems (prone to misunderstanding) that asks students to reflect and extend. The third pairing–guided practice with revision–seemed like a separate concept that would work in either case. The same was true in the discussion on timing: direct instruction and facilitated instruction seem distinct types while performance applies to both. This was somewhat implied later in the admonition to, “use knowledge quickly”; whether it’s declarative or conceptual knowledge, learners should apply it as soon as possible.

The guidelines were excellent although I have to think how these can be applied in an online course:

  • Less talk
  • Less front-loading
  • Pre- and post-reflection
  • Use models

The established knowledge versus new knowledge chart made sense although I would have liked more explicit application to design. To some extent this was developed later in the chapter when the idea that factual knowledge (but only what’s necessary to get started) must be learned and then applied to a more complex (and conceptual) performance; then more facts are learned and applied to an increasingly authentic performance task. At this point, I expected Wiggins to draw the connection between factual mastery and automaticity. I disagree that direct instruction occurs only while learners perform and after they perform; it occurs before as well (it’s just that we can’t spend too much time up-front on direct instruction; the learners need to jump in quickly).

The techniques were useful although duplicative (at least in intent); the ones I found most useful were:

  • Summary
  • One-minute essay
  • Analogy prompt
  • Visual  representation
  • Misconception check

Tactics without strategy is noise

Dick and Carey’s initial discussion of a delivery system seems to break into 3 aspects:

  1. Social mode (lecture, lab and tutor, small group, self-study: I liked the inclusion of student groupings as a major decision in delivery)
  2. Medium (book, tape, mail, classroom, TV/radio/phone, computer, Web)
  3. Environment (time: a/synchronous, place: bound/open)

Even though PBL is covered, no distinction was drawn between a linear sequence (subobj 1a->subobj 2a->subobj 3a->Obj A-> subobj 1b->subobj 2b->Obj B) and a hyper sequence (in which learners access subobj  and Obj at their discretion and learn a sequence through trial and error).

Gagné’s attention step was amplified by introducing Keller’s concepts of relevance and confidence (satisfaction seems better-suited to the end of the sequence of events). To me, Gagné’s steps naturally split into “instruction” and “assessment” sections at the end of guidance (examples or practice) with Dick and Carey recommending a summary and a terminal objective practice at that juncture.

Practical suggestions included:

  • Require learners to develop a plan to reinforce transfer
  • Show how objectives can be used
  • Gagné’s elaboration tactic (linking stored knowledge to new knowledge) can also be accomplished with analogies and by asking learners “to provide an example from their own experience”
  • Reinforce declarative hierarchies by presenting information in an outline or table
  • Guidance in the form of practice is accomplished with generating new examples, refining the organizational structure, and focusing on meaningful contexts

Dick’s and Carey’s coverage on attitude left me wanting more. The idea that attitude is best modified/reinforced by delivering content from someone (real or imaginary) admired by the learner seems obvious, as is the suggestion to decide if learners should know they are being observed; no information was presented on how this observation impacts attitude changes other than the discouraging statement that there is little relationship between what we say and what we do in regard to our attitudes.

I appreciated the idea that constructivist designs are particularly appropriate for ill-defined problems. The table of constructivist guidelines was more straightforward than Duffy’s article:

  • offer choices
  • situate problems
  • create opportunities for reflection
  • involve groups in new knowledge construction
  • practice involves multiple perspectives
  • provide just enough facilitation in feedback (model, scaffold, coach, collaborate, peer review)
  • assessment standards must be referenced to each learner’s students’ unique goals