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task based learning problem solving

Introduction to Task-Based Learning (TBL)

What is a task and what is the best way to define and describe Task-Based Learning?

Do you think that incorporating meaningful tasks is a good way to motivate your learners?

Written by Sheila Corwin

Sheila Corwin

Teacher Trainer in Florence

Task-Based Learning: what it is?

Task-Based Learning (TBL) is all about your students creating, producing, or designing something in class… it could be anything… anything at all. TBL includes the 21st Century skills of Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking (4C’s) and can also be described as a short interactive assignment that results in a finished product.

The Task part of Task-Based Learning has been (more or less) defined by linguistic scholars as:

  • things people do in everyday life (Long, 1985).
  • a goal-oriented activity that leads to an outcome or result (Willis, 1996).
  • a completed work plan which can be assessed (Ellis, 2003).

What kind of activity is a task?

In 2007, Jane Willis and her husband Dave Willis came up with the following criteria in their book Doing Task-Based Teaching (pp. 12-14) which can be used to discern a task:

  • Will the activity engage learners’ interest?
  • Is there a primary focus on meaning?
  • Is there a goal or an outcome?
  • Is success judged in terms of the result?
  • Is completion a priority?
  • Does the activity relate to real-world activities?

If your answer is yes to all the questions, you can be sure that the classroom activity you have in mind is task-like.

Task-Based Learning and Task-Based Language Teaching

task based learning problem solving

TBL is an approach to teaching that was originally used by second or foreign-language teachers. It is an approach that stems from Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) – a language teacher methodology – which emerged in the 1970s.

Language teachers originally adopted Task-Based Learning for a variety of reasons with the most important being the desire to make their classrooms more student-centered, communicative, and collaborative by incorporating more interactive tasks.

Task-Based Learning (TBL) is also known as Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) and Task-Based Instruction (TBI). Its principal focus is on the completion of meaningful tasks. Such tasks can include creating a poster, producing a newsletter, video, or pamphlet, or designing a map of the school or neighborhood.

The Task Cycle > Task / Plan / Report

The TBL formula includes the following stages:

The teacher introduces the topic and gives students clear instructions and guidelines on what they will be doing during the three-part task cycle (below). This phase will give students a clear understanding of what will be expected of them and include any important knowledge or details they need to know.

This is also a good time to lead into the task by brainstorming or asking questions about the topic. Teachers can also get students ready for the task by presenting an example of the task or introducing a picture, audio, or video which will be useful in completing the task.

Students get ready to do the task. Students are given what they need to complete the task (handouts and written instructions) and are assigned to work in pairs or small groups while the teacher monitors and offers encouragement when necessary. The teacher’s role is typically limited to one of a coach, guide, and facilitator.

Students work on the task in pairs or small groups and prepare to report or present their results or product. They make important decisions about their presentation and assign each person in the group with a part of the task to present, so everyone takes responsibility during the report stage. The group rehearses its presentation. The teacher walks around, helps if needed, and takes notes on anything that needs to be addressed after the presentations.


Students present their findings to the class in the form of a presentation. The rest of the class listens to the reports and writes down feedback which will be given to the presenters after all reports have been heard. The class can also ask questions or provide some quick oral feedback after each presentation. The teacher also gives feedback on the content as well. Students vote on the best presentation, report, or product.

After presenting their completed task, others in the class can offer constructive feedback.

Several ways to do so include:

  • Two stars and a wish – two positive things about the presentation and one suggestion,
  • The 3, 2, 1, Formula – Three likes, Two suggestions, and One question.
  • Finally, feedback can be given based on things like the content of the presentation, use of visuals, eye contact, etc.

How to create your own TBL lesson

task based learning problem solving

Here is a template for creating your own Task-Based Learning lesson or activity:

  • Design a ……………………………………
  • Create a …………………………………….
  • Produce a …………………………………..
  • Task: What would you like your students to design, create, or produce?
  • Plan: What specific instructions will you give your students for doing this task and what guidelines should they follow during their planning stage?
  • Report/Present: What do you want your students to report or present and how much time will you give them to explain or present their ideas?

There are many different TBL interpretations so don’t hesitate to make it your own.

An example of Task-Based Learning Activity

Jane Willis (1996) came up with A Framework for Task-Based Learning that includes coming up with tasks that revolve around a certain topic. This can be very useful for teachers looking for task ideas to engage their students during a lesson.

See the example to follow:

Topic: Travel

  • Listing : List three reasons why people love to travel.
  • Ordering, Sorting, and Classifying : Put pictures of different travel destinations in order from the most desired to the least desired destination. Sort travel destinations from the northern to the southern hemisphere. Classify destinations by languages people speak.
  • Comparing or Matching: Compare different countries. Match people to their country of origin.
  • Problem Solving: Think of three low-budget travel destinations.
  • Creative Task : Create a travel poster or find out about different countries and become an expert on a country that you would like to travel to in the future.
  • Share Personal Experiences : Share stories about past travel destinations. Write a poem about your favorite place and share it with the class.

6 Advantages of Task-Based Learning

  • Students are at the center of learning.
  • Students are working on something that is personal and relevant to them.
  • Students gain practice in collaborating with others and making group decisions.
  • Students spend a lot of time communicating.
  • Students take on responsibility for engaged learning .
  • TBL is enjoyable , motivating, and a great place to start for teachers thinking about incorporating more Project Based Learning at their schools or classrooms.

task based learning problem solving

Task-Based Learning has many interpretations and you, the teacher, can adapt and make anything your own. Although TBL was originally developed with language teachers in mind, the core of every Task-Based Learning lesson, as the name suggests, is the task.

A Task-Based approach offers an alternative for teachers who are interested in creating a more student-centered environment in their classroom. In a task-based class, the lesson is based on the completion of a central task and its presentation.

TBL incorporates all 4C’s and is a great way to get students used to working on Project Based Learning (PBL) because it includes many of the same skills but, in a smaller, more digestible way.

Whereas PBL requires working on a project for an extended period, TBL can be done in one or two lessons and can be a good starting point for teaching students how to communicate, collaborate and work on presentations with others.

  • Willis D. and J. Willis (2007) Doing Task-based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Willis J. (1996) A Framework for Task-based Learning. Harlow: Longman Pearson Education

5 thoughts on “ Introduction to Task-Based Learning (TBL) ”

Hello, I do not use project-based learning techniques with my lessons. However, I have successfully used other methods and techniques.

Sheila Corwin

Hi Mehmet, TBL or Task Based Learning is a very small PBL and can be a good place to start for teachers who are interested in incorporating more communication, collaboration, creativity, and collaboration between students in their classrooms.

Yes, I think that collaborative method and game-based learning develop students’ creativity. Of course, we can say that these also contribute to many more mental development of children.

Thanks to Sheila i met in’Florence in January 2018, I use Willis´s model to set up TBL in class…it does work very well.

Now I am a teacher trainer and I teach them how to set up this pedagogical method in class.

So glad you’ve found this approach useful to you in both your own classroom and in your training of other teachers. By the way, I have very fond memories of you in my teacher training classroom, Chantal. =)

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task based learning problem solving

What Is Task-Based Learning? A Guide to the Popular Teaching Method

Johanna kawasaki.

  • April 6, 2021

task-based learning

As global language teachers who want to stay up to date with recent developments in education (and also stay competitive when it comes to getting that dream job), we have to constantly evolve as educators and include modern ways of teaching in our lesson planning and our teaching methods. One such method that all ESL teachers should know about is task-based learning (TBL), also referred to as task-based language teaching. What is task-based learning? Read on if you’re interested in learning about this rewarding and fun teaching method!

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate . You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

Why is task-based learning important?

  • During task-based learning, students solve tasks that are relevant and interesting to them. In order to solve the task, they need to use the target language they’re learning to communicate with their peers. They use authentic language instead of answering grammar or vocabulary questions about the language. Students — especially younger learners — don’t actually feel that they’re studying a language at that moment because they’re engrossed in the task they’re working on.
  • Task-based learning is especially conducive to group learning. Learning a language as a group is also a very important contributor to effective retention. Collaborating with others and becoming confident with the language within a group is a key step in acquiring that language. Also, receiving positive feedback from peers and teachers increases confidence and motivation to learn and to communicate with others.
  • Students’ understanding of the language also deepens because the realistic context in which they’re learning the language is relevant to their personal lives. It’s a good idea to ask your students about their hobbies and preferences at the beginning of a course so that you can include their interests in the tasks you set.
  • In addition to the benefits for students, solid knowledge of this method will also increase your job prospects as a teacher. Some job ads specifically ask for task-based language teaching experience!

A Bridge grad teaching English to young learners in Turkey

What is the task-based method?

The task-based teaching approach is one of many modern ESL teaching methods and focuses on setting a goal for students — this could be a report, a video, or a presentation — and then following three main steps to achieve that goal.

1. The pre-task

During this stage, which can take up a whole lesson if needed, the teacher introduces the task to the students and gets them motivated to solve it. Once everyone is engaged, the teacher should explain what is expected for the task.

Verbal explanations can be supported by an example from the teacher or by showing a previous student’s work. The teacher can then give further instructions if needed and offer advice on how to approach the task.

2. The task

This is the main stage of task-based learning, where students start working on the task, usually in groups or pairs. This stage is done in the target language so that students feel the need to use the language they want to learn in order to solve the task.

The teacher doesn’t usually join in the work process. Instead, he or she will monitor the students and offer hints if students really need support.

Find out about teaching English online to groups.

3. The review (or post-task)

Once the students have completed the task and have something to present, the review stage, also known as the post-task, starts.

It’s a good idea to let students evaluate each other’s work and only offer a teacher review of frequently-made errors during the task. Peer correction could be carried out in the form of comments, feedback discussions, or a checklist with additional room for free commentary.

The review stage offers students the opportunity to reflect on their work and analyze it in order to improve their skills for the future.

BFITS Thailand teacher with a class of students

What is a task (vs. an activity)?

Task-based learning uses a lesson structure that incorporates different activities to solve a task. The task can span the length of an entire lesson or, if it’s project-based learning, it can take up several lessons to complete.

Essentially, the task is the big-picture assignment that students are trying to complete or solve, and the activities are the individual steps or exercises they take to achieve the task.

Examples of tasks include:

  • Creating a presentation
  • Making a video or short movie
  • Writing a piece of text, such as a newsletter article
  • Acting out a skit
  • Creating an original game that includes writing down the game rules, playing the game, and evaluating the game
  • Working out the solution to a practical problem, such as planning an upcoming trip or gathering missing information, like working out who started a rumor at school
  • Participating in a group debate or discussion, like arguing for a favorite competitor in a TV show

You can develop some great tasks using these fun ESL games and activities for young learners and teens.

What is a task-based activity?

A task-based activity is a procedure in which students have to use the target language in order to achieve a specific outcome. The best TBL activities reflect real-life situations, so the students can see that the lesson is relevant to their own lives.

One of the main task-based learning advantages is that the activities allow students to use the language they know freely and exploratively as long as they are able to complete the overall task. Error correction can be done at the end of the lesson if necessary but not during the activity, so you encourage fluency and motivate students to use the language.

Learn more about correcting students’ mistakes with the Micro-credential Course in Error Correction in the EFL Classroom.

An example of a task-based activity could be to have each student draw a comic picture and explain the content and the inspiration behind it to the group. They then have to collaborate to put together a comic strip that includes each student’s picture, which is the main task (to create an original comic strip).

  • You can also use task-based language teaching and task-based activities in the online classroom. You can have students submit their work and you can share the results with the group. Then, everyone can work together on the main task that you previously set.

Learn more about creating materials for the EFL classroom!

Jhonny teaching origami online through a video camera

How can you apply a task-based approach to your teaching?

As an English teacher, you will not get around the “boring stuff,” such as grammar drills and vocabulary work. You also have to keep in mind that your students need to practice all four skills: writing, reading, speaking, and listening.

However, keeping the drills and language exercises to a necessary minimum and including more task-based learning in your curriculum can help students use the target language immediately and retain words and grammar points more effectively.

Here are two examples of task-based lesson plans:

In the physical classroom (with a group of 10-15 teenagers)

  • Greeting and warm-up: While the students are settling in, you can play a song that’s popular among your students. You can let them sing along if they know the song well!
  • Assign the task and give instructions: “Create your own music video in groups of 4-5 students using a song of your choice. Everybody has to have a role, from managing the camera to coming up with choreography to performing in the video. You have this lesson for planning and the next lesson for filming. We will watch all of the videos in the third lesson and give feedback to each other.”
  • Do the task: Let students gather in groups and start planning their video. Monitor their language and teamwork, and take notes. Make sure that everybody is engaged and involved and that there are no students who are just standing by.
  • Review: Before the lesson ends, give brief and motivating feedback to the students, and praise them for their efforts and their use of the language. Remind the students to be ready to start filming during the next lesson.

In the online classroom (with around 5 young learners)

  • Greeting and warm-up: Call out each student’s name and show each of them a card with a different word on it. It could be “dog,” “play,” “boy,” “girl,” “sunny,” etc. Have each student read their word out loud.
  • Assign the task and give instructions: “Create a short story that includes all of the words I gave you just now. You can decide the order of the words and how you use them in your story. You can add as many words and plot twists as you like. Each student has to contribute at least one sentence. Please start.”
  • Do the task: Watch the students on camera and take notes. If communication between them comes to a standstill, you can provide some support by asking questions, such as “What do you think could happen next?” or “Who can come up with the next idea?” or “Who wants to include their word next?” Your support should encourage the students to participate without giving them an idea straight away. Finally, have the students write down the story that they created. They can then take turns reading it out loud, one sentence at a time.
  • Review: Praise your students for their effort and teamwork, and applaud their story. Let the students have time for self-reflection and respond to questions such as “What did you do especially well today?” or “What would you like to improve for next time?”

