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Measuring the effect of problem-based learning instructional program on reflective thinking development.

This study aimed at measuring the effect of using problem-based learning (PBL) on reflective thinking development for tenth grade students in Jordan schools. The study sample consisted of 70 students divided randomly into two groups; experimental (36) and control (34) students. To collect the study data, a reflective thinking test (RTT) was used to measure the effect of the instructional program on the experimental group. The means, standard deviations and One-Way-ANCOVA analysis were calculated to verify the significance of differences between the means in both groups. The results showed a positive effect of PBL as significantly helpful strategy in promoting the students' reflective thinking. While there is more research to be conducted, the finding of this study concludes by outlining suggestions for creating an environment that encourages problem-based learning at Jordanian schools.

Keywords: Problem-based learning; reflective thinking; problem solving; learning processes; educational programs; secondary school students.


Our schools need to implement the learning strategies of modern education to be transformed from its traditional to non-traditional (progressive) role. One of the progressive school goals is to develop higher-order thinking and inquiry skills among students to construct effective mental maps or models and paradigms to help them acquire a system of knowledge, skills, values, and applying and developing it to be positive change agents in their communities (Marzano, 1988; Resnick & Hall, 1998; Costa & Kallick, 2000; Duffy, 2009). Problem-based learning (PBL) is considered one of the effective strategies that this study tackles and which contribute to the development of students cognitive and meta- cognitive thinking skills.

The roots of PBL can be traced to the progressive movement and cognitive school of psychology, which holds a vision that education is a process that aims at developing the strategic learner and teacher. Thus, the content and the required strategies should be meaningful, integrated, transferable, and developable (Delisle, 1997).

Historically, Howard B arrows, a pioneer in the development of PBL, first developed strategy in McMaster University in Canada. This strategy was used for enhancing students' abilities in Medicine College to think and deal with health problems in different situations and circumstances. After proving its success in the medical field, Barrows's strategy caused a revolution in education (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993). Currently, it is used at nearly most medical colleges worldwide, at schools from K-12, and for training teachers to implement it to help students develop their thinking skills and solve their problems through learning the content of the school curricula (Delisle, 1997).

Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) defined PBL, as "the learning that results from the process of working toward the understanding or solving a problem" ( p. 18). That is the principle behind PBL. It is a methodology that situates learning in complex and meaningful problems that are framed in authentic contexts (Hmelo, 1994). Students work in small groups to acquire the conceptual knowledge and procedural skills needed to develop one or more plausible solutions to each of the problems creatively and cooperatively presented to them (Savery & Duffy, 1995; Barrows, 1996; Wee; Kek & Sim, 2001; Cotic & Zuljan, 2009).

According to Delisle (1997), using PBL releases a teacher from the limitations of the school curricula. For a teacher who uses PBL, any incident, whether inside or outside the school can formulate an effective PBL problem. There is no limit to the variety of purposes behind PBL problems. Teachers can develop problems to address students' interest or lives, the curriculum, school and community improvement or to solve interpersonal problems in the classroom. Problems can be designed for a particular content area or interdisciplinary curriculum; they can be designed by individual teacher or collaboratively for team teaching.

However, whether selected from existing curriculum materials or designed by a teacher, "problems should be developmentally appropriate, grounded in students' experience, and curriculum based. Problems should accommodate a variety of teaching and learning strategies and styles, and they should promote the acquisition of knowledge as well as the development of skills. In addition, the problem should be ill-structured so that as students perform additional research, discover the problem's complexity and understand that it may have a number of solutions. Regardless of the purpose for which a problem has been selected and designed, a teacher generally follows the process of selecting content and skills, determining availability of resources, writing a problem statement, choosing a motivation activity, developing a focus question, and determining an evaluation strategy"( Delisle, 1997, p. 24)

One justification of using PBL is that it works well with all students, making its strategies ideal for heterogeneous groups and appropriate for an interdisciplinary curriculum. By allowing students to direct their own activities and by giving them greater responsibilities, teacher's role is to encourage students to be more independent, and assess and evaluate the success of the problem as well as students' performance. As a result, PBL design is intended to assist learners to stimulate their key meta-cognitive skills, such as planning, monitoring and self-evaluation (Bauer, 1992; Gijselaers, 2000; Kish., Sheehan., Cole., Struyk. & Kinder. 1997; Barrows, 1998; Sharp. 2003).

