Recently, in discussion with some colleagues, confusion was expressed about the terms inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, and experiential learning. How are these alike and how are they different? Are there overlaps? What distinguishes one from another? I thought providing some short definitions of these terms, along with a few resources, might be useful to others seeking clarity.
Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a term used broadly to include pedagogical approaches that put the students at the center of the learning process, allowing them to undertake investigations by asking questions to solve problems. The University of North Carolina has published an annotated bibliography of resources on IBL.
Problem-based learning (PBL) is described by the Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education site, Problem-Based Learning at University of Delaware: “In a problem-based learning (PBL) model, students engage complex, challenging problems and collaboratively work toward their resolution. PBL is about students connecting disciplinary knowledge to real-world problems—the motivation to solve a problem becomes the motivation to learn.”
And in Why PBL?, “In a problem-based learning (PBL), students work together in small groups to solve real-world problems. PBL is an active and iterative process that engages students to identify what they know, and more importantly, what they don’t know. Their motivation to solve a problem becomes their motivation to find and apply knowledge. PBL can be combined with lecture to form a hybrid model of teaching, and it can be implemented in virtually all courses and subjects.”
A widely cited book by Maggi Savin-Baden, Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education: Untold Stories [McGraw-Hill International, 2000], provides an in-depth look at PBL. See an excerpt here.
The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University has a teaching guide on team-based learning. “Team-based learning (TBL) is a structured form of small-group learning that emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class. Students are organized strategically into diverse teams of 5-7 students that work together throughout the class. Before each unit or module of the course, students prepare by reading prior to class.” The guide provides information on theory and structure, as well as a section called Where can I learn more?, which references the Team-Based Learning Collaborative as well as books and articles.
Case-based learning employs the use of discipline-specific, situational narratives as a launch pad for student learning. A case-based learning wiki from the Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia tells us that “[c]ase-based learning can cover a wide variety of instructional strategies, including but not limited to, role plays, simulations, debates, analysis and reflection, group projects and problem-solving. It provides a great deal of flexibility at the practical level.” The wiki not only describes the characteristics of case-based learning, but also discusses how to implement it – defining both the instructor’s and the students’ roles, offers some information about developing cases and designing learning activities, gives an overview of assessment, and provides references. See also The Innovative Instructor post Quick Tips: Using Case Studies.
The Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas Austin defines experiential learning as “…any learning that supports students in applying their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations where the instructor directs and facilitates learning.” These experiences can take place in a number of settings including classrooms, labs, studios, or through internships, fieldwork, community service, clinical or research projects. The UT Austin webpage on experiential learning discusses the importance of this method, how it works, what it looks like in practice, and describes the forms it can take. A list of reference is provided. See also: Learning by Doing – Case-in-Point, an Innovative Instructor blog post by Adriano Pianesi.
As this compendium demonstrates, these terms are interconnected. Inquiry-based learning is an umbrella for the pedagogies described. Case-based learning and team-based learning may be used as strategies in implementing IBL or problem-based learning. Experiential learning allows students to engage in authentic experiences with an instructor or facilitator acting as a guide.
Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
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