If you’re not comfortable with task-based language teaching just yet, don’t let that discourage you. You can envision using this teaching method as your personal task. Set yourself a goal, try TBL out in your next lesson, and review your class afterward to reflect on what to improve and what went well!

In a teaching pinch? Try one of these last-minute ESL lesson plans that can be adapted to any class!

task based learning problem solving

After backpacking Australia on a Working Holiday visa, Bridge graduate Johanna traveled to Japan for a year to teach English. She then moved to New Zealand for another two years before returning to her chosen home country, Japan, where she currently lives. Now, with more than eight years of professional English teaching experience, Johanna enjoys her expat life in Japan teaching teenagers at a private junior and senior high school, where she recently received tenure after only two years. When she’s not teaching, Johanna continues to travel regionally and explore new places.

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Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

What is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)? PBL is a student-centered approach to learning that involves groups of students working to solve a real-world problem, quite different from the direct teaching method of a teacher presenting facts and concepts about a specific subject to a classroom of students. Through PBL, students not only strengthen their teamwork, communication, and research skills, but they also sharpen their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities essential for life-long learning.

See also: Just-in-Time Teaching

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

In implementing PBL, the teaching role shifts from that of the more traditional model that follows a linear, sequential pattern where the teacher presents relevant material, informs the class what needs to be done, and provides details and information for students to apply their knowledge to a given problem. With PBL, the teacher acts as a facilitator; the learning is student-driven with the aim of solving the given problem (note: the problem is established at the onset of learning opposed to being presented last in the traditional model). Also, the assignments vary in length from relatively short to an entire semester with daily instructional time structured for group work.


By working with PBL, students will:

  • Become engaged with open-ended situations that assimilate the world of work
  • Participate in groups to pinpoint what is known/ not known and the methods of finding information to help solve the given problem.
  • Investigate a problem; through critical thinking and problem solving, brainstorm a list of unique solutions.
  • Analyze the situation to see if the real problem is framed or if there are other problems that need to be solved.

How to Begin PBL

  • Establish the learning outcomes (i.e., what is it that you want your students to really learn and to be able to do after completing the learning project).
  • Find a real-world problem that is relevant to the students; often the problems are ones that students may encounter in their own life or future career.
  • Discuss pertinent rules for working in groups to maximize learning success.
  • Practice group processes: listening, involving others, assessing their work/peers.
  • Explore different roles for students to accomplish the work that needs to be done and/or to see the problem from various perspectives depending on the problem (e.g., for a problem about pollution, different roles may be a mayor, business owner, parent, child, neighboring city government officials, etc.).
  • Determine how the project will be evaluated and assessed. Most likely, both self-assessment and peer-assessment will factor into the assignment grade.

Designing Classroom Instruction

See also: Inclusive Teaching Strategies

  • Take the curriculum and divide it into various units. Decide on the types of problems that your students will solve. These will be your objectives.
  • Determine the specific problems that most likely have several answers; consider student interest.
  • Arrange appropriate resources available to students; utilize other teaching personnel to support students where needed (e.g., media specialists to orientate students to electronic references).
  • Decide on presentation formats to communicate learning (e.g., individual paper, group PowerPoint, an online blog, etc.) and appropriate grading mechanisms (e.g., rubric).
  • Decide how to incorporate group participation (e.g., what percent, possible peer evaluation, etc.).

How to Orchestrate a PBL Activity

  • Explain Problem-Based Learning to students: its rationale, daily instruction, class expectations, grading.
  • Serve as a model and resource to the PBL process; work in-tandem through the first problem
  • Help students secure various resources when needed.
  • Supply ample class time for collaborative group work.
  • Give feedback to each group after they share via the established format; critique the solution in quality and thoroughness. Reinforce to the students that the prior thinking and reasoning process in addition to the solution are important as well.

Teacher’s Role in PBL

See also: Flipped teaching

As previously mentioned, the teacher determines a problem that is interesting, relevant, and novel for the students. It also must be multi-faceted enough to engage students in doing research and finding several solutions. The problems stem from the unit curriculum and reflect possible use in future work situations.

  • Determine a problem aligned with the course and your students. The problem needs to be demanding enough that the students most likely cannot solve it on their own. It also needs to teach them new skills. When sharing the problem with students, state it in a narrative complete with pertinent background information without excessive information. Allow the students to find out more details as they work on the problem.
  • Place students in groups, well-mixed in diversity and skill levels, to strengthen the groups. Help students work successfully. One way is to have the students take on various roles in the group process after they self-assess their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Support the students with understanding the content on a deeper level and in ways to best orchestrate the various stages of the problem-solving process.

The Role of the Students

See also: ADDIE model

The students work collaboratively on all facets of the problem to determine the best possible solution.

  • Analyze the problem and the issues it presents. Break the problem down into various parts. Continue to read, discuss, and think about the problem.
  • Construct a list of what is known about the problem. What do your fellow students know about the problem? Do they have any experiences related to the problem? Discuss the contributions expected from the team members. What are their strengths and weaknesses? Follow the rules of brainstorming (i.e., accept all answers without passing judgment) to generate possible solutions for the problem.
  • Get agreement from the team members regarding the problem statement.
  • Put the problem statement in written form.
  • Solicit feedback from the teacher.
  • Be open to changing the written statement based on any new learning that is found or feedback provided.
  • Generate a list of possible solutions. Include relevant thoughts, ideas, and educated guesses as well as causes and possible ways to solve it. Then rank the solutions and select the solution that your group is most likely to perceive as the best in terms of meeting success.
  • Include what needs to be known and done to solve the identified problems.
  • Prioritize the various action steps.
  • Consider how the steps impact the possible solutions.
  • See if the group is in agreement with the timeline; if not, decide how to reach agreement.
  • What resources are available to help (e.g., textbooks, primary/secondary sources, Internet).
  • Determine research assignments per team members.
  • Establish due dates.
  • Determine how your group will present the problem solution and also identify the audience. Usually, in PBL, each group presents their solutions via a team presentation either to the class of other students or to those who are related to the problem.
  • Both the process and the results of the learning activity need to be covered. Include the following: problem statement, questions, data gathered, data analysis, reasons for the solution(s) and/or any recommendations reflective of the data analysis.
  • A well-stated problem and conclusion.
  • The process undertaken by the group in solving the problem, the various options discussed, and the resources used.
  • Your solution’s supporting documents, guests, interviews and their purpose to be convincing to your audience.
  • In addition, be prepared for any audience comments and questions. Determine who will respond and if your team doesn’t know the answer, admit this and be open to looking into the question at a later date.
  • Reflective thinking and transfer of knowledge are important components of PBL. This helps the students be more cognizant of their own learning and teaches them how to ask appropriate questions to address problems that need to be solved. It is important to look at both the individual student and the group effort/delivery throughout the entire process. From here, you can better determine what was learned and how to improve. The students should be asked how they can apply what was learned to a different situation, to their own lives, and to other course projects.

See also: Kirkpatrick Model: Four Levels of Learning Evaluation

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I am a professor of Educational Technology. I have worked at several elite universities. I hold a PhD degree from the University of Illinois and a master's degree from Purdue University.

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  • Professional development
  • Knowing the subject
  • A Task-based approach

In recent years a debate has developed over which approaches to structuring and planning and implementing lessons are more effective. This article presents an overview of a task-based learning approach (TBL) and highlights its advantages over the more traditional Present, Practice, Produce (PPP) approach.

A Task-based approach - methodology article

This article also links to the following activity. Try - Speaking activities - Task-based speaking - planning a night out

  • Present Practice Produce
  • The problems with PPP
  • The advantages of TBL

Present Practice Produce (PPP) During an initial teacher training course, most teachers become familiar with the PPP paradigm. A PPP lesson would proceed in the following manner.

  • First, the teacher presents an item of language in a clear context to get across its meaning. This could be done in a variety of ways: through a text, a situation build, a dialogue etc.
  • Students are then asked to complete a controlled practice stage , where they may have to repeat target items through choral and individual drilling, fill gaps or match halves of sentences. All of this practice demands that the student uses the language correctly and helps them to become more comfortable with it.
  • Finally, they move on to the production stage, sometimes called the 'free practice' stage. Students are given a communication task such as a role play and are expected to produce the target language and use any other language that has already been learnt and is suitable for completing it.

The problems with PPP It all sounds quite logical but teachers who use this method will soon identify problems with it:

  • Students can give the impression that they are comfortable with the new language as they are producing it accurately in the class. Often though a few lessons later, students will either not be able to produce the language correctly or even won't produce it at all.
  • Students will often produce the language but overuse the target structure so that it sounds completely unnatural.
  • Students may not produce the target language during the free practice stage because they find they are able to use existing language resources to complete the task.

A Task-based approach Task -based learning offers an alternative for language teachers. In a task-based lesson the teacher doesn't pre-determine what language will be studied, the lesson is based around the completion of a central task and the language studied is determined by what happens as the students complete it. The lesson follows certain stages.

Pre-task The teacher introduces the topic and gives the students clear instructions on what they will have to do at the task stage and might help the students to recall some language that may be useful for the task. The pre-task stage can also often include playing a recording of people doing the task. This gives the students a clear model of what will be expected of them. The students can take notes and spend time preparing for the task.

Task The students complete a task in pairs or groups using the language resources that they have as the teacher monitors and offers encouragement.

Planning Students prepare a short oral or written report to tell the class what happened during their task. They then practise what they are going to say in their groups. Meanwhile the teacher is available for the students to ask for advice to clear up any language questions they may have.

Report Students then report back to the class orally or read the written report. The teacher chooses the order of when students will present their reports and may give the students some quick feedback on the content. At this stage the teacher may also play a recording of others doing the same task for the students to compare. Analysis The teacher then highlights relevant parts from the text of the recording for the students to analyse. They may ask students to notice interesting features within this text. The teacher can also highlight the language that the students used during the report phase for analysis.

Practice Finally, the teacher selects language areas to practise based upon the needs of the students and what emerged from the task and report phases. The students then do practice activities to increase their confidence and make a note of useful language.

The advantages of TBL Task-based learning has some clear advantages

  • Unlike a PPP approach, the students are free of language control. In all three stages they must use all their language resources rather than just practising one pre-selected item.
  • A natural context is developed from the students' experiences with the language that is personalised and relevant to them. With PPP it is necessary to create contexts in which to present the language and sometimes they can be very unnatural.
  • The students will have a much more varied exposure to language with TBL. They will be exposed to a whole range of lexical phrases, collocations and patterns as well as language forms.
  • The language explored arises from the students' needs. This need dictates what will be covered in the lesson rather than a decision made by the teacher or the coursebook.
  • It is a strong communicative approach where students spend a lot of time communicating. PPP lessons seem very teacher-centred by comparison. Just watch how much time the students spend communicating during a task-based lesson.
  • It is enjoyable and motivating.

Conclusion PPP offers a very simplified approach to language learning. It is based upon the idea that you can present language in neat little blocks, adding from one lesson to the next. However, research shows us that we cannot predict or guarantee what the students will learn and that ultimately a wide exposure to language is the best way of ensuring that students will acquire it effectively. Restricting their experience to single pieces of target language is unnatural.

For more information see 'A Framework for Task-Based Learning' by Jane Wills, Longman; 'Doing Task-Based Teaching' by Dave and Jane Willis, OUP 2007. Also see www.willis-elt.co.uk

Richard Frost, British Council, Turkey


PPP can be a more structured technique on planning a lesson than TBL. TBL can result in time consuming.

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I personally consider that task-based learning can be more effective than the PPP model. However, my main question is: In TBL, at which stage do teachers teach grammar? In my opinion, grammar is an essential part of any target language.

TBL and grammar

In TBL there is no pre-determined "language focus" - but that doesn't mean that teachers don't teach any grammar. The grammar taught will depend on what language comes out of the task - for example, if the students make lots of mistakes with the future tenses when doing a task around planning a trip, the teacher would focus on that grammar at the most appropriate time for the students.

TeachingEnglish team

Grammar in PBL

If the lesson´s objective is not a grammatical structure, grammar is seen as a means to improve communication in real life situations. Grammatical focus is not longer a method to lead to communicative competence.

what is the different of TASK-BASED teaching and ACTIVITY-BASED teaching? KIND REGARDS Khanh Nguyen Nam

TB approach

A task-based approach means that there is no pre-determined language aim, whereas activities will usually be designed to practice a particular language point, like in a PPP lesson described above. An activity and a task can be similar though.

Hope that helps,

As for me, it is better to use TBL when students have some basic knowledge. For primary teaching PPP is not bad.

One observation

Tbl/tbi and motivation, these are not mutually exclusive, some background reading on tbll, a task based approach..

This is a good approach but it is not posssible to show a recorded activity in all the classes.It is not possible unadvanced countries like India.It may be possible in some corporate schools.

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  • Establishing Community Agreements and Classroom Norms
  • Sample group work rubric
  • Problem-Based Learning Clearinghouse of Activities, University of Delaware

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning  (PBL) is a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem. This problem is what drives the motivation and the learning. 

Why Use Problem-Based Learning?

Nilson (2010) lists the following learning outcomes that are associated with PBL. A well-designed PBL project provides students with the opportunity to develop skills related to:

  • Working in teams.
  • Managing projects and holding leadership roles.
  • Oral and written communication.
  • Self-awareness and evaluation of group processes.
  • Working independently.
  • Critical thinking and analysis.
  • Explaining concepts.
  • Self-directed learning.
  • Applying course content to real-world examples.
  • Researching and information literacy.
  • Problem solving across disciplines.

Considerations for Using Problem-Based Learning

Rather than teaching relevant material and subsequently having students apply the knowledge to solve problems, the problem is presented first. PBL assignments can be short, or they can be more involved and take a whole semester. PBL is often group-oriented, so it is beneficial to set aside classroom time to prepare students to   work in groups  and to allow them to engage in their PBL project.