Sternberg (1986) suggests that meta-cognitive skills contribute to identifying the nature of the problem, choosing the most appropriate strategy to arrange the components related to the problem solving, transferring the mental representations into visual charts, gathering information from all relevant resources and monitoring the possible solutions and evaluating them. All these processes constitute the basic dimensions of reflective thinking concept.

Reflective thinking concept stemmed from the seminal work of well known scholars such as; Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, Lev Vygotsky and Ausubel. They all agree that reflective thinking is a meta-cognitive process, which might be formulated in part through formal education (Gallagher., Stepien., Sher, & Workman, 1995; Stepien & Pyke, 1997). Reflective thinking enhances the students' ability to transform implicit knowledge to an explicit and meaningful one (Gore & Zeichner,1984; Noffke & Brennan, 1988; Peterson, Fennema, carpenter & Loef, 1989; Freeman, 1991).

According to Mezirow (2003) unlike problem solving, reflective thinking implies a critical review of hypotheses pertinent to the nature of the problem. He agrees with Van Mannen (1995),that higher levels of reflective thinking concerned with beliefs, assumptions and hypotheses as well as the manner, which we think of in solving problems. Thus, reflection can be viewed as a meaning making process, a rigorous way of thinking and attitude. In this context, Wenzlaff, (1994); Delisle, (1997); Tiwari., Chan., Sullivan., Dixon & Tang. (1999); Moon, (2004) indicated that reflection is affected by teaching strategy being used and the type of situation. In PBL, students provided with something to do, not something to know. This process positively impacts the development of the meta-cognitive skills of learners, but research validating this assumption, however, is scarce. The research conducted to date on the role of PBL in developing the meta-cognitive skills of learners appears very limited

Schon, 1987; Zeichner & Liston, 1996; Peterson., Fennema., Carpenter & Loef (1989); Bauer (1992); Kish., Sheehan., Cole., Struyk & Kinder (1997) believe that students' ability of reflective thinking could be nurtured in PBL. On the other hand (Russell, 1993; Brookfield, 1995; Vissar, 2003; Pyron & Sharp, 2006) pointed out the importance of reflection in the process of problem solving, since the learning tasks that students encounter are, in most cases, are ill structured. Within this capacity, a strong basis exists that supports PBL's contribution to students' reflective thinking.

Results of the studies conducted by (Gilbert, 2001; West, 2001; Rodgers, 2002) confirmed susceptibility of reflective thinking for development. Studies conducted by Parsons & Stephenson, 2005; Gore & Zeichner, 1984; Maher, 1991; Ross, 1990; Zeichner & Listen, 1996; Milner, 2003; Kish., Sheehan., Cole., Struyk & Kinder. 1997 identified reflective journals, classroom discussions, student portfolio, effective listening, empathy and cooperative learning as important methods in developing reflective thinking.

However, Clift, Houston & Pugach (1990); Ross (1990); Wenzlaff, (1994) showed that there is no consensus on the effectiveness of these methods in developing reflective thinking for students. Moreover, the available studies failed in identifying the typical method which helps students to develop reflective thinking.

Even though we ask students in our schools to be reflective practitioners, but actually we still do not train them on how to develop such a skill during their studies. Reflective thinking is a complicated concept that needs further research to evaluate the methods that are used in developing it effectively.

Statement of Study Problem

Studies show that while students are making progress in acquiring basic skills at school curricula, only a small percentage perform at desired grade levels in developing these increasingly vital abilities (Delisle, 1997) in the shadow of educational systems, which still traditionally practice their role represented in social reproduction which is no longer effective (Fareire, 1993). Moreover, higher order thinking skills development is neither paid enough attention, nor measured explicitly whether in low stakes tests at schools or high stakes national tests (U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics, 1997).

