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Problem Based Learning (PBL): Applied to Accelerate Complex Problem Solving Skills

Problem Based Learning in Complex Problem Solving1

This post is continution of my earlier post titled: Problem Centered Training Methods Applied to Complex Problem Solving Skills.

Nature of Complex Problem Solving

Take moment to go back to my earlier Expertise in Complexity which differentiate between general problem solving and complex problem solving: According to Brehmer (1995), “Complex problem solving is concerned with people’s ability to handle tasks that are complex, dynamic (in the sense that they change both autonomously) and as a consequence of the decision makers actions), and opaque (in the sense that the decision maker may not be able to directly see the tasks states or structure).” On the other hand, General Problem solving refers to a state of desire for reaching a definite ‘goal’ from a present condition that either is not directly moving toward the goal, is far from it, or needs more complex logic for finding a missing description of conditions or steps toward the goal (Robertson, 2001, p2).

Complex problem solving and troubleshooting is a complex process which requires a range of cognitive and metacognitive skills to be used by the problem solver to identify and resolve a problem. Complex technical problem solving and troubleshooting remains complex, even for highly experienced individuals. However, research has shown that there are several competencies and strategies which are used by the proficient problem solvers and those are generally acquired by them while working on the issues.  Lyn (2011) lists the abilities learners need to deal with complex systems for success beyond the school:  “Such abilities include: constructing, describing, explaining, manipulating, and predicting complex systems; working on multi-phase and multi-component component projects in which planning, monitoring, and communicating are critical for success; and adapting rapidly toever-evolving conceptual tools (or complex artifacts) and resources (Gainsburg,2006; Lesh & Doerr, 2003; Lesh & Zawojewski, 2007)”.

There is some evidence (though not conclusive) that complex problem solving competency is a separate construct and not just the application of “normal” problem‐solving processes to complex situations. This is true for troubleshooting too within complex problem solving space. Troubleshooting is a form of problem solving, often applied to repair a failed product or process. In general, troubleshooting is the identification of, or diagnosis of “trouble” in the management flow of a corporation or a system caused by a failure of some kind. Troubleshooters then search for actions that will efficiently eliminate the discrepancy. It is believed that troubleshooting requires highly specific strategies too.

Training Challenges to Develop  Complex Problem Solving Skills

When it comes to designing and teaching problem solving skill based training programs, Hung (2009) quoted on how current training strategies are not working, “Traditional pedagogies, such as lecturing and demonstrating solutions to problems, very often result in students being capable of solving “textbook problems,” but unable to apply the knowledge to solve real life problems” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Mayer, 1996; Perkins & Salomon, 1989).

I wrote a previous post on 2 Core Philosophies to design Complex Problem Solving and Troubleshooting Training and introductory post Problem Centered Training Methods Applied to Complex Problem Solving Skills in which I briefly talked about 7 training methods to design general problem solving, which may have application in complex problem solving training design as well. Among those, I explained that inquiry based learning is sub-divided mainly in three sub-methods (Buch and Wolff, 2000): Problem based learning, Project based learning, Scenario based learning. If we think of Problem Based Learning, Scenario Based Learning and Project Based Learning as a continuum, then Problem Based Learning would fall on the left hand side of the scale while Scenario Based Learning falls somewhere in the middle and Project Based Learning falls on the right hand side of the scale. Thomsen et. al (2010) explained that “At one end of the spectrum is problem based learning where ‘the problem’, which generally has a predetermined outcome, is used to direct the students to both acquire and assimilate the necessary knowledge in the process of solving it. In PBL the solution may be less important than the new knowledge gained during the process.”

Coming to complex problem solving (refer to my earlier post on expertise in complexity), three fundamental questions spring up in regards to these methods:

  1. Does the common methods from general problem solving skill training like Problem Based Learning, Case Based Method or Simulation Based Learning etc. work into designing and delivering training on high complex and mission critical skills?
  2. Can any of those training methods be used to accelerate expertise or proficiency in acquiring complex problem solving and troubleshooting skills?
  3. How to implement or use applicable training methods to design complex training particularly in problem solving and troubleshooting skills of higher order?

Next 7 posts including this one will address above fundamental questions from the angle of complex problem solving and troubleshooting skill training. Here is the first one in then series focusing on Problem Based Learning method as applied to complex problem solving.

The Problem Based Learning Method

Problem-based learning (PBL) is both a teaching method and an approach to the curriculum. It consists of carefully designed problems that challenge students to use problem solving techniques, self-directed learning strategies, team participation skills, and disciplinary knowledge.