Students generally must:

  • Examine and define the problem.
  • Explore what they already know about underlying issues related to it.
  • Determine what they need to learn and where they can acquire the information and tools necessary to solve the problem.
  • Evaluate possible ways to solve the problem.
  • Solve the problem.
  • Report on their findings.

Getting Started with Problem-Based Learning

  • Articulate the learning outcomes of the project. What do you want students to know or be able to do as a result of participating in the assignment?
  • Create the problem. Ideally, this will be a real-world situation that resembles something students may encounter in their future careers or lives. Cases are often the basis of PBL activities. Previously developed PBL activities can be found online through the University of Delaware’s PBL Clearinghouse of Activities .
  • Establish ground rules at the beginning to prepare students to work effectively in groups.
  • Introduce students to group processes and do some warm up exercises to allow them to practice assessing both their own work and that of their peers.
  • Consider having students take on different roles or divide up the work up amongst themselves. Alternatively, the project might require students to assume various perspectives, such as those of government officials, local business owners, etc.
  • Establish how you will evaluate and assess the assignment. Consider making the self and peer assessments a part of the assignment grade.

Nilson, L. B. (2010).  Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors  (2nd ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

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8 Task-based Language Teaching Activities

Do you like to solve problems? Complete a puzzle?

Miss the days when you’d dump a big pile of Legos on the floor, figure out which pieces go with which and put them all together?

Do you see language learning as a riddle, an enigma, a challenge that you have to find a way to unravel and put back together again in order to make it useful and meaningful ?

Do your students ?

If so, you should try task-based teaching activities in your language classroom!

Why Use Task-based Teaching?

What is task-based teaching, what are the steps for a successful task-based teaching activity, 8 favorite task-based activities, 1. road trip, 2. the business mixer, 3. first day of class, 4. the farewell party, 5. department of tourism, 6. scavenger hunt, 7. the interview, 8. show and tell.

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

In task-based teaching, the center of the learning process moves to the students themselves and allows them to come to the realization that language is a tool to tackle and (re)solve real-world problems.

The process of task-based learning itself teaches important skills. Students learn:

  • How to ask questions
  • How to negotiate meaning
  • How to interact in and work within groups. Within this group work, they are able to observe different approaches to problem-solving as well as to learn how others think and make decisions.

These are all skills that our students will need in order to be successful in the real world, regardless of which language(s) they use there.

In addition, task-based teaching provides students with the linguistic components they will need to accomplish these real-world tasks. These include:

  • How to introduce themselves
  • How to talk about themselves, their families, their interests, their likes and dislikes, their needs, etc. in the right socio-cultural context.

By moving the focus away from mechanical drills—although such drills do still have their place even today in language teaching, especially when teaching highly inflected languages—task-based teaching focuses on communication and interaction, using appropriate language at the correct time.

Task-based language teaching is a student-centered approach to second language instruction. It is an offshoot of the communicative approach , wherein activities focus on having students use authentic target language in order to complete meaningful tasks, i.e. situations they might encounter in the real world and other project-based assignments.

These projects could include visiting the doctor, making a phone call, conducting an interview in order to find answers to specific questions or gathering information to make a poster or advertisement.

In task-based teaching the focus is not on grammar, but rather on helping students develop linguistic strategies for completing the assigned tasks within the constraints of what they know of the target language. Because the emphasis is on spontaneous, creative language use, whether spoken or written, rather than on absolute accuracy, assessment is based on task outcome.

Before even stepping into the classroom and using a task-based activity, it is important to have a firm objective in mind: Why are you using this activity?

What steps do you need to take there in order for your students to succeed?

1. Start with a pre-task activity. This stage starts with the instructor explaining to her students what will be expected in the task cycle and post-task review stages. This is very much in line with the PPP ( p resentation, p ractice, p erformance) approach to instructional design.

  • In a lower-level class , it will likely include an introduction or review of key vocabulary or grammatical concepts the students will need to accomplish the assigned task.
  • In a higher-level class , where the grammar and vocabulary have already been introduced, the students might be asked to brainstorm as to what language and linguistic features they would expect to need in order to complete the task successfully.

2. Follow the actual task cycle.

In this stage, the students complete the task either in pairs or small groups. The instructor is generally reduced to the role of observer, stepping in only when the students seem to be going too far astray from the assignment at hand.

3. Classroom work ends with the post-task review.

This is where the students present their work in some fashion. They might:

  • Report their findings to the class as a whole.
  • Perform a dialog or skit.
  • Share their written story or video or poster with their classmates.

Depending on your goals and the time available, you can ask your students to perform some type of peer assessment at this point. This also assures you that your students pay attention to the presentations of their classmates!

4. Give a relevant homework assignment.

Unless the activity is the culmination of a unit, chapter or class, you will likely need to come up with an appropriate homework assignment and a logical follow-up to the activity just completed in class. This too can take a number of forms. Your students could:

  • Write an essay based on their in-class work.
  • Write a reflective piece, a self-critique about what they accomplished and learned.
  • Write an assessment of the others in their group, of the other groups or of the project as a useful learning mechanism.
  • Turn in their own version of the project, as they would have done it if they could have worked independently, explaining why they would have done things differently had they had the opportunity.

With some theoretical background and those practical steps in mind, let’s look at some task-based activities you might want to use in your language classroom.

For this task-based language teaching activity, you should have enough maps for each group in your class.

  • At the beginning of the class, you should ask each group what information they need from you in order to plan the perfect trip. This might include the number of days you wish to travel, your budget and what you like to do while on the road or in your free time.
  • Once your students have this information, set them loose with their maps and give them time to plan!
  • When they are done, have them present their trip to the entire class. Students can decide to include pictures or authentic videos to showcase their trip , such as those found on FluentU.

FluentU allows students to watch a curated library of authentic English videos, that are paired with interactive dual-language subtitles that they can click on if they don’t know a word and want to see a context-specific definition.

Your class, as a whole, can now vote on which trip you are going to take!

What about homework? Depending on the level of the students, there are a couple of options:

  • If it is a lower-level class , they could write a short postcard home, telling some key points of one day of the trip.
  • If it is a more advanced level class , they could write two or three days’ journal entries , similar to a postcard, but more detailed and, of course, using more language skills.

If you have a class of college students or professionals, they will have to assessment Why not help prepare them for this by doing a simulation activity in the target language?

For this activity, you will need to prepare in advance a number of cards that will tell students:

  • The name of their company
  • The product they sell or represent
  • Some basic information about the company they work for
  • What they are looking for. You should be sure that each card has at least one match for point (4). You do not want to set your students up for failure.

Before starting, you should ensure that all students know what a mixer or networking activity is and what it entails.

For the activity itself:

  • Students will walk around the room introducing themselves and engaging in some small talk, before discussing what it is they do and what they are looking for in a business deal or partner.
  • They should move from person to person until they have found the perfect match! If they find their match before everyone else, they can continue to engage in small talk with others until everyone has found their match.
  • At the end of the activity, they should return to their perfect pair, and each can explain why it is that they are the match for that person.

For homework, as in real life, your students can follow up with a brief handwritten note or short email message thanking their partner for their time and reiterating their interest in working together.

How do you spend the first day of class?

The odds are pretty good that your students are in your class in order to learn how to speak and that they will want as many opportunities to speak as they can find. This task can help with that!

  • Start that first day of class with a game of 20 Questions , but with some modifications. Namely, instead of using the game to guess the identity of a famous person, ask your students, first in groups and then as a whole, to come up with 20 questions.
  • Once you have agreed on a list of questions, send your students back into their groups to put these questions into a logical order. Come back together again and agree upon an order.
  • At this point, each student should pair up with another student, preferably one from a different group. They should ask each other the questions, making note of the answers.
  • After your students have done this, they should then take their schedules and compare them with that of another student or students whom they might find interesting to converse with.
  • The final step in this exercise is for the students to determine whether they have compatible schedules or not, and, if so, agree upon a time to meet for weekly or twice-monthly conversation.

For this particular activity, you don’t need a specific homework assignment because the follow-up activity will be the actual conversations in which the students engage.

Everyone sees friends move away at some point in their life. Maybe when that happened to you, you planned a farewell party for them. Why not turn this into a task-based activity for your classroom?

Before class, you will need to make a shopping list and a separate stack of cards. On them will be the foods and drinks that appear on that list. Each student will get a list and a card .

The lists could be in the first language or in the target language, depending on what type of class you are teaching. The cards should be in the target language.

  • The first task for your students is to go around and identify, in the target language, who is bringing what to the party.
  • Once you have been assured that everyone has done this step correctly, you can divide the class into small groups and start the second stage: planning the actual party!
  • For this task, you will need to assign your students a number of questions to resolve: They will need to decide when is the best time for the party, what they will do at the party, what food to bring, etc. At the end, each group will present its party plan and everyone will decide who has planned the best party.

What about homework? One idea is for each student to take on the role of the friend who is leaving and, the day after the party and before leaving town, write a thank you note to his or her fellow students, thanking them for the party.

Many students who are studying a second language are doing so because they are either living in the country where that language is spoken or they want to visit that country . We can make a task-based activity that will prepare them for the latter!

  • Ask your students to brainstorm what they remember seeing either in print or on TV when a travel destination is advertised. What stuck out in their minds? What made them want to go there? If they went there, what did they do while they were there?
  • Now have them think of a place in a country where the target language is spoken that they might like to visit. What is it about that place that draws them to it? What do they think of when they think of that place?
  • Now you can create small groups. Each small group should decide where they would like to travel, if that has not already been determined, and what they would use in a poster campaign to advertise that locale based on what they know about the place.
  • The students will then design their own poster campaigns, complete with words and images, which they will then bring to the next class and present to their classmates as part of a tourism initiative.
  • As with other activities here, the students can vote on the best poster campaign.

Homework? Have your students write a letter to their parents asking for permission to go to the winning locale over Spring Break, being sure to explain why they want to go there, what they will do there and how, of course, being there will help their language to improve!

Think of the Scavenger Hunt as one big task composed of many smaller tasks.

For example, you can divide the class into two or three groups and instruct them to find “Golden Keys” (or any object of your choice) around campus. Each key opens a box that contains a mini-task. The group that completes all tasks first will be declared the winner and given an awesome bounty or reward of your choice.

Unlike previous examples of tasks that require days of practice and longer periods of preparation, the tasks involved here can be completed on the spot. For example, you can give tasks like:

  • Arrange the written numbers from smallest to largest.
  • Identify the person described in a paragraph of the target language.
  • Bring a red, round object or a brown, square one.
  • Bring an object that matches the adjective.
  • Translate three sentences correctly.

This task should be done in pairs. One student will serve as the host or interviewer, the other will be the celebrity guest.

This can be done impromptu for advanced classes, but for beginners, you can give a day or two of prep where the students rehearse their Q&A. You can add spice to the task by giving key questions that the host should ask the guest. Questions like:

  • Who do you like in class?
  • Which Hollywood actor do you think you look like?
  • If a genie grants you three wishes, what will be your first wish?

This task should be done individually and in front of the class. It will require some days of practice.

Ask students to share something personal about themselves. Popular choices would be:

  • “My Typical Day”
  • “My Ideal Mate”
  • “My Hobbies”
  • “My Pet Peeves”
  • “The Biggest Regret of My Life”
  • “The Happiest Day of My Life”
  • “The Real Reason I Want to Learn German/Italian/French/Spanish”
  • “Three Things You Don’t Know About Me”

The speech should be done in the target language, of course.

I hope you enjoyed these task-based foreign language activities and find them useful in your teaching!

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Problem-Based Tasks in Math

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Providing students with opportunities to grapple with math has led to amazing things happening in my class. Students are totally excited and are driven to figure out not just how to solve a problem but why it works.

– Jessica Proffitt, Fifth-Grade Teacher at Two Rivers

Watch two rivers’s teachers and students at work on problem-based tasks in math.

Problem-Based Tasks Require Students to Apply Their Knowledge in New Contexts

Problem-based tasks are math lessons built around a single, compelling problem. The problems are truly “problematic” for students — that is, they do not offer an immediate solution.

The problems provide an opportunity for students to build conceptual understanding. Problem-based tasks require students to apply their current understanding and skills to new contexts that highlight core math concepts. For example, when students solve a problem that could be solved with multiplication before they have formally been taught what multiplication is and how it works, they build an understanding that multiplication is repeated addition.

Well-designed problem-based tasks provide multiple entry points for students to engage in problem solving, ensuring that all students have access to the same concepts. When students solve the problems in different ways—including drawing pictures, acting out the problem, writing algorithms, and using manipulatives—they make connections between the variety of models that all accurately illustrate the underlying mathematics.

Problem-Based Tasks in Math Resources

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Concourse 2

Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT)


The usual name for this approach to teaching language is Task-based Learning (TBL) but you will also find it called Task-based Language Learning (TBLL), Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT) or Task-based Instruction (TBI).  Here we will refer throughout to TBLT.

The usual primary source is the work of N Prabhu (1987) who developed a theory of TBLT while working in Bangalore, India. This approach is based on his idea (or realisation) that learners of English (or any language for that matter) can just as well learn the language by focusing on non-language-based tasks as they can when explicitly being taught the structures and functions of the language.  Hence the name, although Prabhu generally refers to what he calls a procedural syllabus (i.e., one based on doing things rather than overtly learning things). The approach grew out of a frustration with the usual form of syllabus (a list of functions and/or structures to learn) and its replacement with a syllabus which consisted of tasks to achieve in the language, such as finding out travel times and options and solving other everyday problems.

Task-based language learning rests on three assumptions (which are common to all Communicative Language Teaching):

  • Real, meaningful communication is essential for language learning if the aim is to improve communicative competence
  • Using the language to do tasks aids learning and memorisation of language patterns and functions
  • The language used in the classroom needs to be meaningful to the people using it

The fourth, often unspoken, assumption is that the achievement of a task in a foreign language is, in itself, a motivating aim and motivation is often seen as a critical component of successful language learning or acquisition.

