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Which of these assignments do you think is more likely to provide long-lasting knowledge and understanding?

1. Your team at work is having trouble meeting its deadlines. You’ve been asked to come up with three possible solutions to this problem. You’ll then work collaboratively with the team to select the best solution.

Use the following information, and any additional information you can research, to help inform your choices. Write a one-page summary explaining why you have selected the potential solutions you have chosen.

or

2. Read through the following documentation on improving team efficiency, and then answer the questions to check your level of understanding.

Or how about these options?

1. A group of kids have decided to organize an exciting new outdoor North American music festival. The festival will feature kids’ bands from around the continent. It has to be in July because of everyone’s school schedules.

You’re leading the team that will decide where the festival will be. The options are Phoenix, Arizona; Edmonton, Alberta; Springfield, Missouri; and Bar Harbor, Maine.

All of these cities have outdoor theaters or large fields where the festival could be held, but participants are concerned about what the weather will be like.

Research each of these cities, and determine which place you think would be best for the music festival. Write one page explaining your answer and providing facts to support your decision.

or

2. Research the following cities: Phoenix, Arizona; Edmonton, Alberta; Springfield, Missouri; and Bar Harbor, Maine. Write a one-page report comparing and contrasting their climates.

In each case, the first option presents you with a problem that needs to be solved. It requires you to use critical thinking skills and judgment.

The second option may require some critical thinking skills and judgment, but it mainly asks you to recite information you’ve just read.

Problem-based learning (also called scenario-based learning*), as in the first examples in each group, has many advantages, including:

  • Helping transfer information into long-term memory.
  • Teaching you how to be resourceful and to find and make use of additional information for future situations.
  • Providing context, which is how real life works – you’re much more likely to remember something if you’ve learned in a realistic setting.
  • Giving you some authority over your own learning.
  • Being much less boring than reading and responding.

The problems don’t need to be entirely open-ended. As in the music festival example, you can give learners a limited set of choices to keep the problem from being too overwhelming.

You don’t need to use problem-based scenarios for every situation. If you’re teaching something to complete beginners, they may need some initial information before being able to successfully take on a problem. But even then, beginners can often learn through trial-and-error scenarios if they’re presented in a non-threatening context. Here’s an example:

The fire alarm in your building has just gone off. It could be a false alarm, but it could be a fire. You’re in charge of making sure everyone gets out safely, and there’s not much time.

Go through the options in the diagram (or the e-learning scenario), and use your best judgment to determine what to do.

Don’t worry, you’re not really being graded or timed on this task – yet! You’ll be given feedback as you go along and will have opportunities to try again.

See how this lets people jump right into the situation without really being on the hook?

If you’re developing e-learning, scenarios with lots of animations and gaming features can be costly and time-consuming to produce. But scenarios like the first example above (helping the team meet its deadlines) don’t need to be presented in a graphics-intensive way. They require people to use their high-level brains but don’t require you to invest tens of thousands of dollars in animation to have learners solve the problem.

So when you’re faced with a teaching opportunity or are developing learning materials, think about what problems or scenarios you can place people into. If you do it thoughtfully, with clear instructions and feedback, they’ll learn and retain more and will thank you for not boring them to death.

 

*I know people might argue that they’re not exactly the same, but that’s not an argument I’m getting into here.