REITERATIVE PROBLEM BASED-LEARNING
A Brief Description
John Stinson

 

According to Edgar Schein there are three components of professional knowledge:
1. An underlying discipline or basic science component on which the practice rests or from which it is developed.
2. An applied science or 'engineering' component from which many of the day-to-day diagnostic procedures and problem-solutions are derived.
3. A skills and attitudinal component that concerns the actual performance of services to the client, using the underlying basic and applied knowledge.
From Edgar Schien, Professional Education, McGraw-Hill, 1973, p.39.

" The situations of management are not problems to be solved but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder, and indeterminacy. Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes.... Managers do not solve problems: they manage messes. (Russell Ackoff, "The Future of Operations Research is Past," Journal of Operations Research Society, 1979, 30, 2, 93-104)

From the perspective of Technical Rationality, professional practice is the process of problem solving. Problems of choice or decision are solved through the selection, from available means, of the one best suited to established ends. But with this emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen. In real-world practice, problems do not present themselves to the practitioners as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of problematic situations which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain. In order to convert a problematic situation to a problem, a practitioner must do a certain kind of work. He must make sense of an uncertain situation that initially makes no sense. ...

When we set the problem, we select what we will treat as the "things" of the situation, we set the boundaries of our attention to it, and we impose upon it a coherence which allows us to say what is wrong and in what directions the situation needs to be changed. (From Schon, The Reflective Practitioner, Basic Books, 1983)


The Objectives of Reiterative Problem-Based Learning

The business professional must acquire, (1) an essential body of knowledge, (2) the ability to use that knowledge effectively in the management of business situations and problems, and (3) the ability to extend or improve that knowledge and to approach effectively future business situations that they may face. These three objectives are simultaneously addressed in reiterative problem-based learning.

1. Learning content in context.

Traditionally, required business knowledge (content) has been defined by scholars, divided into disciplines, and taught to students in compartments. There may be some limited attempt to help students learn how to "apply" the knowledge after it is learned or, more likely, that may be left to on-the-job training. Most schools try to "integrate" the various disciplines through a business policy course at the end of the program.

Unfortunately, there tends to be limited recall of content learned. Students, study, cram, pass a final exam, and promptly forget much of what was learned. Typically, on-the-job training involves more than learning how to apply knowledge, it involves (re)learning knowledge.

A number of studies in cognitive psychology that have addressed the retention, retrieval, and appropriate use of information indicate that the retention of new information depends on its integration with existing knowledge, and to its organization and reorganization in long-term memory through use and reuse. Retrieval and use of information in task context (business situation context) requires that the information is learned in work with business situations so that the cues that appear while working in the task situation will stimulate retrieval of appropriate information through memory associations. Learning in context causes the information that is being acquired to be organized or structured in the mind in ways that are useful to its application to business situations. RPBL allows students to integrate, use, and reuse newly learned information in the context of business situations.

2. Developing Managerial Reasoning and Inquiry Skills

Business schools pay limited attention to the development of these skills. There may be courses on problems solving, but these tend to "teach" the process rather than develop the skill. There is frequently some use of "cases" to help students learn how to apply knowledge. In many instances these are fully developed case histories or problems vignettes that contain all of the information the learner needs to know about the problem being analyzed; these are well structured problems.

By contrast, in the real world, business problems that present themselves to managers are ill structured problems in which the information that is needed to set the problem, solve it, and determine action to be taken is not available at the outset and will have to be obtained through inquiry. Managers must then follow some approximation of the following process: (1) the generation of appropriate hypotheses as tentative definitions of the problem to guide effective problem oriented inquiry, (2) the design of an effective inquiry strategy, (3) the analysis of new information derived from this inquiry against the tentative hypotheses, (4) a continuing synthesis of the problem, assembling significant new information into a growing definition of the problem,(5) the generation of new hypotheses and strategies as appropriate, and (6) decisions about problems and actions despite incomplete, confusing, and ambiguous information. In RPBL, students are confronted with Ill-structured problems, and are expected to use this process repeatedly during the process of learning content and the application of content.

3. Developing Self-directed Learning Skills.

In the typical classroom, the faculty member assumes the responsibility for the students learning - faculty teach the students. The faculty member defines the domain to be studied, directs the student to the resources that contain the body of knowledge, lectures and/or answers questions to help the students understand the body of knowledge, and assess the student's learning. The student is relatively passive in the process; he or she simply follows faculty directions.

Managers are continually confronted with the need to update their knowledge and skills. The knowledge domain relevant to the business professional is continually expanding. Yet little is done in the educational process to prepare them to take responsibility for their own learning.

Students assume primary responsibility for their learning in reiterative problem-based learning. During the process of confronting ill-structured problem situations, students must determine what is relevant knowledge (what they need to know to be able to confront the problem), what resources they can use to learn the knowledge, and (through the application of the knowledge to the problem) assess the extent to which they have learned. In short, students learn how to learn.


The Process of Reiterative Problem-Based Learning

Students are presented with an ill-structured problem situation and are challenged to analyze and set the problem and decide upon action to the extent possible, based on their own knowledge, experience, and reasoning skills. A faculty tutor keeps them on process and makes sure that they are carefully considering each step; not by giving any information or judgments but by asking questions (Have you thought of all the factors that might have created this situation? How are you going to find out the information you need? How does that fact relate to your hypothesis?/...etc.). These are the kinds of questions that the students should be asking themselves, and as they start to, the tutor backs out of the group's interactions.

At the same time the students are challenged to evaluate the knowledge they already have that relates to the problem situation and to list the knowledge they will need to acquire through self-directed study. The first phase ends when the students have committed themselves to the nature of the problem and how it is to be managed and have identified the areas they are going to study and the resources they plan to use in their study.

In summary, at the end of the first session students will have (1) set learning objectives, (2) set the problem, (3) developed hypotheses about action, (4) noted factual information they possess, (5) identified learning issues, and (6) identified learning sources.

The second phase begins when the students return. They are asked to critique the learning sources they used and self-directed learning is directly addressed.

As a result of their self-directed study they are considered experts, having acquired the information and the skill they need to analyze and manage the problem situation. They start over at the beginning analyzing and setting the problem, summarizing their factual information, and generating hypotheses about alternative actions. They are applying new knowledge to the problem situation and critiquing their prior knowledge and reasoning. Content learned and managerial reasoning and inquiry skills are fully discussed. This second phase may have raised further learning issues that need to be addressed and the problem may need to be returned to again.

Regardless of the number of iterations, at the final step in the process, students are asked to verbalize and synthesize what they have learned. They may be asked to indicate how this process has extended their knowledge of business concepts and how the experience will prepare them to approach similar problem situations in the future. The problem solver is often not aware of what has been learned because so much of the learning is associated with problem-solving. The newly acquired knowledge will be recalled in association with similar problem situations in the future, but it is often not available for recall in declarative form where it can be used for other purposes (like answering questions about isolated facts on examinations). The process of verbal synthesis will help in the process of declarative recall.

Thus, at the conclusion of the process students should be able to make an effective decision regarding action in the problem situation, demonstrate managerial reasoning and inquiry skill, identify new knowledge learned, and identify useful sources for obtaining the new knowledge.

Discussion Document 1988 Do not quote without permission