PBL was pioneered in the medical school program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in the late 1960s by Howard Barrows and his colleagues (Neville, 2009).  Advocates of problem-based learning assume problem solving should be the intellectual focus of curricula (Barrows, 1986, 1996; Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980). The learning process in PBL starts with solving problems, instead of content. Barrows and Tamblyn (1980, p. 1) explained that learning in PBL “results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem so it is important that the problem is encountered first in the learning process.” In PBL learning, students learn how to analyze a problem, identify relevant facts and generate hypotheses; identify necessary information/knowledge for solving the problem and make reasonable judgments about solving the problem. This approach was much closer to the real-life situation. PBL is also argued as a learning method that can promote the development of critical thinking skills (Serkan & Odabasi, 2009). Savin-Baden (2000) identified a distinctive design focus of PBL. “…students are not expected to acquire predetermined series of ‘right answers’. Instead they are expected to engage with the complex situation presented to them and decide what information they need to learn and what skills they need to gain in order to manage the situation effectively.” (p.3). Howard Barrows (1996) lists the six original characteristics for the problem-based learning model employed in the medical school as follows:

  • Learning is student centered.
  • Learning occurs in small student groups.
  • Teachers are facilitators or guides.
  • Problems form the original focus and stimulus for learning.
  • Problems are a vehicle for the development of clinical problem solving skills.
  • New information is acquired through self-directed learning.

The practical side of this approach is that learning starts with a problem. If problem solving is the primary job of the participants, then starting the training with a problem puts them closer to reality of their jobs and they instantly start connecting with the content. Moreover, they themselves get involved in the process of learning.

It is shown in the literature by several researchers that PBL has worked and accepted well in educational and school curriculum. Several attempts have been made to integrate in it technical and vocational courses. Does it give results or not? That’s bit questionable. From the literature it has been seen that when it comes to abilities of participants coming out of PBL vs. traditional pedagogy based training, no significant gap in knowledge was noticed (Chang, et al.,1995; Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Kaufman & Mann, 1998; Login et al., 1996). Albano, et al. (1996) conducted research on the differences in the final levels of knowledge acquisition in medical schools using a variety of instructional strategies, including problem-based learning and lecture-based learning, and they concluded that the differing strategies seem to have only limited influence on the final level of knowledge of the graduates. Dr. D.H. Jonessen, a pioneer of problem solving based training, mentioned that in those experiments though no significant difference was seen in the final scores in exams, the residents who took problem based curriculum were lot more quicker to pick the actual job during internship as compared to those resident who did traditional curriculum.

In general problem solving context, it appears that PBL is a common-sense approach. However, the approach alone would not work. It needs complementary environment, correctly chosen problems, linkage of problems with learning outcomes.

Does PBL Accelerate Problem Solving Skills?

PBL has shown impact on student’s motivation and their engagement. Due to engagement of students, it is general believe, though no evidences yet, that Problem based Learning is likely to increase the pace to absorb the new content and hence skill acceleration may be imperative. Though the quality of skills acquired through PBL or non-PBL methods may not be significantly different, this appears to support that this method ‘could’ accelerate the skil acquisition which is very important in today’s organizations. When it comes to abilities to solve complex problem in complex world, speed with which someone can acquire same level of skills makes the whole difference to the organizations.

Designing PBL based curriculum

In PBL, leaners are not passive information receivers any more. They are expected to more actively engage in their learning process. Therefore, you should take into accounts of learner’s motivation, background and learning habits before you think about employing PBL into the classroom. Any subject area can be adapted to PBL with a little creativity. While the core problems will vary among disciplines, there are some characteristics of good PBL problems that transcend fields (Duch, Groh, and Allen, 2001):

  • The problem must motivate students to seek out a deeper understanding of concepts.
  • The problem should require students to make reasoned decisions and to defend them.
  • The problem should incorporate the content objectives in such a way as to connect it to previous courses/knowledge.
  • If it is a group project, the problem needs a level of complexity to ensure that the students must work together to solve it.
  • If a multistage project, the initial steps of the problem should be open-ended and engaging to draw students into the problem.