Despite the acknowledgement of the importance of developing reflective thinking in theory, relatively little research has been conducted on this theme in practice (Jonassen, 1994). Additionally, within the existing research, fewer contributions have been made to the development of instructional design approaches for Authentic and ill-defined tasks, which are especially important characteristics of problem-based learning environments (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Barrows, 1998), as helpful strategies in developing reflective thinking. Students do not experience it at our schools or even at universities. They only learn and think in a linear way at lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy (Rodgers, 2002; Zechner & Listen, 1996). Moreover, our schools also, do not implement training programs that develop reflective thinking. In addition, the teaching strategies that are practiced at schools are still traditional and do not contribute to the development of reflective thinking, which emphasizing the need to activate the role of training programs in the development of reflective thinking skills.

Importance of the Study

Educational policy makers, school principals, teachers, students and researchers are expected to benefit from present study results. PBL uses real problems which aim at improving students' ability to develop their learning strategies, hence it is expected that this study contributes to calling the attention of educational policy makers to review the programs' structures at schools and universities starting from kindergartens to improve the quality of education at schools.

This study may also call the attention of school principals and teachers to the importance of using PBL strategy in implementing school curricula. This allows students to participate in addressing topics included in school curricula as real problems (Torp & sage, 2002 (to make them creative and productive.

This study provides a theoretical framework for researchers and teachers who are concerned with problem-based learning and reflective thinking development. Furthermore, noticing the paucity of an instruments developing and measuring students' reflective thinking, the tools developed in this study may provide other researchers with useful tools for future studies

Literature Review

A comprehensive manual and electronic review of major educational databases using the terms "problem-based learning" and "reflective thinking" shows that none of these bases reported research with this relationship. Consequently, this study came to bridge the gap as an addition to the knowledge in this approach. Related research and studies were classified into two groups; the first group addressed the impact of various training programs on developing reflective thinking (see for example, Shepherd, 1998; Kember., Jones., Loke., McKay., Sinclair., Tse., Webb., Wong., Wong & Yeung, 1999; Lippincott, 1999; Rosen, 2000; Ingram, 2001; Gilbert, 2001; West, 2001; Socha,, Razmov & Davis, 2003; Rees, Watkins & Morris, 2003). Results of these studies pointed out that there is a positive impact for those programs on the development of reflective thinking for experimental groups in comparison with the control groups. The second group addressed the effectiveness of reflective thinking training programs in developing the students' ability to practice reflection (see for example, Kwan & Fng, 1997; Sullivan, 1997; Petty, 1997; Kenton, 2002; Kincaid, 2002; Rehm, 2002). Results of these studies indicated that there is a positive impact for reflective thinking training programs on developing students' ability to tackle the problems effectively and positively.

The most important conclusion from the extensive review of literature is that in spite of an obvious interest to consider reflective thinking in the educational process, studies have failed to concur on the typical method to measure reflective thinking level for students Wenzlaff, 91994), Kember., Leung., Jones., Loke., McKay., Harrison., Webb., Wong., & Yeung, (2000) also indicated that in spite of the several studies which aim at developing reflective thinking, there are not enough instruments that measure reflective thinking development. Moreover, this study is distinguished for implementing PBL to develop Jordanian school students' reflective thinking skills.



The study population consisted of tenth grade students who study at schools affiliated to one of the directorates of the Ministry of Education in Jordan (total of 33 male and female schools). Of targeted schools (15 male school students included (983) students), two schools were selected randomly to conduct this study. From each school, one section was randomly chosen as experimental (36 students) and the other as control (34 students).


