Problem-Based Learning

My latest reading for my practicum has been about Problem-Based Learning (PBL), which involves giving students a real-world problem to solve in groups.  It sounds like a great active learning method for library instruction because it can help students take control of their learning and experience first-hand the cyclical, messy nature of research.  The “problem” gives the research process a relevant context, which in turn helps students have a “clear sense of purpose” about how library resources can be used (Kenney 386).

The problem can be simple or complex, which makes PBL applicable to a lot of different levels of library instruction.  “Revitalizing the One-Shot Instruction Session” gave an example that positioned students in a speech class as advisors to a senator who needed to make a presentation about her views on the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in an hour–but currently didn’t know where she stood on the issue.  The students had to find five reliable sources to help the senator form her viewpoint.  Scenarios like this one allow students to imagine themselves in a powerful position and think about the implications of research as they work to find good information.

In “Re-framing Information Literacy,” the authors noted that library instruction often proceeds in a linear fashion, emphasizes the searching part of the process, and positions the librarian as a demonstrator.  PBL can help librarian instructors take on a role as guide/facilitator as students experience the true interative, cyclical nature of research.  When their research inevitably produces more questions, it requires them to recognize that there is no “right answer” and think critically about how they seek information in their daily lives and for school.

Of course, not all students will be fully engaged with PBL methods.  “PBL in a Media Ethics Course” discussed how many college students have little experience taking control of their own learning, are uncomfortable with ambiguity, and get frustrated with a lack of structure (189-190).  This is all the more reason to use methods like PBL, especially in a one-shot library information session that might be a freshman student’s first contact with the library.

I really like the idea of PBL as a way to give students control over their learning and engage them with the material.  The articles I read discussed using PBL with upper-level classes, but I think there is a lot of potential to use it with freshman classes as well, especially those that don’t have a research assignment looming in the near future to scare them into paying attention.  For beginning college students, I think a PBL excercise could be an excellent way to get them to experience how the research process can be messy and sometimes frustrating, but also exciting and empowering.

Next week I’m going to use my fellow reference interns as guinea pigs for PBL.  We’re all doing a “mini-teach,” and I think that will be a good time to give this a test run before trying it on any real, live freshmen.


Diekema, A. R., Holliday, W., & Leary, H. (2011). Re-framing information literacy: Problem-based learning as informed learning. Library & Information Science Research, 33(4), 261-268. doi: 10.1016/j.lisr.2011.02.002

Karen L, S. (2002). Loyalty, harm and duty: PBL in a media ethics course. Public Relations Review, 28(2), 185-190. doi: 10.1016/s0363-8111(02)00125-x

Kenney, B. F. (2008). Revitalizing the one-shot instruction session using Problem-Based Learning. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 47(4), 386-391.