Problem Based Learning: 5 questions to ask before you start building

Problem Based Learning isn’t a new tactic. But, it is just as effective now than ever.
That’s because problems are tricky. Solving a problem presents a challenge. Meeting that challenge usually demands initiative, good judgement, creativity and expertise. So learning the skills needed to overcome these challenges should involve facing the problem head-on. 
We celebrate heroes bold enough to face a challenge, and applaud the insight that steers their course. Problems (or should we say problems solved) are at the heart of all good storytelling: and good stories are memorable and immersive. This is why L&D experts love Problem Based Learning (PBL) scenarios.  In business, no one appreciates the power of good storytelling better than the training manager. So, devising the complex scenarios required for PBL presents course designers with a challenge that’s always difficult to resist.
But the immersive PBL courses aren’t suited to every training need. Truth is: some training just isn’t that big a problem.
Not sure if a Problem Based Learning strategy is the right approach for the training challenge you’re faced with right now? Here’s five questions you should ask before committing the time and resources that PBL requires.

1. Do you need troubleshooters?

PBL is fantastic at developing problem solving abilities. But troubleshooting isn’t right for every training need. Think about the skill you’re trying to develop. Is it a drill and practice skill, or is it a skill that really depends on an ability to make good judgement calls?
The clue here is in the name. Problems are exceptions in business: they’re not the norm. So it follows that Problem Based Learning is best equipped to help workers overcome the difficult scenarios that hinder operational progress rather than the routine scenarios that keep operations ticking smoothly.

2. Are the learners new to the job or do they have some experience?

Training a mechanic with the knowledge to service a vehicle is routine training, which shouldn’t run into any problems. However, training the same mechanic to diagnose engine failure is an exceptional scenario. This requires experience and analytical skills, and a Problem Based Learning scenario may be relevant.
Problems are tricky, debatable topics that can be resolved via numerous different courses of action. Workers need to think, analyse and troubleshoot their way through complex scenarios. If your training need is not tricky then you don’t have a requirement for Problem Based Learning.

3. Will my learners solve problems on their own or in teams?

Whether it’s live or online: Greater realism leads to deeper engagement. Conventional training is often coupled with eLearning to deliver effective PBL. So, it pays to know exactly where and how your scenarios will fit into the business’s wider learning mix.
If your students share a common geography, can you utilise assets from digital courses in a classroom setting? Or, can you share assets via blogs, discussion boards or wikis? Problem Based Learning requires time and resources. So it pays to make sure these resources can be deployed right across the learning blend.

4. Are Subject Matter Experts available to help you devise the right scenarios?

You’re trying to create workers who are experienced enough to address problems whenever process fails. But problems are unpredictable: they occur without warning.
However, building scenarios for these unpredictable situations isn’t as difficult as it seems. Anybody with a knowledge of critical incident technique knows that you can anticipate the future by studying the past.
When scoping out scenarios for your PBL courses, talk to the best experts your business has to offer. Get them to describe the challenging situations they’ve found themselves in and the decision making that got them through. Study what they have to say in detail to identify the common behaviour that gets the most experienced workers out of most situations.

5. Do I have the time and resources required to design, develop and test Problem Based Learning?

It’s important to remember that actually solving the “problem” scenario is not the only end goal in PBL. What you really want to inspire is a behavioural change, equipping workers with the expertise they need to overcome any problem. To do this you need to build highly realistic and specific scenarios. And you also need to support their learning with a diverse array of options and support materials. Just like in the real word, Problem Based Learning needs to offer a variety of routes towards an acceptable solution.
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