Reflective Thinking Test (RTT)

Based on an extensive review of the reflective-thinking literature and instruments (see for example, Van Manen & Jok 2004; Sparks-Langer., Simmons., Pasch., Colton., & Starko 1990; Wolcott, & Lynch, 2002; B arrows, 1998; Kember., Jones., Loke., McKay., Sinclair., Tse., Webb., Wong., Wong & Yeung, 1999; Kember., Leung. with Jones., Loke., McKay., Harrison., Webb., Wong & Yeung, 2000 & Song., Koszalka, & Grabowski, 2005), a multiple choice test was developed by the researcher to measure the development of reflective thinking among the experimental group in comparison with the control group. The test was composed of 20 question items distributed on five main dimensions: visualization, understanding conflicting factors in a situation, reaching conclusions, providing convincing explanations, and developing a solution to the issue. The design elements included teacher explanations and questions, real-life tasks, the use of scaffolding tools such as concept mapping, reflective writing and reflective question prompts, and supportive and flexible learning-environment elements including collaborative learning, complex learning activities and learner control. To correct the students' answers, they were asked to choose the alternative, which they believe true. So that the correct answer takes one mark and zero for wrong answer

To establish the psychometric characteristics of the RTT, The test was presented to a group of specialists in the field of measurement and evaluation. They were asked to review the questions and assess the potential of the test to measure reflective thinking, and to express their opinions of clarity and accuracy of items language phrasing, level of relatedness and comprehensiveness of the items in the scale that it belongs to it, and also to add any appropriate suggestions. The test has its significant content validity represented by the agreement of 80% of the judges that the test items represented important elements hypothesized to develop reflective thinking. Therefore, all items were retained.

To ensure the test reliability, Cronbach's alpha coefficient for internal consistency was calculated according to students' responses on each of the items making up the instrument. The total value of alpha coefficient for the test was (0.91). Difficulty and discrimination coefficients, Corrected Item-Total Correlations for test questions were calculated as well.

Instructional Program

The instructional program was based on the framework proposed by Robert Delisle's book (1997) which consisted of the following components: connecting with the problem, setting up the structure, visiting the problem, revisiting the problem, producing a product or performance, and evaluating performance and the problem. The key elements of the program such as objectives, content, resources, implementation procedures and evaluation strategy were also determined by the researcher based on the work of Woods (2006).

In an effort to ensure content validity, initial draft of the program was submitted to a committee from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Jordan, with expertise in the area of teaching methodologies. They were asked to review the program and give their opinions about its components, content, suitability for developing reflective thinking skills and the timeline needed for each training session. Judges provided several notes related to written problem statements, focusing questions, students' activities and its purposes in addition to some linguistic modifications at the program. The researcher considered 80% of raters' consensus as enough for approval and 20% of raters' comments as enough for removing, adding, or modifying.

The program was also pilot-tested with a sample which consisted of (12) students in the tenth grade and from out of the study sample to ensure readability and consistent interpretation by the intended audience of the program. As a result, students showed interest and understanding to training situations and application procedures within the allocated time for each session.


To conduct the study, a set of procedures were applied as follow. First, the study measures were prepared; PBL program and reflecting thinking test. Then, the validity and reliability of the study measures were verified. After that, ethics approvals to conduct the study were obtained from the Scientific Research Committees at the University of Jordan and the Ministry of Education. Anonymity and confidentiality of the respondents were ensured throughout the study. After identifying the study groups, the researcher divided then randomly into two groups; experimental who were taught by using (PBL) and controlled by using traditional method. And this is what is called sampling. Next, pretests were given to both experimental and control groups, and then their responses were corrected and entered to the computer.

After the pretests, the instructional program was implemented on the experimental group during the second term in 2010/2011 (26 periods) distributed on three weekly classes. The post-tests were administered on both the experimental and control groups, and then their responses were corrected and entered to the computer. Having gathered the responses of both groups , they were analyzed by using Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) coming up with results, presenting and discussing them, and proposing suggestions based on the results as follow:

Results and Discussions

In response to the research question, What is the effect of using problem based learning program in reflective thinking development at tenth grade students?, Means and standard deviations for students' performance on reflective thinking test in pretest and posttest measures for both experimental and control groups were calculated. Also One-Way-ANCOVA analysis and means were run to ensure the impact of PBL, Table (1) illustrates the results.

