Monthly Archives: March 2011

Designing problems for problem based learning- this was published in Faculty Focus

Check  this out

Designing Problems for Problem-based Learning

By: Nachamma Sockalingam PhD in Instructional Design

As the name implies, problems are absolutely essential for problem-based learning (PBL). Problems initiate students’ learning in PBL. In other words, if there are no problems, there will be no problem-based learning.

Although there are plenty of real-life problems around us, identifying the suitable problem to guide and direct students in their learning can be challenging. Often, course developers who are new to PBL find it challenging to go about designing problems.

How do you design a problem for PBL? Do you try and find an interesting article/case study that is relevant to your learning objectives and pose relevant questions? Or do you identify the learning objectives and pose questions on it? Is there a systematic way of designing problems?

This article aims to provide some guidelines on how to go about designing problems for PBL based on our current understanding of problem characteristics.

Recent studies suggest that problems effectiveness could be defined by 11 characteristics. These 11 characteristics are classified into two categories: feature characteristics and function characteristics. Feature characteristics are design elements of the problem. Function characteristics are the desired outcomes of the problem.

In designing problems, the characteristics to be manipulated are the feature characteristics; namely,

  • problem clarity,
  • problem format,
  • problem difficulty level,
  • problem familiarity and
  • problem relevance.

Other than the feature characteristics, it is important to consider the function characteristics in designing problems. The function characteristics are the extent to which the problem:

  • leads to the intended learning issues,
  • promotes self-directed learning,
  • stimulates critical reasoning,
  • stimulates elaboration,
  • promotes teamwork, and
  • triggers interest.

Ok, so we know what constitutes an effective problem. But how do we incorporate these characteristics into our problem design?

Making it relevant and realistic
In designing problems for problem-based learning, one could start off with analyzing student characteristics and students’ learning needs which will shed light on students’ prior knowledge, which content/context would be familiar to students (this is likely to provide information on problem familiarity, difficulty and relevance), their learning styles (which will provide information for problem format) and comprehension capabilities (which will provide information on problem clarity). Such information needs to be incorporated into the presentation of the problem. This layer of the problem design could be likened to the user-interface of the problem.

Underlying the user-interface is the content. In selecting the content, problem designers would need to identify the learning issues that need to be focused on and tailor it to students’ prior knowledge and learning needs. Hence it becomes essential to first analyze student characteristics and learning needs to develop problems. This content then needs to be framed in a relevant and realistic context that students can relate to and apply in other courses or in other areas of their life. Contextualizing the problem is similar to coming up with a story line.

In addition to the user-interface and the story (content/context), one needs to also focus on what is expected from the students as a result of working on the problem. That is, one needs to keep in mind the message intended by the “story.” If the problem is meant to stimulate critical reasoning, there needs to be activities that are weaved into the problem design which require students to reason critically.

Overall, in designing problems for problem-based learning, function characteristics/learning outcomes (not just content but also what behavioral skills, such as self-directed learning, critical thinking) need to be considered and the issues should be framed in the appropriate context and presented using the optimal feature characteristics/user interface. Essentially, the steps in designing problems are similar to writing a story. Thinking of the message (outcome) as well as story line (content and context) and then the presentation (user interface) would be a logical way to designing problems.


Sockalingam, N., Rotgans, J., & Schmidt, H. G. (2010).Student and Tutor Perceptions on Effective Problems. Higher Education (in press). DOI: 10.1007/s10734-010-9361-3.

Nachamma Sockalingam PhD, Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre. SIM University, Singapore.


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Teacher-centered teaching versus Student-centered teaching

What is the difference between teacher-centered teaching and student-centered teaching?

To some, they are the same. One argument goes like this. Whether it is teacher-centered teaching or student-centered teaching, the focus is about students’ learning. So therefore the teaching is student-centered regardless of whether it is teacher-centered teaching or student-centered teaching. Sounds right! right?

Well, here is the flaw in the argument. Here we are assuming that the outcome is the only thing that matters – that is, the students’ learning. The main difference between teacher-centered teaching and the student centered teaching is in the process of teaching – how we go about teaching. Student-centered teaching engages students  in the learning process whilst teacher-centered teaching is intended for mostly information transmission. So teacher-centered teaching may not engage the students that much during the learning process; students often passively listen and take notes in teacher-centered teaching.

