Problem-based learning (PBL) involves students working on problems in small groups of ten to twelve with the assistance of a tutor. Problems serve as the context for new learning. Their analysis and solution lead to the acquisition of new knowledge and problem-solving skills. Problems are encountered before all relevant knowledge has been acquired and not merely after reading texts or hearing lectures about the subject matter underlying a problem. This latter feature reflects one of the essential distinctions between PBL and other problem-oriented methods.
The problem-based tutor's function is to coach the group, which entails providing support to make student interaction productive and helping students identify the knowledge needed to resolve their problem. As a result of the problem-solving process, students generate questions (learning issues) about what kind of knowledge is required to explain the mechanisms underlying the causes of the problem. After leaving the meeting, students undertake their own research on the issues they have identified using a variety of resources. Significant time is available for independent study.
The PBL process is completed when students report on what they have learned at the next meeting. The students' first goal is to relate newly acquired knowledge to the problem at hand. Their second goal is to move to a more general level of understanding, enabling them to transfer the knowledge and skills they have acquired to new problems. After completing this problem solving cycle, students will return to analyze a new problem, again following the procedure outlined above.
E-Learning through Eleum
Maastricht University has developed a university-wide E-learning platform (ELEUM) based on Blackboard© technology and POLARIS©. Blackboard delivers the basic instructional tools for learning. It is more oriented towards providing access to learning and information resources.
POLARIS is dedicated Web technology which offers students essential communication possibilities in a PBL environment by allowing them to post problem solutions within a team, or for others, on a public bulletin board.
As far as current research by the department of Educational Development and Educational Research and Maastricht Learning Laboratories can show, it has indeed been found – in line with the outcomes of educational research - that this innovative learning environment have a substantial impact on students learning and problem solving.