The following is a brief run-down of the major characteristics of a TBLT approach.  It should be noted now that among proponents of the approach there are quite marked differences of opinion concerning what are and are not the most important characteristics of TBLT.

The objective of the approach is set within with Communicative Language Teaching (of which TBL is sometimes considered a subset) and is primarily to improve communicative competence by getting learners to solve a task or set of problems by communicating together in the target language, refining their production and presenting their findings.

According to Ellis (2009: 223) a task has to satisfy 4 criteria to qualify as a task in this context:

  • The primary focus should be on ‘meaning’ (by which is meant that learners should be mainly concerned with processing the semantic and pragmatic meaning of utterances).
  • There should be some kind of ‘gap’ (i.e. a need to convey information, to express an opinion or to infer meaning).
  • Learners should largely have to rely on their own resources (linguistic and non-linguistic) in order to complete the activity.
  • There is a clearly defined outcome other than the use of language (i.e. the language serves as the means for achieving the outcome, not as an end in its own right).

Ellis goes on to note that traditional, language-based classroom tasks may satisfy the second and third of these criteria, insofar as information-gap exercises and the setting of a task at the beginning of a Test–Teach–Test approach to lesson design.  However, criteria 1 and 4 are exclusive to the taking of a TBLT approach.

We should be careful here to note the distinctive definition of a task in a TBLT context. While an activity which requires learners to, say, fill in gaps in a text with the correct preposition is undeniably a task in the generally accepted meaning of that word, within TBLT a task is distinguished by not being, overtly at least, a language-focused exercise but one which parallels or simulates a real-life task. We have, therefore, two types of task:

  • language tasks (which are common to many classrooms and occur within a range of methodologies) and
  • tasks whose accomplishment leads inevitably to the use of language in a real communicative setting

It is the latter definition which applies here.

A task need not be elaborate and it need not be the basis for a lengthy lesson or series of lessons.  Here are some examples of tasks:

  • Filling in an application form
  • Planning a day trip
  • Learning the rules of a card game and playing it
  • Calling a help line
  • Planning a new government and constitution
  • Planning ways to end war and ensure universal peace and harmony throughout the galaxy

None of these is a language task per se so we need to distinguish between what we commonly call tasks in the classroom such as vocabulary matching exercises and gap-fill texts which are overtly language based and tasks which are overtly non-linguistic.  TBL focuses on non-linguistic tasks.

Some critics of TBLT have pointed out that not all tasks are of the type which parallel the kinds of things learners will have to do in real life and that, therefore, they lack authenticity (tasks 5 and 6 above are obvious targets of this kind of criticism). There are, however, two types of authenticity:

  • Situational Authenticity refers to how realistic a task is in terms of its content and aims.  For example, few learners may ever need to cooperate in English to plan a day trip or play a card game, let alone plan a nation's constitution so, the criticism goes, TBLT often lacks authenticity.
  • Interactional authenticity refers to how realistic in terms of language use, the task is.  For example, if the task evinces a need to negotiate meaning with others, enquire and suggest etc., then it may be persuasively argued that TBLT is authentic in those terms.

It is, in some circumstances, for example, in the context of learning English for Academic purposes, possible to attain good levels of authenticity in both ways by setting tasks in which the outcomes will simulate real-life tasks that the learners will need to perform later in their studies as well as ensuring that the level of interactional authenticity is appropriate in terms of the generalised skills such learners will need to master, such as giving and responding to presentations, taking turns in seminars and researching prior to reporting findings etc.

Traditionally, tasks come in two types:

  • Closed tasks have single (or a predictable range of) right answers. For example, a task which requires learners to identify and categorise a set of items into, say, academic domains, will normally have only one correct answer, although some ambiguity may be built in, deliberately or otherwise.  Similarly, a task to summarise a lecture or the plot of a film will, while not wholly predictable, allow of only a small range of possible outcomes.
  • Open tasks are those for which no right answer or range of right answers can be provided in advance. For example, a task which requires people to canvass a range of opinions on a topic and present the findings to a group will not have outcomes that are predictable in advance and is a task which cannot be graded in terms of right or wrong solutions.

The picture is not so simple, of course, because some tasks may have facets which are closed and others which are open. For example, a task which requires learners to research leisure facilities within a 5-kilometre radius and then to plan a day out for their own families has elements of both sorts of task: the first closed, because the task-setter knows what is available; the second open, because the task-setter does not have access, presumably, to the characteristics of the learners' families or to how the learners may speculate on what they will enjoy or benefit from and cannot predict what will arise.

Often, the difference boils down to whether the learners are transactional (getting something identifiable done in the language) or interactional (talking about opinions, making social connections and so on). This will, naturally, lead to the need for very different language to be used.

This is important because as Nunan notes (1991:286):

In addition to the fact that the different task types stimulated different interactional patterns, the research also indicated that some task types might be more appropriate than others for learners at particular levels of proficiency. ... The important thing is that program planners and teachers should select a mix of tasks to reflect the pedagogic goals of the curriculum.

When it comes to designing tasks, then, the assumption is that you will have a clear idea of what sorts of language the learners need to learn and develop before you start.

Willis (1998) identifies the following and claims that any topic can form the basis of any of the task types:

Willis, and others, do not provide a very clear way of measuring the challenge level.  However, others do.  In particular, the work of Bloom and many others in the area of designing a taxonomy of educational objectives is influential and informative. Very briefly, the revised taxonomy measures the level of cognitive challenge as follows:

  • Level 1: remembering This involves simply the ability to recall a fact.  For example, that the past tense of undertake is undertook .  Making lists of things you have done this week, for example, falls into this category.
  • Level 2: understanding This involves some deeper thought to get to grips with a fact.  For example, that certain items or events have characteristics in common.  Comparison and matching tasks fall mostly into this category, for example, making lists of things which are work related and those which are purely leisure activities and those which are mixed in some way.
  • Level 3: applying This involves using knowledge and understanding to make a decision.  For example, knowing that a lion is a carnivorous animal, understanding what that means and applying it to being cautious in approaching the animal.  Classification tasks fall into this and the next category depending how demanding they are.
  • Level 4: analysing This requires the application of levels 1 to 3 and then going on to breaking things down into constituents to understand fully what is happening.  For example, knowing the needs and capacities of people, understanding what they entail, applying that knowledge to design of a building and then analysing the design to see how it matches.
  • Level 5: evaluating This involves using all the processes in levels 1 to 4 and judging how well, for example, a building's design meets the needs of the people who will live or work in it.  Identifying problems and issues falls into this category.
  • Level 6: creating This is the most demanding level of all because it requires the use of the previous 5 levels in order to synthesise data into a new and original work.  It is at this level that much TBLT is aimed but the error is often to start here and ignore the 5 previous levels of cognitive challenge.  Without first tackling those, it is arguable that a task will not be completed to anyone's satisfaction.  Creative tasks and extensive projects fall into this category.

For a more detailed consideration of Bloom's taxonomy and its various revisions, see the guide (new tab).

Pick a topic close to your heart and see if you can come up with a task in each of these categories.

There is some debate within TBLT circles, and beyond them, concerning the degree of focus which tasks may legitimately have. In a more traditional approach, the nature of tasks and the reasons for doing them in order to practise particular language items or subskills is made clear.  For example:

You are now going to practise turn-taking skills by debating an issue in groups of three.  Don't forget to signal how you give up your turn and how you show that you would like to take a turn.

Talk to your partner to plan a perfect holiday saying what you think you should include and saying why you think it's a good idea.  For example, "We should go to ... because it'll be a chance to ..." and so on.

These are what is sometimes called situational skill or grammar exercises inasmuch as the explicit focus is made clear to the learners and they know what it is, linguistically, they are supposed to do or practise. Another way to explain this, preferred by, e.g., Nunan (1991:282), is to distinguish between pedagogic tasks and real-life tasks (which attempt to simulate authenticity). In the former:

Learners are given a model of the target language behaviour, as well as specific practice in manipulating key language items.

It is claimed that within TBLT, tasks can be both focused, demanding the deployment of particular language items of subskills or unfocused, demanding only general communicative competence and practice. Of the examples above, it is arguable that retelling an anecdote is a task which is close to being a practice routine for spoken, informal narrative tenses and behavioural process verbs, place and time adjuncts etc. It is much less easy to predict or alert learners to the sorts of language they will need or skills they need to deploy in the more demanding tasks. Focused tasks are therefore included, providing they satisfy the four criteria stated by Ellis above if:

the target linguistic feature of a focused task is ‘hidden’ (i.e. learners are not told explicitly what the feature is). (Ellis, op cit.)

The difference is one of orientation.

  • In an unfocused or real-life TBLT task, the learners are focused on achieving the outcome and that is the central motivational feature and purpose for doing the task.
  • In a situational skill or grammar task (a pedagogic task), the learners are focused on the language or skill they need to use and the task's outcomes are peripheral to this.

There is something of a small controversy here because authorities differ on the ordering of a lesson procedure.  There are essentially two choices and which is suggested depends to a large extent on how pure the practice is intended to be.  A pure form of TBLT which presumes that simply doing tasks will lead to language acquisition with no overt teaching will exclude from the teaching-learning cycle any suggestion of explicit language teaching. There are, therefore, two approaches which can be taken although there will be variations within each:

  • In either procedure, the content of the stages is much the same.  The pre-task stage may include the learners being exposed to an example of how to tackle the task, especially if it is of the more complex, cognitively demanding sort.
  • In procedure 1, language is not the focus until after the task is complete which chimes better with the approach's spirit but forces the teacher to react very flexibly to the language which has emerged and become the lesson's targets.
  • In procedure 2, the teacher must be careful to plan the sorts of language presentation and their targets with regard to the exact nature of the task.  This is not a straightforward endeavour.
  • In both cases, the report stage can take many forms.  The report may be oral, digitally presented, in the form of a poster or booklet presentation or it may contain elements of all of these.
  • During the task-completion and report-planning stages, the teacher needs to be very active indeed, supplying needed language, intervening to smooth communication, micro-teaching and acting as a source of ideas and information.  The teacher should get out of the way in the report-presentation phase.
  • Evaluation occurs at the end of the task and is based on how well the task has been achieved, not the accuracy of the language employed to do it.


The final repetition phase can either be a repeat of the task, a task very similar to it but with a different topic or a task which builds on and develops the work done in the first (and any previous) task.

I suggest that naturalistically-biased approaches are, in important respects, pedagogically impoverished, favouring the development of what is already known at the expense of the efficient teaching of new language, and paying a heavy price for the ‘downgrading’ of the teacher.

TBL is undoubtedly very influential, especially in communicative language teaching approaches because of its clear fit with many of the tenets of CLT.  Few courses in this tradition lack any element of task-based learning and some courses depend almost entirely upon the approach. It should also be noted, however, that taking a TBL approach is different in terms of focus and complexity from just using tasks to practise what has been taught.  Handing out a worksheet task is not evidence that you are taking a task-based approach.

There has been some interest in the adaptation for English Language Teaching of a teaching procedure developed in the 1960s and after for the teaching of medicine.  The idea then mutated and was carried over into other science-based realms including engineering, architecture, chemistry, biology and more and from there into the humanities. This summary appears here because the approach bears striking resemblances to Task-Based Learning and may be considered part of it in many respects (at least as far as ELT is concerned). The procedure is based on the identification of a problem, real or imagined, which is presented to the learners as a group.  Then:

  • The learners elect or dragoon a member to be the chair of the group and another to be its scribe.  These roles may rotate around the group members at each session.
  • The learners bring to bear as much of what they already know as is appropriate on the problem and suggest / brainstorm areas to research.
  • The scribe lists these areas and the tasks are distributed to the group members.
  • Individually or collaboratively, the learners carry out the research they need to seek a solution to the problem (which in the original form was, of course, a patient presenting with certain symptoms or another medical problem).
  • The learners return to the group and present their findings which are discussed with a tutor present in a seminar to check for accuracy and errors.
  • Further research aims are identified and the process repeats until the group is satisfied that it has reached a reasonable conclusion and solution (if there is one) to the problem with which it was presented.
  • The group presents its findings to the tutor and receives feedback (and grading possibly).

The claims which are made for this approach are:

  • It encourages collaborative learning and responses to problems which is one goal of the training of doctors.
  • It encourages and trains learners in autonomous research skills.
  • It enhances and practises the skills of presenting solutions and discussing them rationally.
  • It is based on a clearly relevant real-world scenario and may even be based on a real problem encountered in the training institute to which the combined ideas of the group will contribute ideas for solutions.  This is clearly a strong motivating factor for people to work assiduously on the task.
  • It starts from the premise that knowledge may be acquired but cannot easily or effectively be transmitted.

Although it is not obvious how such a programme could be implemented in language teaching as a central methodological approach it is possible to imagine scenarios in which a real-life language problem for a group of learners working in a particular environment might well be applicable. For example, if the learners are faced with the task of writing promotional materials in English for an in-house marketing effort, then they could be encouraged to set out the issues as they see them, research the language they need, brainstorm solutions and produce something they feel is acceptable for the tutor's consideration and feedback. Any number of real or imagined issues can be tackled that way whether the outcome is written or a spoken presentation or a combination.

In the realm of English language teacher training, the approach also has some adherents because the five advantages set out here are not confined to trainee doctors and could just as well apply to trainee language teachers.

As befits the subject, there's no test on any of this but there is a task.  Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to plan and carry out two task-based lessons on the same topic.  The topic can be anything, but 'education' is a good place to start because everyone is familiar with it and most people have ideas about how it is best done (uninformed and sometimes daft, though they may be). Choose from Procedure 1 or 2 above (or use both).