The tables in the following hyperlink  summarizes the differences clearly.


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How can we engage passive students?

Here is a quick summary  of an article titled “From Passive to Active Learning: Helping Students Make the Shift.” by Marilla Svinicki, University of Texas at Austin. 

In this article, Marilla speculates why students may be resistant to active learning and suggests what we can do to help them get engaged in active learning. 

Here are the essentials from the article. 

1.     Why students may be resistant to active learning?

  • Students continue to use learning strategies that they had used  in high school or college such as listening to the instructor and taking notes.
  • This ‘out-dated ‘ learning strategies may not work for active learning- students may be taking note of everything that is being said instead of knowing what to focus on.
  • Students’ conception of learning is that learning is receiving information; they have not accepted the idea that knowledge is to be constructed
  • Students associate learning with memorizing and knowing facts.
  • Students have difficulty in handling situations with no right or wrong answer. Hence you often have requests for model answers.
  • Some students may be pressed for time and may be strategically minimizing effort on  their course work to cope with other pressing matters. 

2.    What can we do?

  • It is worth taking time to explain to students why it is important for them to participate actively (not just for the grades).
  • We should ensure that the activities are relevant to the course objectives and not just something to do.
  • We need to make the learning objectives clear to the students.
  • To overcome students’ belief that there is only one right answer, we could expose students gradually to complex situations.
  • When using more complex problems, we could provide sufficient modeling of the process ( Note: modeling process is different from giving the model answer).
  • We should encourage students to participate in discussions and share their view points.
  • We should try and create an open learning environment where students feel safe to make mistakes and learn

 Here are couple of things that Marilla had not mentioned but maybe worth considering.

  • In wanting our students to engage in active learning, we are assuming that all our students actually know what is active learning.  This assumption needs to be tested in the classroom and if necessary,  we may need to help students understand what is active learning to begin with. 
  • We could engage students in discussions on their conceptions of learning and help them see the importance of constructivist learning (and hence the need to participate).
  • We should encourage students to reflect on their learning strategies.
  • We need to provide a conclusion/summary of learning so the students know if they have understood what needs to be.
  • We need to provide prompt and appropriate feedback, not just on the content but also on students’ learning strategies.

I had first published  this article as an e-Post at SIM univeristy.


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Teaching adult learners


This post is on adult learning. I have summarized an article by S. Joseph Levine from Michigan State University on The Challenge of Helping Adults learn. You can get the pdf artcle by googling.

In this article, Levine outlines the characteristics of adult learners and suggests teaching strategies to support adult learners.  

1.  What are the characteristics of adult learners?

The adult learner

  • Is primarily independent/self-directed
  • Is motivated from within himself/herself
  • Is most likely to be interested in topics that relate to his/her developmental stages of life
  • Is most interested in information and ideas that solve problems they are presently faced with
  • Is most interested in information that can be immediately applied
  • Has considerable experience to draw upon

2.  What can we do as instructors?

To teach adult learners, it is important that the teaching strategies are adapted to suit the adult learner characteristics listed above. The first step would be to understand the adult learners. Then, we need to tailor learner-centered activities.

To understand our learners, we should first be approachable and we should make efforts to get to know the adult learners – for instance, what they do, what motivates them and what interests them. 

To tailor learner-centered activities, we could

  • Encourage or where possible, organize learners in groups based on their work experience/interest, get everyone  to contribute some ideas, get  learners to elaborate how their unique experiences have helped in providing solutions to the problem
  •  Choose examples/problems which adult learners can potentially apply in their work
  • Alternatively, get adult learners in teams to suggest examples/problems and encourage them to work on that
  • Ask adult learners how they will be using what they have learnt
  • Encourage adult learners by recognizing what adult learners value; motivate them by reminding them their reasons to pursue the module/degree

In sum, the tactic to teaching adult learners would be to “relate to the adult learners, draw them into the learning process, help them to stay motivated and help them to work collaboratively”.

I had first published  this article as on an e-Post at SIM univeristy.


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