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Enhancing Learner Engagement, Interest, and Motivation Through Problem-Based Learning

“Too often we give children answers to remember, rather than problems to solve.” ~ Roger Lewin

Problem-based learning, a collaborative instructional model, allows learners to engage and work together to learn and solve complex and ill-structured problems. The role of the instructor is no longer of telling, but rather of facilitating the learning of the learners (Hmelo-Silver & DeSimone, 2013).

Four Goals of Problem-Based Learning

  • Construct flexible knowledge where learners understand when and why knowledge is useful.

  • Develop effective problem-solving skills where learners learn reasoning strategies for different domains and problems.

  • Promote lifelong learning skills where learners learn to become self-regulated learners.

  • Foster collaboration as learners participate in small groups.

There are several key features of problem-based learning that serve to help support the four goals. One example of a feature is a learner-centered tutorial process where learners are given little information concerning an ill-defined problem. In the problem-based learning model, learners use whiteboards as scaffolds for problem-solving. The other key features are problem, facilitation, collaboration, and reflection, all of which are embedded within the problem-based learning tutorial.

Engagement, Interest, and Motivation

There are three constructs to consider when designing for learning: engagement, interest, and motivation (Jarvela and Renninger, 2014). Learners may not possess these constructs because they are new to the role or they have not made connections to the learning. In designing for learning, the following are necessary:

  • Connect to real-world applications. Learners need to find relevance or utility in the content to be learned.

  • Create multiple ways for the learners to access the content to increase engagement.

  • Provide opportunities to scaffold and stretch their understanding to continue to develop engagement.

Problem-Based Learning in Action

My elementary learners recently engaged in a problem-based learning project. In this project, they explored a real-world problem, worked through a series of steps to analyze the problem, researched ways the problem could be solved, and then proposed a possible solution to the problem.

As an avid explorer and traveler, I presented the problem of accessing information to my learners, particularly discovering and locating geographic information on waterfalls. It has been a tedious task to look for a list or a map of waterfalls in Pennsylvania, particularly in one location. I also presented possible solutions, including using an interactive app. I have created a digital map of all of the waterfalls across the state of Pennsylvania. When you click on an icon, it displays the name and information about each waterfall in each country across the state.

Taking on the role of geographer/historian, my learners researched a problem that they had experienced or were interested in with regard to accessing information. They had to think through problems that they saw with finding interesting facts or places in their state and how to classify geographic locations across the state. Their projects included accessing information about geocaching, geographic formations, historical landmarks, local playgrounds, and recycling and trash disposal.

Through this problem-based learning project, my learners had the opportunity to engage in a real-world problem that was interesting, meaningful, and relevant. This has led to an increase in engagement and motivation as compared to other projects where learners did not have the occasion to have choices or options or even the opportunity to solve a real problem.

Planning a Problem-Based Learning Project

When planning a problem-based learning project, here are some questions to consider include:

  • What constitutes a good problem-based learning activity?

  • What does it feel like to do one as a teacher or as a student?

  • How can you, as a classroom teacher, identify a particularly good problem-based learning activity for your students?



Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E. and Christina DeSimone, "Problem-Based Learning", in The International Handbook of Collaborative Learning ed. Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver, Clark A. Chinn, Carol K. K. Chan and Angela M. O’Donnell (Abingdon: Routledge, 04 Feb 2013), accessed 28 Feb 2021, Routledge Handbooks Online.

Jarvela, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2014). Designing for learning: Interest, motivation, and engagement. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (668-685). New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.


Dr. Stephenie Schroth is an Elementary Instructor/Learning Guide; Teaching and Learning Support for the Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation

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