  • The first is simple.  All you need to do is design and carry out a listing and matching / comparison task which will take around 40 minutes and get you and your learners accustomed to a task-based approach.  Something like     The best 5 and worst 5 things about my school / school days or     The advantages and disadvantages of schools in general or whatever else will interest and intrigue your learners is one idea.
  • The second is more challenging.  In a following series of lessons, plan and carry out a project-based task in which the learners will have to produce a thought-through set of ideas and solutions based on the topic area you have chosen and plan and present their findings to the rest of the group in some way – posters, PowerPoint presentations, oral presentations or a combination of all these ways.
  • At the end, your task is to evaluate how the procedures went, what was learnt and how well (or otherwise) the approach was received by your learners. (If you are preparing for Module Two of the Cambridge Delta, this is an ideal way to do the Experimental Practice part of the Professional Development Assignment.)

References: Ellis, R, 2009, Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings , in the International Journal of Applied Linguistics Vol. 19 No. 3 Krathwohl, DR, 2002, A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview , Theory into Practice, Volume 41, Number 4, College of Education, The Ohio State University Nunan, D, 1991, Communicative Tasks and the Language Curriculum , TESOL Quarterly Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer 1991 279 – 295 Prabhu, NS, 1987, Second language pedagogy , Oxford: Oxford University Press Richards, J and Rodgers, T, 2001, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Swan, M, 2005, Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction, Applied Linguistics, 26 (3): 376-401. Willis, J, 1998, Task-Based Learning: What Kind of Adventure? available from https://jalt-publications.org/tlt/articles/2333-task-based-learning-what-kind-adventure [last accessed July 2020] Willis, J, 1996,  A framework for task-based learning,  Harlow: Longman Addison-Wesley

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5 Strategies for Aligning PBL to Real-World Problem-Solving

The closer project-based learning comes to the messy, complicated problems of our world today, the more students benefit.

Student paint an outdoor wall mural

In March 2020, I faced a number of challenges as a school superintendent. Earlier in the month, I had read about a virus that was sweeping the world, and while American schools had not shuttered, the challenge seemed both eminent and far off.

Over the next several weeks, months, and years, I, and every other leader, faced a series of problems, including closing schools, redesigning in-person instruction, developing virtual learning programs, and working in partnership with public health organizations.

Interestingly, I learned that authentic, real-world problem-solving has a few key features:

  • I was never given one problem but was presented with a number of problem situations in which I and my team needed to derive key questions that drove our decision-making.
  • The problems we faced continued to change, requiring us to go back and learn new content, prepare for multiple contingencies, and communicate up-to-date information and our plans for multiple scenarios.

Contemporary learning frameworks and related methodologies can learn a lot from what we are experiencing with Covid-19. Applying the two features above to project-based learning (PBL) by using a more fluid rather than static, linear model may best prepare students for what the future of learning and work actually looks and feels like.

5 Strategies to Make PBL More Authentic

1: Students derive the driving question from multiple contexts or multiple issues within a context. In one third-grade class, students read the book We Are Water Protectors and discuss the challenges Native Americans face with the introduction of the Keystone pipeline. Next, the teacher presents two problems:

  • The extraction of cobalt to build electric cars and the negative impact on rural African communities
  • The development of wind farms and the decline of the golden eagle

Students then work together in this strategy to determine the key challenges facing Indigenous people and native species. Next, they develop core questions they want to answer and determine what they need to learn to answer those questions.

2: Students face changes in the problem(s) they are contemplating. Problem environments are fluid, not static. In an AP economics class, students are analyzing supply and demand of a new video game system and preparing to advise the company on what it should do to improve profits.

Every day at the beginning of class, their teacher asks them to scan reliable news sources to report any changes to supply chains, governmental restrictions such as embargoes, or any other factor that would influence their solutions to the client.

The students found out that there were major supply chain issues with essential parts needed to create the video game console. Moreover, some of the ships carrying current consoles are sitting in Asia awaiting passage to the United States because of a political dispute.

The students worked together in small groups and discussed the key factors that were impacting the company they were advising, along with what the students needed to learn and understand before meeting with the client, and finally developed multiple recommendations based on multiple contingencies.

The general strategy looks like this:

  • Students learn about changes to the problem content (this could be via reading multiple news reports, listening to daily podcasts, or engaging with actual people in the field).
  • In small groups, students share their key understanding of the changes and how that impacts their current understanding and strategy.
  • Students determine key “need-to-knows” they have and work with the teacher and peers to gain competencies.
  • Students plan for multiple contingencies and tentative solutions.

3: Presentations are short bursts of what students think and propose during the project with dollops of feedback to make adjustments. Seventh-grade students are sending in their persuasive essay on one of a number of topics (e.g., addressing the homelessness crisis, engaging with politicians on critical race theory).

As they are drafting their papers, students are randomly assigned to present their ideas and current drafts to other students and receive feedback on their writing as well as their persuasiveness to opposing views.

The strategy looks like this:

  • Students have a mid-lesson stop in which they have 5 minutes to prepare to present their current work.
  • Students conduct a feedback protocol (tuning or critical friends) in which one or two students receive feedback.
  • Students who received feedback share what they have changed in a reflective journal or exit ticket.
  • This process is repeated daily.

4: Authentic audiences engage with students throughout the project rather than just at the beginning and/or end. In a fifth-grade art class, students have been commissioned by the local town council to paint murals that represent voices that are largely marginalized in their community. During their work, students meet with a number of artists and community members who share their stories, offer feedback, and address questions.

In this strategy, students engage with people outside the classroom at the beginning, middle, and end of a project to hear stories that relate to the problem context, receive guidance on the technical aspects of the content they are learning, and ask questions.

5: Groups work together in small bursts of time to solve problems. Students in Algebra II are working with logarithms to solve a number of problems related to stomach acid, algae-filled hot tubs, soil composition, and buffalo teeth.

While each student may be solving a different problem, students form small groups to share their learning, evaluate the connections between each context, and give each other feedback. After approximately two weeks of solving complex math tasks, the teacher presents three new problems and forms new groups for students to solve the problem in one or two days.

In this strategy, students form temporary groups of two to three to solve a new challenge and work together for one to two days without forming task-specific roles.

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Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which complex real-world problems are used as the vehicle to promote student learning of concepts and principles as opposed to direct presentation of facts and concepts. In addition to course content, PBL can promote the development of critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and communication skills. It can also provide opportunities for working in groups, finding and evaluating research materials, and life-long learning (Duch et al, 2001).

PBL can be incorporated into any learning situation. In the strictest definition of PBL, the approach is used over the entire semester as the primary method of teaching. However, broader definitions and uses range from including PBL in lab and design classes, to using it simply to start a single discussion. PBL can also be used to create assessment items. The main thread connecting these various uses is the real-world problem.

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 used for a group project, the problem needs a level of complexity to ensure that the students must work together to solve it.
  • If used for a multistage project, the initial steps of the problem should be open-ended and engaging to draw students into the problem.

The problems can come from a variety of sources: newspapers, magazines, journals, books, textbooks, and television/ movies. Some are in such form that they can be used with little editing; however, others need to be rewritten to be of use. The following guidelines from The Power of Problem-Based Learning (Duch et al, 2001) are written for creating PBL problems for a class centered around the method; however, the general ideas can be applied in simpler uses of PBL:

  • Choose a central idea, concept, or principle that is always taught in a given course, and then think of a typical end-of-chapter problem, assignment, or homework that is usually assigned to students to help them learn that concept. List the learning objectives that students should meet when they work through the problem.
  • 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 students to solve the problem. More complex problems will challenge students to go beyond simple plug-and-chug to solve it. Look at magazines, newspapers, and articles for ideas on the story line. Some PBL practitioners talk to professionals in the field, searching for ideas of realistic applications of the concept being taught.
  • What will the first page (or stage) look like? What open-ended questions can be asked? What learning issues will be identified?
  • How will the problem be structured?
  • How long will the problem be? How many class periods will it take to complete?
  • Will students be given information in subsequent pages (or stages) as they work through the problem?
  • What resources will the students need?
  • What end product will the students produce at the completion of the problem?
  • Write a teacher's guide detailing the instructional plans on using the problem in the course. If the course is a medium- to large-size class, a combination of mini-lectures, whole-class discussions, and small group work with regular reporting may be necessary. The teacher's guide can indicate plans or options for cycling through the pages of the problem interspersing the various modes of learning.
  • The final step is to identify key resources for students. Students need to learn to identify and utilize learning resources on their own, but it can be helpful if the instructor indicates a few good sources to get them started. Many students will want to limit their research to the Internet, so it will be important to guide them toward the library as well.

The method for distributing a PBL problem falls under three closely related teaching techniques: case studies, role-plays, and simulations. Case studies are presented to students in written form. Role-plays have students improvise scenes based on character descriptions given. Today, simulations often involve computer-based programs. Regardless of which technique is used, the heart of the method remains the same: the real-world problem.

Where can I learn more?

  • PBL through the Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education at the University of Delaware
  • Duch, B. J., Groh, S. E, & Allen, D. E. (Eds.). (2001). The power of problem-based learning . Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Grasha, A. F. (1996). Teaching with style: A practical guide to enhancing learning by understanding teaching and learning styles. Pittsburgh: Alliance Publishers.

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Effective Learning Behavior in Problem-Based Learning: a Scoping Review

Azril shahreez abdul ghani.

1 Department of Basic Medical Sciences, Kulliyah of Medicine, Bandar Indera Mahkota Campus, International Islamic University Malaysia, Kuantan, 25200 Pahang Malaysia

2 Department of Medical Education, School of Medical Sciences, Health Campus, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Kubang Kerian, Kota Bharu, 16150 Kelantan Malaysia

Ahmad Fuad Abdul Rahim

Muhamad saiful bahri yusoff, siti nurma hanim hadie.

3 Department of Anatomy, School of Medical Sciences, Health Campus, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Kubang Kerian, 16150 Kota Bharu, Kelantan Malaysia

Problem-based learning (PBL) emphasizes learning behavior that leads to critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaborative skills in preparing students for a professional medical career. However, learning behavior that develops these skills has not been systematically described. This review aimed to unearth the elements of effective learning behavior in a PBL context, using the protocol by Arksey and O’Malley. The protocol identified the research question, selected relevant studies, charted and collected data, and collated, summarized, and reported results. We discovered three categories of elements—intrinsic empowerment, entrustment, and functional skills—proven effective in the achievement of learning outcomes in PBL.


Problem-based learning (PBL) is an educational approach that utilizes the principles of collaborative learning in small groups, first introduced by McMaster Medical University [ 1 ]. The shift of the higher education curriculum from traditional, lecture-based approaches to an integrated, student-centered approach was triggered by concern over the content-driven nature of medical knowledge with minimal clinical application [ 2 ]. The PBL pedagogy uses a systematic approach, starting with an authentic, real-life problem scenario as a context in which learning is not separated from practice as students collaborate and learn [ 3 ]. The tutor acts as a facilitator who guides the students’ learning, while students are required to solve the problems by discussing them with group members [ 4 ]. The essential aspect of the PBL process is the ability of the students to recognize their current knowledge, determine the gaps in their knowledge and experience, and acquire new knowledge to bridge the gaps [ 5 ]. PBL is a holistic approach that gives students an active role in their learning.

Since its inception, PBL has been used in many undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs, such as medicine [ 6 , 7 ], nursing [ 8 ], social work education [ 9 ], law [ 10 ], architecture [ 11 ], economics [ 12 ], business [ 13 ], science [ 14 ], and engineering [ 15 ]. It has also been applied in elementary and secondary education [ 16 – 18 ]. Despite its many applications, its implementation is based on a single universal workflow framework that contains three elements: problem as the initiator for learning, tutor as a facilitator in the group versions, and group work as a stimulus for collaborative interaction [ 19 ]. However, there are various versions of PBL workflow, such as the seven-step technique based on the Maastricht “seven jumps” process. The tutor’s role is to ensure the achievement of learning objectives and to assess students’ performance [ 20 , 21 ].

The PBL process revolves around four types of learning principles: constructive, self-directed, collaborative, and contextual [ 19 ]. Through the constructive learning process, the students are encouraged to think about what is already known and integrate their prior knowledge with their new understanding. This process helps the student understand the content, form a new opinion, and acquire new knowledge [ 22 ]. The PBL process encourages students to become self-directed learners who plan, monitor, and evaluate their own learning, enabling them to become lifelong learners [ 23 ]. The contextualized collaborative learning process also promotes interaction among students, who share similar responsibilities to achieve common goals relevant to the learning context [ 24 ]. By exchanging ideas and providing feedback during the learning session, the students can attain a greater understanding of the subject matter [ 25 ].

Dolmans et al. [ 19 ] pointed out two issues related to the implementation of PBL: dominant facilitators and dysfunctional PBL groups. These problems inhibit students’ self-directed learning and reduce their satisfaction level with the PBL session. A case study by Eryilmaz [ 26 ] that evaluated engineering students’ and tutors’ experience of PBL discovered that PBL increased the students’ self-confidence and improved essential skills such as problem-solving, communications, critical thinking, and collaboration. Although most of the participants in the study found PBL satisfactory, many complained about the tutor’s poor guidance and lack of preparation. Additionally, it was noted that 64% of the first-year students were unable to adapt to the PBL system because they had been accustomed to conventional learning settings and that 43% of students were not adequately prepared for the sessions and thus were minimally involved in the discussion.

In a case study by Cónsul-giribet [ 27 ], newly graduated nursing professionals reported a lack of perceived theoretical basic science knowledge at the end of their program, despite learning through PBL. The nurses perceived that this lack of knowledge might affect their expertise, identity, and professional image.

