Problem-Based Learning Alleviates Student Boredom


Freeman Hrabowski is leading his university’s effort to empower disadvantaged students in science and math. In this inspiring TED talk, he describes four pillars of success among his minority students:

  1. Set high expectations,
  2. Build community among students,
  3. Keep students working in the lab, and
  4. Get involved in the life of an individual student.

But how would he implement these concepts across the university?

At 12:24, Hrawbowski describes his work this way: “We needed to think about redesigning courses . . . Because so many students are bored in class. Do you know that? Many students, K-12 and in universities, don’t want to just sit there and listen to somebody talk. They need to be engaged.”

In order to engage students and prevent boredom, at 12:53 Hrabowski says they are “using problems out of our biotech companies on our campus, and not giving students the theories, but having them struggle with those theories.”

Application, not theory. What Hrabowski is describing here is a powerful form of pedagogy known as Problem-Based Learning (PBL). This page provides a very basic outline of PBL in a business-school context.

Simply put, PBL means learning by doing. PBL replaces the textbook and the lecture with a clearly-defined problem, which students then work together to solve. The problem must be authentic – that is, based in reality. It’s best to use a question or challenge that real-life professionals (not just academics) have to confront. This scenario forces students to think and collaborate, rather than memorize answers or cram to pass a test. Through the process of solving a problem, students learn from experience and from each other.

This video from Edutopia, filmed on campus at Sammamish High School, shows a few good examples of the kinds of authentic projects that students can tackle:

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One group of students had to find out how plants grow in the wild, then replicate that same process in a greenhouse. They drew up architectural designs for their greenhouse and presented their plans to an actual client. As their teacher explains, “When the students know that what they’re doing in the classroom has an audience outside the classroom, it really helps them deepen their thinking on it. And I think that is pretty authentic in terms of what the future work world holds.”

Another example of a great project is a mock United Nations, in which students act as delegates to argue and negotiate over the future of the Arctic. In the process, they learn about climate change, international politics and trade, as well as speech and debate.

Wouldn’t you rather prove what you know through a project, instead of a multiple-choice exam?

But don’t throw away your Scantrons just yet. Tests, too, can be redesigned for problem-based learning with a little imagination. Peter Nonacs, a professor of behavioral ecology at UCLA, tells the story of how he re-thought his final exam. He decided to let his students cheat.

“They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked,” writes Nonacs, “including animal behavior experts. (Richard Dawkins in town? Bring him!) They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other or call friends who’d taken the course before.”

His idea was to get students to learn game theory by living it. In an open exam where students can talk to each other, they were forced to weigh the benefits of collaboration over competition.

“Although by conventional test-taking rules, the students were cheating, they actually weren’t in this case. Instead, they were changing their goal in the Education Game from ‘Get a higher grade than my classmates’ to ‘Get to the best answer.’ This also required them to make new rules for test-taking. Obviously, when you make the rules there is no reason to cheat.”

Nonacs’ flipped exam paid off because it created a learning experiment. “The best tests will not only find out what students know but also stimulate thinking in novel ways. This is much more than regurgitating memorized facts. The test itself becomes a learning experience – where the very act of taking it leads to a deeper understanding of the subject.” Would you agree?



Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael Mussman is Editor of Forward Thinking, the Ashford University blog.

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