Applying PBL to Complex Problem Solving Skill Training: Guidelines

1. Select tough and complex problems

When applied in complex problem solving context, this approach has some limitation in regards to what kind of problems can be introduced in a given training program. The complexity of problems and the process to impact complex learning has more to it than just the method of problem based learning. It has been seen that in order to build expertise in complex problem solving, learners need to be working on tough cases of higher complexity. This approach has its challenges in selecting the correct problem for teaching real-world troubleshooting to the students (Jonassen and Hung, 2008). In my post on 2 Core Philosophies to Accelerate Complex Problem Solving Skills, I mentioned that real-world problems should be selected if we want to use PBL to accelerate these skills. Without properly designed complex problems, PBL alone cannot do any wonder.

2. Draw objectives from problem rather than drawing problems from objectives

As I mentioned in my other post, to reap the true benefits of this approach, the problems needs to be designed correctly and objectives should be drawn out of the problem rather than problem defined around the objectives. This is the key guideline if you want to apply PBL in complex problem solving space. In my experience designers miss this part and tend to look for the problems around the objectives while the real intent of complex problem solving training should be to teach solving the process of problem solving itself rather than content. Content plays secondary or supporting role in PBL.

3. Focus on problem solving process rather than solution

The problem usually have pre-determined outcome. Therefore it is necessary to ensure that training material clearly states the final outcome expected. But take a note that solution may not be that important but what is important is the “process” of problem solving and how learner acquire or recognize various knowledge pieces required to solve the problem. Literature has good support in regards to the process of problem solving. Usually a problem solver has to actively acquire knowledge about the complex problem by systematically interacting with it (Funke, 2001) as the initial assumptions about the structure of the problem are mostly false or incomplete (Dörner, 1989). Often the problem solver has to define one or more of the problem’s components him- or herself based on aspects like prior knowledge (e.g., experience with analogous problems, or generalized schemas for this kind of problems) and features of the task (Novick & Bassok, 2005) and usually building a viable internal representation of a complex problem involves processes like rule induction (Simon & Lea, 1974), generating and testing hypotheses (Klahr & Dunbar, 1988) and causal learning (Buehner & Cheng, 2005).  While designing and implementing the problem solving process itself in the training, be cognizant how experts would solve same problem if goal is to accelerate proficiency in problem solving. After all, goal of acceleration is to achieve ‘expert-like’ performance in shorter time.

4. Pre-test the story and the process

While you develop that process to incorporate in the training, think of a real-world context for the concept under consideration. Develop a storytelling aspect to an end-of-chapter problem, or research an actual case that can be adapted, adding some motivation for learners to solve the problem. The problem needs to be introduced in stages so that students will be able to identify learning issues that will lead them to research the targeted concepts. It may be good idea to have few dry runs of the problem through pilot group to ensure that problem is understood and process is validated to ensure that various pieces of knowledge and skills required to solve the problem are well integrated in the problem. The emphasis is on testing and presenting the problems in a well-designed story. It has been seen that learners can relate quickly with a story-based approach, no matter the problem is complex. This lays foundations for accelerating the proficiency in complex problem solving skills when using PBL method.


During my research I found that by sticking to a particular philosophy within its bounds is not a recipe for accelerating expertise. In fact there is so much of overlap between Problem Based Learning, Project Based Learning, Case Based Learning, Simulation Based Learning and Simulated Game Based Learning that it does not matter at the end what methodology has been taken as long as 2 guidelines of my  post 2 Core Philosophies to Accelerate Complex Problem Solving Skills, namely real-world problems and real-world environment are incorporated correctly. I will present my research findings on integrated CBACDR methodology in one of my later post which can provide designers with one single methodology to take advantage of different methods I discussed in my earlier posts including this one.

Stay tuned.

Image Credits:  @ innovationmanagement.se

About Raman K. Attri

Raman K. Attri is a complex learning strategist, a transformational training consultant and a researcher with over 20 years of experience in engineering, management and technical training. His primary area of focus is to provide strategic directions to organizations in implementing next-generation competitive training strategies. His research interests include complex learning, accelerated expertise and advanced instructional design. He is also the founder of Personal Resonance©, a research forum with a charter to transform proven research studies on accelerated expertise into organizational training practices. His training and learning solutions are strongly founded in system engineering techniques applied to large-scale training programs. Equipped with scientific training methods, he innovated two research-backed complex learning frameworks namely SEAT© (Systems Engineering Approach to Training) and ProBT© (Proficiency Based Training) methodology primarily meant for organizations to accelerate development of complex cognitive skills of their employees systematically at faster rate. He is highly passionate about learning. He holds Professional Doctorate in Corporate Training, MBA in Operations Management and Executive MBA in Customer Relationship Management. Currently he is pursuing another Doctorate degree from Southern Cross University. His personal interests involve writing and painting.
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