Likewise, a study by McKendree [ 28 ] reported the outcomes of a workshop that explored the strengths and weaknesses of PBL in an allied health sciences curriculum in the UK. The workshop found that problems related to PBL were mainly caused by students, the majority of whom came from conventional educational backgrounds either during high school or their first degree. They felt anxious when they were involved in PBL, concerned about “not knowing when to stop” in exploring the learning needs. Apart from a lack of basic science knowledge, the knowledge acquired during PBL sessions remains unorganized [ 29 ]. Hence, tutors must guide students in overcoming this situation by instilling appropriate insights and essential skills for the achievement of the learning outcomes [ 30 ]. It was also evident that the combination of intention and motivation to learn and desirable learning behavior determined the quality of learning outcomes [ 31 , 32 ]. However, effective learning behaviors that help develop these skills have not been systematically described. Thus, this scoping review aimed to unearth the elements of effective learning behavior in the PBL context.

Scoping Review Protocol

This scoping review was performed using a protocol by Arksey and O’Malley [ 33 ]. The protocol comprises five phases: (i) identification of research questions, (ii) identification of relevant articles, (iii) selection of relevant studies, (iv) data collection and charting, and (v) collating, summarizing, and reporting the results.

Identification of Research Questions

This scoping review was designed to unearth the elements of effective learning behavior that can be generated from learning through PBL instruction. The review aimed to answer one research question: “What are the effective learning behavior elements related to PBL?” For the purpose of the review, an operational definition of effective learning behavior was constructed, whereby it was defined as any learning behavior that is related to PBL instruction and has been shown to successfully attain the desired learning outcomes (i.e., cognitive, skill, or affective)—either quantitatively or qualitatively—in any intervention conducted in higher education institutions.

The positive outcome variables include student viewpoint or perception, student learning experience and performance, lecturer viewpoint and expert judgment, and other indirect variables that may be important indicators of successful PBL learning (i.e., attendance to PBL session, participation in PBL activity, number of interactions in PBL activity, and improvement in communication skills in PBL).

Identification of Relevant Articles

An extensive literature search was conducted on articles published in English between 2015 and 2019. Three databases—Google Scholar, Scopus, and PubMed—were used for the literature search. Seven search terms with the Boolean combination were used, whereby the keywords were identified from the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) and Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) databases. The search terms were tested and refined with multiple test searches. The final search terms with the Boolean operation were as follows: “problem-based learning” AND (“learning behavior” OR “learning behaviour”) AND (student OR “medical students” OR undergraduate OR “medical education”).

Selection of Relevant Articles

The articles from the three databases were exported manually into Microsoft Excel. The duplicates were removed, and the remaining articles were reviewed based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria. These criteria were tested on titles and abstracts to ensure their robustness in capturing the articles related to learning behavior in PBL. The shortlisted articles were reviewed by two independent researchers, and a consensus was reached either to accept or reject each article based on the set criteria. When a disagreement occurred between the two reviewers, the particular article was re-evaluated independently by the third and fourth researchers (M.S.B.Y and A.F.A.R), who have vast experience in conducting qualitative research. The sets of criteria for selecting abstracts and final articles were developed. The inclusion and exclusion criteria are listed in Table ​ Table1 1 .

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Data Charting

The selected final articles were reviewed, and several important data were extracted to provide an objective summary of the review. The extracted data were charted in a table, including the (i) title of the article, (ii) author(s), (iii) year of publication, (iv) aim or purpose of the study, (v) study design and method, (iv) intervention performed, and (v) study population and sample size.

Collating, Summarizing, and Reporting the Results

A content analysis was performed to identify the elements of effective learning behaviors in the literature by A.S.A.G and S.N.H.H, who have experience in conducting qualitative studies. The initial step of content analysis was to read the selected articles thoroughly to gain a general understanding of the articles and extract the elements of learning behavior which are available in the articles. Next, the elements of learning behavior that fulfil the inclusion criteria were extracted. The selected elements that were related to each other through their content or context were grouped into subtheme categories. Subsequently, the combinations of several subthemes expressing similar underlying meanings were grouped into themes. Each of the themes and subthemes was given a name, which was operationally defined based on the underlying elements. The selected themes and subthemes were presented to the independent researchers in the team (M.S.B.Y and A.F.A.R), and a consensus was reached either to accept or reformulate each of the themes and subthemes. The flow of the scoping review methods for this study is illustrated in Fig.  1 .

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The flow of literature search and article selection

Literature Search

Based on the keyword search, 1750 articles were obtained. Duplicate articles that were not original articles found in different databases and resources were removed. Based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria of title selection, the eligibility of 1750 abstracts was evaluated. The articles that did not fulfil the criteria were removed, leaving 328 articles for abstract screening. A total of 284 articles were screened according to the eligibility criteria for abstract selection. Based on these criteria, 284 articles were selected and screened according to the eligibility criteria for full article selection. Fourteen articles were selected for the final review. The information about these articles is summarized in Table ​ Table2 2 .

Studies characteristics

Study Characteristics

The final 14 articles were published between 2015 and 2019. The majority of the studies were conducted in Western Asian countries ( n  = 4), followed by China ( n  = 3), European countries ( n  = 2), Thailand ( n  = 2), Indonesia ( n  = 1), Singapore ( n  = 1), and South Africa ( n  = 1). Apart from traditional PBL, some studies incorporated other pedagogic modalities into their PBL sessions, such as online learning, blended learning, and gamification. The majority of the studies targeted a single-profession learner group, and one study was performed on mixed interprofessional health education learners.

Results of Thematic Analysis

The thematic analysis yielded three main themes of effective learning behavior: intrinsic empowerment, entrustment, and functional skills. Intrinsic empowerment overlies four proposed subthemes: proactivity, organization, diligence, and resourcefulness. For entrustment, there were four underlying subthemes: students as assessors, students as teachers, feedback-giving, and feedback-receiving. The functional skills theme contains four subthemes: time management, digital proficiency, data management, and collaboration.

Theme 1: Intrinsic Empowerment

Intrinsic empowerment enforces student learning behavior that can facilitate the achievement of learning outcomes. By empowering the development of these behaviors, students can become lifelong learners [ 34 ]. The first element of intrinsic empowerment is proactive behavior. In PBL, the students must be proactive in analyzing problems [ 35 , 36 ] and their learning needs [ 35 , 37 ], and this can be done by integrating prior knowledge and previous experience through a brainstorming session [ 35 , 38 ]. The students must be proactive in seeking guidance to ensure they stay focused and confident [ 39 , 40 ]. Finding ways to integrate content from different disciplines [ 35 , 41 ], formulate new explanations based on known facts [ 34 , 35 , 41 ], and incorporate hands-on activity [ 35 , 39 , 42 ] during a PBL session are also proactive behaviors.

The second element identified is “being organized” which reflects the ability of students to systematically manage their roles [ 43 ], ideas, and learning needs [ 34 ]. The students also need to understand the task for each learning role in PBL, such as chairperson or leader, scribe, recorder, and reflector. This role needs to be assigned appropriately to ensure that all members take part in the discussion [ 43 ]. Similarly, when discussing ideas or learning needs, the students need to follow the steps in the PBL process and organize and prioritize the information to ensure that the issues are discussed systematically and all aspects of the problems are covered accordingly [ 34 , 37 ]. This team organization and systematic thought process is an effective way for students to focus, plan, and finalize their learning tasks.

The third element of intrinsic empowerment is “being diligent.” Students must consistently conduct self-revision [ 40 ] and keep track of their learning plan to ensure the achievement of their learning goal [ 4 , 40 ]. The students must also be responsible for completing any given task and ensuring good understanding prior to their presentation [ 40 ]. Appropriate actions need to be undertaken to find solutions to unsolved problems [ 40 , 44 ]. This effort will help them think critically and apply their knowledge for problem-solving.

The fourth element identified is “being resourceful.” Students should be able to acquire knowledge from different resources, which include external resources (i.e., lecture notes, textbooks, journal articles, audiovisual instructions, the Internet) [ 38 , 40 , 45 ] and internal resources (i.e., students’ prior knowledge or experience) [ 35 , 39 ]. The resources must be evidence-based, and thus should be carefully selected by evaluating their cross-references and appraising them critically [ 37 ]. Students should also be able to understand and summarize the learned materials and explain them using their own words [ 4 , 34 ]. The subthemes of the intrinsic empowerment theme are summarized in Table ​ Table3 3 .

 Intrinsic empowerment subtheme with the learning behavior elements

Theme 2: Entrustment

Entrustment emphasizes the various roles of students in PBL that can promote effective learning. The first entrusted role identified is “student as an assessor.” This means that students evaluate their own performance in PBL [ 46 ]. The evaluation of their own performance must be based on the achievement of the learning outcomes and reflect actual understanding of the content as well as the ability to apply the learned information in problem-solving [ 46 ].

The second element identified in this review is “student as a teacher.” To ensure successful peer teaching in PBL, students need to comprehensively understand the content of the learning materials and summarize the content in an organized manner. The students should be able to explain the gist of the discussed information using their own words [ 4 , 34 ] and utilize teaching methods to cater to differences in learning styles (i.e., visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) [ 41 ]. These strategies help capture their group members’ attention and evoke interactive discussions among them.

The third element of entrustment is to “give feedback.” Students should try giving constructive feedback on individual and group performance in PBL. Feedback on individual performance must reflect the quality of the content and task presented in the PBL. Feedback on group performance should reflect the ways in which the group members communicate and complete the group task [ 47 ]. To ensure continuous constructive feedback, students should be able to generate feedback questions beforehand and immediately deliver them during the PBL sessions [ 44 , 47 ]. In addition, the feedback must include specific measures for improvement to help their peers to take appropriate action for the future [ 47 ].

The fourth element of entrustment is “receive feedback.” Students should listen carefully to the feedback given and ask questions to clarify the feedback [ 47 ]. They need to be attentive and learn to deal with negative feedback [ 47 ]. Also, if the student does not receive feedback, they should request it either from peers or teachers and ask specific questions, such as what aspects to improve and how to improve [ 47 ]. The data on the subthemes of the entrustment theme are summarized in Table ​ Table4 4 .

Entrustment subtheme with the learning behavior elements

Theme 3: Functional Skills

Functional skills refer to essential skills that can help students learn independently and competently. The first element identified is time management skills. In PBL, students must know how to prioritize learning tasks according to the needs and urgency of the tasks [ 40 ]. To ensure that students can self-pace their learning, a deadline should be set for each learning task within a manageable and achievable learning schedule [ 40 ].

Furthermore, students should have digital proficiency, the ability to utilize digital devices to support learning [ 38 , 40 , 44 ]. The student needs to know how to operate basic software (e.g., Words and PowerPoints) and the basic digital tools (i.e., social media, cloud storage, simulation, and online community learning platforms) to support their learning [ 39 , 40 ]. These skills are important for peer learning activities, which may require information sharing, information retrieval, online peer discussion, and online peer feedback [ 38 , 44 ].

The third functional skill identified is data management, the ability to collect key information in the PBL trigger and analyze that information to support the solution in a problem-solving activity [ 39 ]. Students need to work either individually or in a group to collect the key information from a different trigger or case format such as text lines, an interview, an investigation, or statistical results [ 39 ]. Subsequently, students also need to analyze the information and draw conclusions based on their analysis [ 39 ].

The fourth element of functional skill is collaboration. Students need to participate equally in the PBL discussion [ 41 , 46 ]. Through discussion, confusion and queries can be addressed and resolved by listening, respecting others’ viewpoints, and responding professionally [ 35 , 39 , 43 , 44 ]. In addition, the students need to learn from each other and reflect on their performance [ 48 ]. Table ​ Table5 5 summarizes the data on the subthemes of the functional skills theme.

Functional skills subtheme with the learning behavior elements

This scoping review outlines three themes of effective learning behavior elements in the PBL context: intrinsic empowerment, entrustment, and functional skills. Hence, it is evident from this review that successful PBL instruction demands students’ commitment to empower themselves with value-driven behaviors, skills, and roles.

In this review, intrinsic empowerment is viewed as enforcement of students’ internal strength in performing positive learning behaviors related to PBL. This theme requires the student to proactively engage in the learning process, organize their learning activities systematically, persevere in learning, and be intelligently resourceful. One of the elements of intrinsic empowerment is the identification and analysis of problems related to complex scenarios. This element is aligned with a study by Meyer [ 49 ], who observed students’ engagement in problem identification and clarification prior to problem-solving activities in a PBL session related to multiple engineering design. Rubenstein and colleagues [ 50 ] discovered in a semi-structured interview the importance of undergoing a problem identification process before proposing a solution during learning. It was reported that the problem identification process in PBL may enhance the attainment of learning outcomes, specifically in the domain of concept understanding [ 51 ].

The ability of the students to acquire and manage learning resources is essential for building their understanding of the learned materials and enriching discussion among team members during PBL. This is aligned with a study by Jeong and Hmelo-Silver [ 52 ], who studied the use of learning resources by students in PBL. The study concluded that in a resource-rich environment, the students need to learn how to access and understand the resources to ensure effective learning. Secondly, they need to process the content of the resources, integrate various resources, and apply them in problem-solving activities. Finally, they need to use the resources in collaborative learning activities, such as sharing and relating to peer resources.

Wong [ 53 ] documented that excellent students spent considerably more time managing academic resources than low achievers. The ability of the student to identify and utilize their internal learning resources, such as prior knowledge and experience, is also important. A study by Lee et al. [ 54 ] has shown that participants with high domain-specific prior knowledge displayed a more systematic approach and high accuracy in visual and motor reactions in solving problems compared to novice learners.

During the discussion phase in PBL, organizing ideas—e.g., arranging relevant information gathered from the learning resources into relevant categories—is essential for communicating the idea clearly [ 34 ]. This finding is in line with a typology study conducted by Larue [ 55 ] on second-year nursing students’ learning strategies during a group discussion. The study discovered that although the content presented by the student is adequate, they unable to make further progress in the group discussion until they are instructed by the tutor on how to organize the information given into a category [ 55 ].

Hence, the empowerment of student intrinsic behavior may enhance students’ learning in PBL by allowing them to make a decision in their learning objectives and instilling confidence in them to achieve goals. A study conducted by Kirk et al. [ 56 ] proved that highly empowered students obtain better grades, increase learning participation, and target higher educational aspirations.