The ranking of the modified mean scores reveals differences between students' performance means on reflective thinking post-test measurement for experimental and control groups. To verify the statistical significance of such apparent differences between them and for the favor of which group, One--Way --ANCOVA analysis was conducted. Table 2 shows the results.

The data analysis revealed significance differences between experimental and control groups on reflective thinking test. The F value was 108.65 at P [less than or equal to] 0.05. The differences were in favor of the experimental group, which indicates that the program contributed to the development of reflective thinking for students. This result is consistent with studies' results conducted by Gilbert, 2001; West, 2001; Rodgers, 2002 in which they indicate that there is a positive impact for training programs in developing and practicing reflective thinking.

In conclusion, one of the most meaningful finding is that this study confirmed the positive impact of PBL as a significantly helpful teaching strategy in developing the students' reflective thinking. However, the transformation process to integrate such sophisticated type of learning successfully in many settings and for a variety of subjects (e.g., K-12 classrooms, college students) requires considering other factors such as reflective learning environments and scaffolding reflective thinking (Moon, 1999b; Chin & Chia, 2004; Song., Koszalka, & Grabowski, 2005;). In that sense, teachers play an important role as reflective guides in helping students to formulate feasible problems, action plans, evaluate evidence, and propose creative solutions. By using a variety of scaffolding tools such as reflective questions, graphic organizers, guide sheets, teachers can help to develop students' thinking as they work toward solving their problems. Because most authentic problems in our real lives are ill structured, students are better prepared and equipped to face future real-world challenges when given the experience of working on ill-structured problems in school curricula

While there is more research to be conducted, the findings of this study concludes by outlining suggestions for creating an environment that encourages PBL at Jordanian schools to facilitate developing reflective thinking for students. These are:

* Providing training programs for teachers on effective practice of PBL strategy to be gradually integrated at a variety of school curricula and grade levels to develop reflective thinking for students.

* Providing an infrastructure for active learning to allow rearranging the classrooms according to learning outcomes, students' behavioral expectations and type of activities that achieve PBL goals.

* Providing resources inside and outside the classroom, and school in which students choose from according to their research plans.

* Investing the class time to the maximum by teachers and encouraging students to continue their activities at free time.

* Holding training workshops for students and stakeholders; teachers, supervisors, administrators, school principals and parents to raise their awareness regarding the nature of the PBL and its requirements.

* Conducting further research to evaluate effectiveness of PBL on reflective thinking development compared to other strategies.

* Linking students' learning and school curricula to real-life challenges for meaningful learning.

* Reconsidering school schedule to provide enough time for implementing curriculum within PBL environment

* Reconsidering school's mission and vision to improve the quality of educational processes and outcomes at Jordanian schools.

Finally, Previous research indicated that collaborative learning including problem-solving, decision-making and team-building activities were perceived as the most helpful component in problem-based learning environment and in developing students' reflective thinking (see for example, Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Barrows, 1998; Song., Koszalka, & Grabowski, 2005). Therefore, teachers and students need to be trained on leadership skills for successful implementation of PBL design in various situations.


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Dr. Hani A. Weshah, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Faculty of Educational Sciences, The University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Hani A. Weshah at
Table 1
Means and Standard Deviations for Students' Performance on Reflective
Thinking Test in Pre-post Tests and Modified Post-test for Both Groups

                   Pretest          Posttest      Modified Posttest

Group                                           Modified    Standard
                Mean     SD     Mean     SD       Means       Error

Control         9.71    1.40    10.35    1.5      10.37       0.23
Experimental    9.78    1.68    13.69   1.45      13.68       0.22

Table 2
One--Way--ANCOVA Results Between Experimental and Control Groups

Difference     Sum of              value                 Level of
resource      Squares    DF    Mean squares       F       Sig. *

Pretest        29.23      1        29.23        16.6      0.0001
Group          191.60     1        191.6       108.65    * 0.000
Error          118.17    67        1.76
Total          339.00    69

* sig. P [less than or equal to] 0.05
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Author:Weshah, Hani A.
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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