Using Problem-Based Learning for Effective Workforce Development

Using Problem-Based Learning for Effective Workforce Development

By Dr. George Haber

Given the increasing workforce demands for skilled workers who manage critical systems, the need for highly effective training has never been greater. The traditional model of instruction, practice and testing, while adequate for some educational goals, cannot be fully relied on for complex problem-solving tasks. The ability to understand complex systems, identify and understand problems, identify solutions and then enact those solutions requires more than a purely academic understanding. It requires the ability to run, without constraint, through the six levels of the cognitive domain, seamlessly and efficiently. That includes recalling knowledge, as well as evaluating and predicting outcomes, which are conceived after comprehension of a problem, analysis and syntheses of facts. In short, our high-tech learners must learn how to solve problems. This is the case for Problem-Based Learning (PBL).

One of the great elements of the PBL strategy is that it is not constrained by instructional timelines. This strategy is effective within an afternoon lesson or as a long-term project. As a university professor, I built several of my courses with semester- long PBL assignments.

For any competency-based learning event, it is best to first define what the learner will be able to do after the course. Once that is defined, determine the best way to assess the attained skills. If the goal of the instruction is for the learner to be able to analyze a situation and make recommendations, then take these elements and create an assessment tool. You can authentically assess their ability to complete these tasks, essentially a problem to solve. Problems can include engineering solutions, system implementation, investigations, or simply the reformation of a process.

Once the problem and outcomes are defined, identify the critical skills and elements required to complete this project. These become your enabling objectives and the milestones by which learner progress can be assessed. Next, sequence the milestones and align the curriculum to support the PBL assignment. As learners become more aware of the curriculum alignment, they will begin to look forward to the next curricular element, as they will see its value relative to the solution to their problem.

This article focuses on the theoretical construct for PBL and not on the implementation. However, to be helpful to those who may attempt to construct a course, here is a short list of important elements:

1 Make sure that the problem is discussed as the focus of the instructional period (semester, course or unit). This increases the effectiveness of instruction by offering immediate and focused application.

2 Provide the learners with a rubric when the assignment is given. It helps them conceptualize the project/problem.

3 Segment the overall assignment into critical milestones for formative assessment. These milestones should be the elements that are required in the final solution.

a) Assess each milestone, and return for the learner

b) Encourage the learner to refine the milestone assignment before it is added into the final project document

c) Reassess in the summative assessment

If the goal of education is to be able to solve problems, PBL is an effective instructional tool to that end. If the practitioners of training and education can learn to use this tool as easily as they lecture or demonstrate skills and processes, learners cannot help but develop higher-level understanding of the material and experience greater satisfaction as they learn new skills.

—George Haber is the global leader for instructional systems design at DuPont Sustainable Solutions. He also develops training system plans and oversees training product-design processes and development. For more information, access the website


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