Entrustment is the learning role given to students to be engaging and identify gaps in their learning. This theme requires the student to engage in self-assessment, prepare to teach others, give constructive feedback, and value the feedback received. One of the elements of entrustment is the ability to self-assess. In a study conducted by Mohd et al. [ 57 ] looking at the factors in PBL that can strengthen the capability of IT students, they discovered that one of the critical factors that contribute to these skills is the ability of the student to perform self-assessment in PBL. As mentioned by Daud, Kassim, and Daud [ 58 ], the self-assessment may be more reliable if the assessment is performed based on the objectives set beforehand and if the criteria of the assessment are understood by the learner. This is important to avoid the fact that the result of the self-assessment is influenced by the students’ perception of themselves rather than reflecting their true performance. However, having an assessment based on the learning objective only focuses on the immediate learning requirements in the PBL. To foster lifelong learning skills, it should also be balanced with the long-term focus of assessment, such as utilizing the assessment to foster the application of knowledge in solving real-life situations. This is aligned with the review by Boud and Falchikov [ 59 ] suggesting that students need to become assessors within the concept of participation in practice, that is, the kind that is within the context of real life and work.

The second subtheme of entrustment is “students as a teacher” in PBL. In our review, the student needs to be well prepared with the teaching materials. A cross-sectional study conducted by Charoensakulchai and colleagues discovered that student preparation is considered among the important factors in PBL success, alongside other factors such as “objective and contents,” “student assessment,” and “attitude towards group work” [ 60 ]. This is also aligned with a study conducted by Sukrajh [ 61 ] using focus group discussion on fifth-year medical students to explore their perception of preparedness before conducting peer teaching activity. In this study, the student in the focus group expressed that the preparation made them more confident in teaching others because preparing stimulated them to activate and revise prior knowledge, discover their knowledge gaps, construct new knowledge, reflect on their learning, improve their memory, inspire them to search several resources, and motivate them to learn the topics.

The next element of “student as a teacher” is using various learning styles to teach other members in the group. A study conducted by Almomani [ 62 ] showed that the most preferred learning pattern by the high school student is the visual pattern, followed by auditory pattern and then kinesthetic. However, in the university setting, Hamdani [ 63 ] discovered that students prefer a combination of the three learning styles. Anbarasi [ 64 ] also explained that incorporating teaching methods based on the student’s preferred learning style further promotes active learning among the students and significantly improved the long-term retrieval of knowledge. However, among the three learning styles group, he discovered that the kinesthetic group with the kinesthetic teaching method showed a significantly higher post-test score compared to the traditional group with the didactic teaching method, and he concluded that this is because of the involvement of more active learning activity in the kinesthetic group.

The ability of students to give constructive feedback on individual tasks is an important element in promoting student contribution in PBL because feedback from peers or teachers is needed to reassure themselves that they are on the right track in the learning process. Kamp et al. [ 65 ] performed a study on the effectiveness of midterm peer feedback on student individual cognitive, collaborative, and motivational contributions in PBL. The experimental group that received midterm peer feedback combined with goal-setting with face-to-face discussion showed an increased amount of individual contributions in PBL. Another element of effective feedback is that the feedback is given immediately after the observed behavior. Parikh and colleagues survey student feedback in PBL environments among 103 final-year medical students in five Ontario schools, including the University of Toronto, McMaster University, Queens University, the University of Ottawa, and the University of Western Ontario. They discovered that there was a dramatic difference between McMaster University and other universities in the immediacy of feedback they practiced. Seventy percent of students at McMaster reported receiving immediate feedback in PBL, compared to less than 40 percent of students from the other universities, in which most of them received feedback within one week or several weeks after the PBL had been conducted [ 66 ]. Another study, conducted among students of the International Medical University of Kuala Lumpur examining the student expectation on feedback, discovered that immediate feedback is effective if the feedback is in written form, simple but focused on the area of improvement, and delivered by a content expert. If the feedback is delivered by a content non-expert and using a model answer, it must be supplemented with teacher dialogue sessions to clarify the feedback received [ 67 ].

Requesting feedback from peers and teachers is an important element of the PBL learning environment, enabling students to discover their learning gaps and ways to fill them. This is aligned with a study conducted by de Jong and colleagues [ 68 ], who discovered that high-performing students are more motivated to seek feedback than low-performing students. The main reason for this is because high-performing students seek feedback as a tool to learn from, whereas low-performing students do so as an academic requirement. This resulted in high-performing students collecting more feedback. A study by Bose and Gijselaers [ 69 ] examined the factors that promote feedback-seeking behavior in medical residency. They discovered that feedback-seeking behavior can be promoted by providing residents with high-quality feedback to motivate them to ask for feedback for improvement.

By assigning an active role to students as teachers, assessors, and feedback providers, teachers give them the ownership and responsibility to craft their learning. The learner will then learn the skills to monitor and reflect on their learning to achieve academic success. Furthermore, an active role encourages students to be evaluative experts in their own learning, and promoting deep learning [ 70 ].

Functional skills refer to essential abilities for competently performing a task in PBL. This theme requires the student to organize and plan time for specific learning tasks, be digitally literate, use data effectively to support problem-solving, and work together efficiently to achieve agreed objectives. One of the elements in this theme is to have a schedule of learning tasks with deadlines. In a study conducted by Tadjer and colleagues [ 71 ], they discovered that setting deadlines with a restricted time period in a group activity improved students’ cognitive abilities and soft skills. Although the deadline may initially cause anxiety, coping with it encourages students to become more creative and energetic in performing various learning strategies [ 72 , 73 ]. Ballard et al. [ 74 ] reported that students tend to work harder to complete learning tasks if they face multiple deadlines.

The students also need to be digitally literate—i.e., able to demonstrate the use of technological devices and tools in PBL. Taradi et al. [ 75 ] discovered that incorporating technology in learning—blending web technology with PBL—removes time and place barriers in the creation of a collaborative environment. It was found that students who participated in web discussions achieved a significantly higher mean grade on a physiology final examination than those who used traditional methods. Also, the incorporation of an online platform in PBL can facilitate students to develop investigation and inquiry skills with high-level cognitive thought processes, which is crucial to successful problem-solving [ 76 ].

In PBL, students need to work collaboratively with their peers to solve problems. A study by Hidayati et al. [ 77 ] demonstrated that effective collaborative skills improve cognitive learning outcomes and problem-solving ability among students who undergo PBL integrated with digital mind maps. To ensure successful collaborative learning in PBL, professional communication among students is pertinent. Research by Zheng and Huang [ 78 ] has proven that co-regulation (i.e., warm and responsive communication that provides support to peers) improved collaborative effort and group performance among undergraduate and master’s students majoring in education and psychology. This is also in line with a study by Maraj and colleagues [ 79 ], which showed the strong team interaction within the PBL group leads to a high level of team efficacy and academic self-efficacy. Moreover, strengthening communication competence, such as by developing negotiation skills among partners during discussion sessions, improves student scores [ 80 ].

PBL also includes opportunities for students to learn from each other (i.e., peer learning). A study by Maraj et al. [ 79 ] discovered that the majority of the students in their study perceived improvement in their understanding of the learned subject when they learned from each other. Another study by Lyonga [ 81 ] documented the successful formation of cohesive group learning, where students could express and share their ideas with their friends and help each other. It was suggested that each student should be paired with a more knowledgeable student who has mastered certain learning components to promote purposeful structured learning within the group.

From this scoping review, it is clear that functional skills equip the students with abilities and knowledge needed for successful PBL. Studies have shown that strong time management skills, digital literacy, data management, and collaborative skills lead to positive academic achievement [ 77 , 82 , 83 ].

Limitation of the Study

This scoping review is aimed to capture the recent effective learning behavior in problem-based learning; therefore, the literature before 2015 was not included. Without denying the importance of publication before 2015, we are relying on Okoli and Schabram [ 84 ] who highlighted the impossibility of retrieving all the published articles when conducting a literature search. Based on this ground, we decided to focus on the time frame between 2015 and 2019, which is aligned with the concepts of study maturity (i.e., the more mature the field, the higher the published articles and therefore more topics were investigated) by Kraus et al. [ 85 ]. In fact, it was noted that within this time frame, a significant number of articles have been found as relevant to PBL with the recent discovery of effective learning behavior. Nevertheless, our time frame did not include the timing of the coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) pandemic outbreak, which began at the end of 2019. Hence, we might miss some important elements of learning behavior that are required for the successful implementation of PBL during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surprisingly, the results obtained from this study are also applicable for the PBL sessions administration during the COVID-19 pandemic situation as one of the functional skills identified is digital proficiency. This skill is indeed important for the successful implementation of online PBL session.

This review identified the essential learning behaviors required for effective PBL in higher education and clustered them into three main themes: (i) intrinsic empowerment, (ii) entrustment, and (iii) functional skills. These learning behaviors must coexist to ensure the achievement of desired learning outcomes. In fact, the findings of this study indicated two important implications for future practice. Firstly, the identified learning behaviors can be incorporated as functional elements in the PBL framework and implementation. Secondly, the learning behaviors change and adaption can be considered to be a new domain of formative assessment related to PBL. It is noteworthy to highlight that these learning behaviors could help in fostering the development of lifelong skills for future workplace challenges. Nevertheless, considerably more work should be carried out to design a solid guideline on how to systematically adopt the learning behaviors in PBL sessions, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic situation.

This study was supported by Postgraduate Incentive Grant-PhD (GIPS-PhD, grant number: 311/PPSP/4404803).


The study has received an ethical approval from the Human Research Ethics Committee of Universiti Sains Malaysia.

No informed consent required for the scoping review.

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

IM Curriculum

What is a "problem-based" curriculum, what students should know and be able to do.

Our ultimate purpose is to impact student learning and achievement. First, we define the attitudes and beliefs about mathematics and mathematics learning we want to cultivate in students, and what mathematics students should know and be able to do.

Attitudes and Beliefs We Want to Cultivate

Many people think that mathematical knowledge and skills exclusively belong to “math people.” Yet research shows that students who believe that hard work is more important than innate talent learn more mathematics. 1  We want students to believe anyone can do mathematics and that persevering at mathematics will result in understanding and success. In the words of the NRC report Adding It Up, we want students to develop a “productive disposition—[the] habitual inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful, and worthwhile, coupled with a belief in diligence and one’s own efficacy.” 2

1 Uttal, D.H. (1997). Beliefs about genetic influences on mathematics achievement: a cross-cultural comparison. Genetica , 99(2-3), 165-172. doi.org/10.1023/A:1018318822120

2 National Research Council. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics . J.Kilpatrick, J. Swafford, and B.Findell (Eds.). Mathematics Learning Study Committee, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. doi.org/10.17226/9822

Conceptual understanding : Students need to understand the why behind the how in mathematics. Concepts build on experience with concrete contexts. Students should access these concepts from a number of perspectives in order to see math as more than a set of disconnected procedures.

Procedural fluency : We view procedural fluency as solving problems expected by the standards with speed, accuracy, and flexibility.

Application : Application means applying mathematical or statistical concepts and skills to a novel mathematical or real-world context.

These three aspects of mathematical proficiency are interconnected: procedural fluency is supported by understanding, and deep understanding often requires procedural fluency. In order to be successful in applying mathematics, students must both understand and be able to do the mathematics.

Mathematical Practices

In a mathematics class, students should not just learn about mathematics, they should do mathematics. This can be defined as engaging in the mathematical practices: making sense of problems, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, making arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, modeling with mathematics, making appropriate use of tools, attending to precision in their use of language, looking for and making use of structure, and expressing regularity in repeated reasoning.

What Teaching and Learning Should Look Like

How teachers should teach depends on what we want students to learn. To understand what teachers need to know and be able to do, we need to understand how students develop the different (but intertwined) strands of mathematical proficiency, and what kind of instructional moves support that development.

Principles for Mathematics Teaching and Learning

Active learning is best : Students learn best and retain what they learn better by solving problems. Often, mathematics instruction is shaped by the belief that if teachers tell students how to solve problems and then students practice, students will learn how to do mathematics.

2 pictures of teacher roles

Decades of research tells us that the traditional model of instruction is flawed. Traditional instructional methods may get short-term results with procedural skills, but students tend to forget the procedural skills and do not develop problem solving skills, deep conceptual understanding, or a mental framework for how ideas fit together. They also don’t develop strategies for tackling non-routine problems, including a propensity for engaging in productive struggle to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

In order to learn mathematics, students should spend time in math class doing mathematics .

“Students learn mathematics as a result of solving problems. Mathematical ideas are the outcomes of the problem-solving experience rather than the elements that must be taught before problem solving.” 3

Students should take an active role, both individually and in groups, to see what they can figure out before having things explained to them or being told what to do. Teachers play a critical role in mediating student learning, but that role looks different than simply showing, telling, and correcting. The teacher’s role is

  • to ensure students understand the context and what is being asked
  • ask questions to advance students’ thinking in productive ways
  • help students share their work and understand others’ work through orchestrating productive discussions
  • synthesize the learning with students at the end of activities and lessons

4 Pictures of different teacher roles

Teachers should build on what students know : New mathematical ideas are built on what students already know about mathematics and the world, and as they learn new ideas, students need to make connections between them. 4 In order to do this, teachers need to understand what knowledge students bring to the classroom and monitor what they do and do not understand as they are learning. Teachers must themselves know how the mathematical ideas connect in order to mediate students’ learning.

Good instruction starts with explicit learning goals : Learning goals must be clear not only to teachers, but also to students, and they must influence the activities in which students participate. Without a clear understanding of what students should be learning, activities in the classroom, implemented haphazardly, have little impact on advancing students’ understanding. Strategic negotiation of whole-class discussion on the part of the teacher during an activity synthesis is crucial to making the intended learning goals explicit. Teachers need to have a clear idea of the destination for the day, week, month, and year, and select and sequence instructional activities (or use well-sequenced materials) that will get the class to their destinations. If you are going to a party, you need to know the address and also plan a route to get there; driving around aimlessly will not get you where you need to go.

