Incorporating problem-based learning into STEM educational resources

How multimedia resources can provide adaptable learning opportunities to increase student engagement.

April 14, 2023
Maya Raman Jones
Incorporating problem-based learning into STEM educational resources

At Bett, we were fortunate to attend Scott Smith (Odilo) demonstrating how multimedia resources can provide adaptable learning opportunities to increase student engagement. We were introduced to different types of learning, all trying to move away from seeing a teacher as a ‘sage on a stage’ and instead allowing students more agency over their education.

Today’s blog post considers problem-based learning and how educational publishers can adapt resources to benefit all approaches.

So, what is problem-based learning?

Problem-based learning uses real-world issues to encourage students to develop problem-solving skills and learn new concepts. The main benefit is that the learning is self-directed, so students may find their own resources to help them solve problems.

A problem is typically presented to students at the beginning of a class/unit, and students are expected to work, either independently or in groups, to learn more about the problem to find a solution. These problems typically don’t have one fixed correct answer and the teacher acts more as a guide than a lecturer.

This is particularly important in STEM, as this learning approach mirrors the process that researchers use in the real world. Students learn how to gather, critique, analyse, and interpret information; create working theories; pose new questions; bring forward evidence and integrate new ideas. A concept not too dissimilar, in fact, to the Mastery approach that we wrote about previously.

What kinds of educational resources are valuable for problem-based learning?

While problem-based learning promotes self-guided research, textbooks cannot be completely replaced with online articles and primary sources. Students will still need to ensure that at the end of a unit they have covered all of the required content.

However, the key to successful problem-based learning is that students can guide themselves through textbooks in a non-linear fashion and support this learning with other resources that better match their learning style. Video resources, articles, and multimedia resources are consequently essential as students can pick and choose their own pathway through a topic.

For educational publishers creating resources for problem-based learning, it is important to move away from a rigid, linear approach to presenting the content. The content needs to be covered, but in a way that students can draw their own conclusions and interpretations from a topic. This could be through a multimedia offering, where a course is led by a student book but supported by linked online resources, or by an even more ingrained non-linear approach, where the entire course is designed to be adaptable and mouldable to each student. And both of these approaches have certainly become more popular in the past few years, from what we are seeing in the projects we work on.

How can textbooks be written to support problem-based learning?

Though problem-based learning encourages students to supplement their textbook learning with articles, multimedia resources, and videos, there are also ways in which textbooks themselves can be improved to better align with the problem-based learning philosophy.

  • Integrate problem solving activities into the textbook.
    Traditional end-of-chapter tests are often very linear, so adding group discussion activities and problems can challenge students further. An example of this might be asking students to devise their own system to find out how many prime numbers there are under 100.
  • Introduce more real-world examples.
    Textbooks need to provide the necessary context for the problems by introducing more real-world examples and scenarios that illustrate the relevance of STEM concepts to students lives. This can help motivate and engage students and help them understand the practical applications of what they are learning.
  • Scaffold learning.
    Textbooks can scaffold the learning process by breaking down complex concepts into smaller, more manageable parts. As problem-based learning encourages a higher degree of independence, it is important to ensure that weaker students can still engage with the material. Providing a framework for students to practise on some problems, then apply the skills they have learnt to a range of other problems, allows students to build their knowledge and understanding incrementally.
  • Use images.
    Textbooks should always incorporate visuals into the pages, such as diagrams, charts, and graphs, as well as linked multimedia, such as videos and animations in online textbooks. Graphs and charts are particularly valuable, as students need to interpret the presented data and draw conclusions.  
  • Encourage reflection.
    Textbooks should encourage students to reflect on what they have learned and to apply their new knowledge to future situations. This can help to reinforce learning and to encourage students to take ownership of their learning.

Overall, textbooks can be designed to support problem-based learning in STEM by integrating problem-solving activities, providing context, scaffolding learning, using visuals and multimedia, and encouraging reflection. By doing so, textbook authors can help to create a more engaging and effective learning experience for students.

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