4 Reasons You Need Problem-Based Learning in Your Training

If you’re a regular reader of training blogs and publications, you may feel a little overwhelmed by all the new trends and techniques flying around the learning universe these days. Am I meeting the needs of the new generation? Should I be doing microlearning? Crowdsourcing? Gamification? Self-Directed Learning? How am I supposed to do all these things and still come home often enough for my dog to recognize me? Well, fellow trainer, there’s an old-fashioned training technique that’s (rightfully) making a comeback and it might solve several of your “I can’t keep up” issues all at once. It’s time to take a look at problem-based learning (PBL).

Designing Problem-Based Learning Strategies

PBL is really just a fancy way of saying that you’ll set up a problem and let your trainees have at it. Say you’re training on sales skills, for example. Rather than showing demonstration videos or doing standup training, maybe you present them with a scenario that a potential customer might bring them in the real world. Give them the materials they need and let them create a proposal that addresses the customer’s needs. PBL can be done individually or in groups. And it can be done in the classroom, online, or just about anywhere. It can be done in an hour or over the course of a month. Because it’s essentially an independent study course, it’s very flexible. I won’t get into the weeds on design, but here are three elements from the University of Illinois:
  • The problem must motivate students to seek out a deeper understanding of concepts.
  • The problem should require students to make reasoned decisions and defend them.
  • The problem should incorporate the content objectives in such a way as to connect it to previous courses/knowledge.
You can also find a six-step process for developing PBL here. So now that we know what it is, here are four great reasons to add PBL to your curriculum.

Reason #1: Meeting the Needs of Busy Learners

One of the great advantages of microlearning is that it fits into busy schedules. Many learners love to be able to do a five- or ten-minute training, because they can fit it into the cracks in their schedule. While PBL is not microlearning per se, it’s possible to incorporate microlearning techniques into your problem-based activities. Try breaking down a large problem activity into several smaller ones, for example. Or keeping research items short and sweet, so trainees can get a quick bite of knowledge over lunch. Going back to our sales training example, there’s no reason your trainees have to develop the entire proposal in one sitting. One quick module could be on researching various techniques for building an introduction and one more on creating the introduction itself. While some of these activities cannot be done in two minutes, a clever designer (like yourself) can certainly break a problem-based activity into chunks that will require under 30 minutes of your learners’ time. INSERT –

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Reason #2: Meeting the Needs of Millennials and Alpha

What do the new generations love? Self-directed learning, that’s what! They love it because they can explore. They were raised on Google, and exploration is kind of their thing. You should love it because the exploration process augments retention – we remember it better when we have to find it ourselves. PBL is, by its very nature, self-directed. “Here’s a problem. Here are some resources. Solve the problem.” It’s tailor-made for the new generations of workers.

Reason #3: Flexibility of PBL

Another great benefit of PBL is its flexibility for learners and for you. Looking for a great group project that will distribute information and develop workplace bonding in the process? How about an individual project for a worker who needs a little help with complex ideas? PBL fits the bill for both – it’s equally effective for groups and individuals. Deadlines can be flexible as well. If you have a “captive audience” of trainees, deadlines might be tighter. But a worker who is learning a new process “on the go” might have days or even weeks to complete the tasks. The self-paced nature of PBL makes it ideal for scheduling. PBL works perfectly well in a classroom setting, an online environment, or as an independent study class that can be accessed on-demand. Because trainees do most of the work themselves, the possibilities are endless.

Reason #4: You Already Have What You Need

Perhaps the best reason to add PBL to your repertoire is that you probably already have everything you need to get started. If you work in corporate training, you’re likely to have the two most important elements:
  • A database of information/knowledge articles
  • A training platform
The platform can be a classroom, an online learning center, or a learning management system. And chances are, you already have the instructional information you need socked away in “traditional” training – a little dusting-off will get it ready for PBL. After that, all that’s needed is your expertise and instincts.

Staying Ahead

Problem-based learning is an ideal way to keep your training on the cutting edge of, well, everything. It adapts to learning styles, workplace environments, personalities, and just about anything else you can imagine. So, start imagining. Open up the possibilities of problem-based learning and see how your trainees will love it.

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About the Author:

Allan Dodson is so much more than a writer and instructional designer. He’s helped develop strategy in Fortune 500 boardrooms, and he’s taught acting skills to 4th graders.  He’s developed training programs for everything from hair highlighting to pest control to DSL lines, and he’s made presentations to C-level execs, teachers (tough crowd!) and all workforce levels. In short, he has the experience, versatility, creativity, and energy to move projects large and small, and he’s ready for any challenge.

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