Different learning goals require different instructional moves : The kind of instruction that is appropriate at any given time depends on the learning goals of a particular lesson. Lessons and activities can:

  • Introduce students to a new topic of study and invite them to the mathematics.
  • Study new concepts and procedures deeply.
  • Integrate and connect representations, concepts, and procedures.
  • Work towards mastery.
  • Apply mathematics.

Lessons should be designed based on what the intended learning outcomes are. This means that teachers should have a toolbox of instructional moves that they can use as appropriate.

Each and every student should have access to the mathematical work : With proper structures, accommodations, and supports, all students can learn mathematics. Teachers’ instructional toolboxes should include knowledge of and skill in implementing supports for different learners.

3 Hiebert, J., et. al. (1996). Problem solving as a basis for reform in curriculum and instruction: the case of mathematics. Educational Researcher 25(4), 12-21. doi.org/10.3102/0013189X025004012

4 National Research Council. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics . J.Kilpatrick, J. Swafford, and B.Findell (Eds.). Mathematics Learning Study Committee, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. doi.org/10.17226/9822

Critical Practices

Intentional planning : Because different learning goals require different instructional moves, teachers need to be able to plan their instruction appropriately. While a high-quality curriculum does reduce the burden for teachers to create or curate lessons and tasks, it does not reduce the need to spend deliberate time planning lessons and tasks. Instead, teachers’ planning time can shift to high-leverage practices (practices that teachers without a high-quality curriculum often report wishing they had more time for): reading and understanding the high-quality curriculum materials; identifying connections to prior and upcoming work; diagnosing students' readiness to do the work; leveraging instructional routines to address different student needs and differentiate instruction; anticipating student responses that will be important to move the learning forward; planning questions and prompts that will help students attend to, make sense of, and learn from each other's work; planning supports and extensions to give as many students as possible access to the main mathematical goals; figuring out timing, pacing, and opportunities for practice; preparing necessary supplies; and the never-ending task of giving feedback on student work.

Establishing norms : Norms around doing math together and sharing understandings play an important role in the success of a problem-based curriculum. For example, students must feel safe taking risks, listen to each other, disagree respectfully, and honor equal air time when working together in groups. Establishing norms helps teachers cultivate a community of learners where making thinking visible is both expected and valued.

Building a shared understanding of a small set of instructional routines : Instructional routines allow the students and teacher to become familiar with the classroom choreography and what they are expected to do. This means that they can pay less attention to what they are supposed to do and more attention to the mathematics to be learned. Routines can provide a structure that helps strengthen students’ skills in communicating their mathematical ideas.

Using high quality curriculum : A growing body of evidence suggests that using a high-quality, coherent curriculum can have a significant impact on student learning. 5 Creating a coherent, effective instructional sequence from the ground up takes significant time, effort, and expertise. Teaching is already a full-time job, and adding curriculum development on top of that means teachers are overloaded or shortchanging their students.

Ongoing formative assessment : Teachers should know what mathematics their students come into the classroom already understanding, and use that information to plan their lessons. As students work on problems, teachers should ask questions to better understand students’ thinking, and use expected student responses and potential misconceptions to build on students’ mathematical understanding during the lesson. Teachers should monitor what their students have learned at the end of the lesson and use this information to provide feedback and plan further instruction.

5 Steiner, D. (2017). Curriculum research: What we know and where we need to go. Standards Work . Retrieved from https://standardswork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/sw-curriculum-research-report-fnl.pdf

Problem-Based Learning

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task based learning problem solving

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Inquiry-based learning ; Project-based learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method aimed at preparing students for real-world settings. By requiring students to solve problems, PBL enhances students’ learning outcomes by promoting their abilities and skills in applying knowledge, solving problems, practicing higher order thinking, and self-directing their own learning. PBL was originally conceived and implemented in the 1950s in response to medical students’ unsatisfactory clinical performances. This under-desired performance was attributed to the emphasis on memorization of fragmented biomedical knowledge in traditional health science education (Barrows and Tamblyn 1980 ). The format and processes of PBL seen today were first developed in the medical school at McMaster University in the 1960s and 1970s (Barrows 1996 ). Since then, PBL has become a prominent instructional method in medical and health science education throughout the world, such as...

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Jonassen, D.H., Hung, W. (2012). Problem-Based Learning. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_210

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Modified task-based learning program promotes problem-solving capacity among Chinese medical postgraduates: a mixed quantitative survey


  • 1 Department of Histology and Embryology, Third Military Medical University, 30# Gaotanyan St., Shapingba District, Chongqing, 400038, China.
  • 2 Department of Histology and Embryology, Third Military Medical University, 30# Gaotanyan St., Shapingba District, Chongqing, 400038, China. [email protected].
  • 3 Department of Histology and Embryology, Third Military Medical University, 30# Gaotanyan St., Shapingba District, Chongqing, 400038, China. [email protected].
  • PMID: 28882184
  • PMCID: PMC5590117
  • DOI: 10.1186/s12909-017-0994-0

Background: Despite great advances, China's postgraduate education faces many problems, for example traditional lecture-based learning (LBL) method provides fewer oppotunities to apply knowledge in a working situation. Task-based learning (TBL) is an efficient strategy for increasing the connections among skills, knowledge and competences. This study aimed to evaluate the effect of a modified TBL model on problem-solving abilities among postgraduate medical students in China.

Methods: We allocated 228 first-year postgraduate students at Third Military Medical University into two groups: the TBL group and LBL group. The TBL group was taught using a TBL program for immunohistochemistry. The curriculum consisted of five phases: task design, self-learning, experimental operations, discussion and summary. The LBL group was taught using traditional LBL. After the course, learning performance was assessed using theoretical and practical tests. The students' preferences and satisfaction of TBL and LBL were also evaluated using questionnaires.

Results: There were notable differences in the mean score rates in the practical test (P < 0.05): the number of high scores (>80) in the TBL group was higher than that in the LBL group. We observed no substantial differences in the theoretical test between the two groups (P > 0.05). The questionnaire results indicated that the TBL students were satisfied with teaching content, teaching methods and experiment content. The TBL program was also beneficial for the postgraduates in completing their research projects. Furthermore, the TBL students reported positive effects in terms of innovative thinking, collaboration, and communication.

Conclusions: TBL is a powerful educational strategy for postgraduate education in China. Our modified TBL imparted basic knowledge to the students and also engaged them more effectively in applying knowledge to solve real-world issues. In conclusion, our TBL established a good foundation for the students' future in both medical research and clinical work.

Keywords: Immunohistochemistry; Medical postgraduate education; Modified task-based learning program; Problem-solving capacity.

  • Education, Medical, Graduate / methods*
  • Education, Medical, Graduate / standards
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Immunohistochemistry*
  • Problem-Based Learning / methods*
  • Problem-Based Learning / standards
  • Program Evaluation
  • Students, Medical*
  • Young Adult

The world is getting “smarter” every day, and to keep up with consumer expectations, companies are increasingly using machine learning algorithms to make things easier. You can see them in use in end-user devices (through face recognition for unlocking smartphones) or for detecting credit card fraud (like triggering alerts for unusual purchases).

Within  artificial intelligence  (AI) and  machine learning , there are two basic approaches: supervised learning and unsupervised learning. The main difference is that one uses labeled data to help predict outcomes, while the other does not. However, there are some nuances between the two approaches, and key areas in which one outperforms the other. This post clarifies the differences so you can choose the best approach for your situation.

Supervised learning  is a machine learning approach that’s defined by its use of labeled data sets. These data sets are designed to train or “supervise” algorithms into classifying data or predicting outcomes accurately. Using labeled inputs and outputs, the model can measure its accuracy and learn over time.

Supervised learning can be separated into two types of problems when  data mining : classification and regression:

  • Classification  problems use an algorithm to accurately assign test data into specific categories, such as separating apples from oranges. Or, in the real world, supervised learning algorithms can be used to classify spam in a separate folder from your inbox. Linear classifiers, support vector machines, decision trees and  random forest  are all common types of classification algorithms.
  • Regression  is another type of supervised learning method that uses an algorithm to understand the relationship between dependent and independent variables. Regression models are helpful for predicting numerical values based on different data points, such as sales revenue projections for a given business. Some popular regression algorithms are linear regression, logistic regression, and polynomial regression.

Unsupervised learning  uses machine learning algorithms to analyze and cluster unlabeled data sets. These algorithms discover hidden patterns in data without the need for human intervention (hence, they are “unsupervised”).

Unsupervised learning models are used for three main tasks: clustering, association and dimensionality reduction:

  • Clustering  is a data mining technique for grouping unlabeled data based on their similarities or differences. For example, K-means clustering algorithms assign similar data points into groups, where the K value represents the size of the grouping and granularity. This technique is helpful for market segmentation, image compression, and so on.
  • Association  is another type of unsupervised learning method that uses different rules to find relationships between variables in a given data set. These methods are frequently used for market basket analysis and recommendation engines, along the lines of “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” recommendations.
  • Dimensionality reduction  is a learning technique that is used when the number of features (or dimensions) in a given data set is too high. It reduces the number of data inputs to a manageable size while also preserving the data integrity. Often, this technique is used in the preprocessing data stage, such as when autoencoders remove noise from visual data to improve picture quality.

The main distinction between the two approaches is the use of labeled data sets. To put it simply, supervised learning uses labeled input and output data, while an unsupervised learning algorithm does not.

In supervised learning, the algorithm “learns” from the training data set by iteratively making predictions on the data and adjusting for the correct answer. While supervised learning models tend to be more accurate than unsupervised learning models, they require upfront human intervention to label the data appropriately. For example, a supervised learning model can predict how long your commute will be based on the time of day, weather conditions and so on. But first, you must train it to know that rainy weather extends the driving time.

Unsupervised learning models, in contrast, work on their own to discover the inherent structure of unlabeled data. Note that they still require some human intervention for validating output variables. For example, an unsupervised learning model can identify that online shoppers often purchase groups of products at the same time. However, a data analyst would need to validate that it makes sense for a recommendation engine to group baby clothes with an order of diapers, applesauce, and sippy cups.

  • Goals:  In supervised learning, the goal is to predict outcomes for new data. You know up front the type of results to expect. With an unsupervised learning algorithm, the goal is to get insights from large volumes of new data. The machine learning itself determines what is different or interesting from the data set.
  • Applications: Supervised learning models are ideal for spam detection, sentiment analysis, weather forecasting and pricing predictions, among other things. In contrast, unsupervised learning is a great fit for anomaly detection, recommendation engines, customer personas and medical imaging.
  • Complexity:  Supervised learning is a simple method for machine learning, typically calculated by using programs like R or Python. In unsupervised learning, you need powerful tools for working with large amounts of unclassified data. Unsupervised learning models are computationally complex because they need a large training set to produce intended outcomes.
  • Drawbacks: Supervised learning models can be time-consuming to train, and the labels for input and output variables require expertise. Meanwhile, unsupervised learning methods can have wildly inaccurate results unless you have human intervention to validate the output variables.

Choosing the right approach for your situation depends on how your data scientists assess the structure and volume of your data, as well as the use case. To make your decision, be sure to do the following:

  • Evaluate your input data:  Is it labeled or unlabeled data? Do you have experts that can support extra labeling?
  • Define your goals:  Do you have a recurring, well-defined problem to solve? Or will the algorithm need to predict new problems?
  • Review your options for algorithms:  Are there algorithms with the same dimensionality that you need (number of features, attributes, or characteristics)? Can they support your data volume and structure?

Classifying big data can be a real challenge in supervised learning, but the results are highly accurate and trustworthy. In contrast, unsupervised learning can handle large volumes of data in real time. But, there’s a lack of transparency into how data is clustered and a higher risk of inaccurate results. This is where semi-supervised learning comes in.

Can’t decide on whether to use supervised or unsupervised learning?  Semi-supervised learning  is a happy medium, where you use a training data set with both labeled and unlabeled data. It’s particularly useful when it’s difficult to extract relevant features from data—and when you have a high volume of data.

Semi-supervised learning is ideal for medical images, where a small amount of training data can lead to a significant improvement in accuracy. For example, a radiologist can label a small subset of CT scans for tumors or diseases so the machine can more accurately predict which patients might require more medical attention.

Machine learning models are a powerful way to gain the data insights that improve our world. To learn more about the specific algorithms that are used with supervised and unsupervised learning, we encourage you to delve into the Learn Hub articles on these techniques. We also recommend checking out the blog post that goes a step further, with a detailed look at deep learning and neural networks.

  • What is Supervised Learning?
  • What is Unsupervised Learning?
  • AI vs. Machine Learning vs. Deep Learning vs. Neural Networks: What’s the difference?

To learn more about how to build machine learning models, explore the free tutorials on the  IBM® Developer Hub .

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Computer Science > Multiagent Systems

Title: llm-based multi-agent reinforcement learning: current and future directions.

Abstract: In recent years, Large Language Models (LLMs) have shown great abilities in various tasks, including question answering, arithmetic problem solving, and poem writing, among others. Although research on LLM-as-an-agent has shown that LLM can be applied to Reinforcement Learning (RL) and achieve decent results, the extension of LLM-based RL to Multi-Agent System (MAS) is not trivial, as many aspects, such as coordination and communication between agents, are not considered in the RL frameworks of a single agent. To inspire more research on LLM-based MARL, in this letter, we survey the existing LLM-based single-agent and multi-agent RL frameworks and provide potential research directions for future research. In particular, we focus on the cooperative tasks of multiple agents with a common goal and communication among them. We also consider human-in/on-the-loop scenarios enabled by the language component in the framework.

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