Republic Polytechnic in Singapore has adopted an approach which is entirely based on PBL (problem based learning). Throughout its two-year Diploma courses in engineering it presents the students with a new problem every day [http://www.rp.sg/about/why_diff/index.asp]. Staff undergo substantial training (starting with a 5-day introduction) to help them act appropriately as PBL facilitators as opposed to lecturers – not something which we all pick up naturally.
They claim that this approach develops student-centred learning through ‘self-directed discovery and questioning’ and that critical reflection takes place throughout the learning process. These are splendid aims but there is as yet no evidence that Republic diplomates go on to become better graduate engineers. They certainly should.
A bold experiment in PBL was started by the University of Manchester School of Engineering in 2001. The whole of the first two years of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering programmes were devoted to PBL exercises and to long ‘structured learning’ sessions which were not lectures but might involve presentations of up to 15 minutes at a time. Early indications were that this approach improved retention and progression rates, motivated most (but not all) students and improved (but not to 100%) attendance rates. A major problem with the students was the persistence of a proportion of ‘passengers’, who contributed little to the learning of their peers. It was found (as with Republic Polytechnic) that staff training was needed to help staff cope with the role of facilitator (rather than teacher). Even so, many staff were not in favour of the new approach [http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/disciplines/engineering-materials].
Eight years later, in 2009, following a merger of Engineering Schools (UMIST and The University of Manchester) the wholehearted PBL approach has not survived, and their web site now states ‘Typically, you take lectures and tutorial classes in the mornings with laboratory classes on some afternoons. Active learning is included in some programmes through a range of small problem based projects.’ The PBL approach has not been lost, but has been seriously diluted. This is in contrast to many medical schools, where PBL was introduced sooner and still thrives.
The evidence for the success or failure of the PBL approach and PBL-trained graduates is sparse. This does not mean that PBL is unsuccessful; It reflects the fact that there is not a single undergraduate Engineering programme (in the UK at least) which offers a major PBL experience. Those universities which include PBL (and there are now quite a number of these) do so via a minority of modules and have been able to perform little analysis of their effectiveness. There is a review of the UK situation on the former Engineering Subject Centre web site [http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/disciplines/engineering-materials]
A question: Does an understanding of engineering science have to precede the appreciation of engineering applications?
Harry Bhadeshia writes: The discussion here is useful in another context. When students receive wisdom in the conventional sense of lectures or practicals, it is not clear whether they really understand the content without setting problems. However, the problems are usually not synchronised with the delivery of the wisdom. This means that the task of receiving wisdom becomes ever more difficult as the course proceeds.
I believe that one answer to this is to integrate automated learning exercises with the usual classes, using something like a MOOC or Pearson platform. In this, students address stimulating problems after each lecture, with a level of struggle involved. Their answers are automatically assessed by the system, so that they can follow their progress and be better prepared for the next class in the sequence. They can of course discuss issues arising from the problem sets either with classmates or the teacher.
I have attempted this for the first time in Cambridge, for my crystallography class. Each lecture is associated with the automated system on
The entire course consists of 9 lectures, two examples classes (two hours each), small group supervisions and the automated learning system.
The student feedback is not yet complete, but hearsay evidence suggests that the progress of students as the course proceeded was much smoother than on previous occasions.
I am now trying the same with my steels course:
A large number of Schools of Engineering around the world have committed themselves to providing programmes in the CDIO context (see above, Chapter 2, for a description of CDIO, and also see www.cdio.org). The CDIO standards include the provision of an introductory module on Engineering practice, the offering of at least two complete design-build-test experiences to every student, the extensive adoption of active learning, team work and the integration of personal, interpersonal, and product and system building skills into the curriculum. These ideas can be applied to programmes in any branch of engineering, and almost every engineering sub-discipline is represented among the CDIO adopters around the world. Indeed there is increasing interest from other non-engineering disciplines in adopting many of the same principles.
One of the implicit requirements of a change in teaching and learning style is the need for learning spaces which are not ‘lecture theatres’. Design-build-test exercises, team work and indeed many active learning techniques are best carried out in flat, open, flexible spaces. This does pose a resource problem in many institutions.
One example of the adoption of the CDIO approach is the School of Engineering at the University of Liverpool. The widespread adoption of active learning, set in the context provided by the CDIO standards, was greatly helped by the re-development of the School to include an Active Learning Lab (ALL) which enabled the whole yearly cohort of 250 students to undertake group activities simultaneously. The ALL was designed flexibly to enable a wide range of activities, as is necessary to support a diverse range of programmes, including aero, civil, mechanical, materials and general engineering. It contains large open spaces with specially designed team benches which can be moved around to configure the ALL for many different activities in the CDIO spectrum. It can thus be used for Conceiving (e.g. brainstorming in teams), Designing (via wireless laptops and rapid prototyping), Implementing (via adjacent workshop and testing facilities and using the ALL as an assembly area) and Operating (by clearing the floor to provide large open spaces for operation of devices or display of products).
The provision of a suitable physical space is clearly stimulating, but is not sufficient for embedding changes in learning and teaching styles. The project has, at the time of writing, been under development for seven years and fully running for only one. It will be at least another six years before a significant number of graduates have entered employment and real feedback on the success of the approach can be sought. Unsurprisingly, the single most difficult barrier to overcome has been the resistance of the academic staff to change. It is very easy to argue for the status quo ante when it takes 12 or 13 years to collect good evidence for the efficacy of a change. This is why leadership from the top is essential. Educational change of this magnitude cannot be undertaken on a fully ‘evidence-based’ basis; It has to be steered through by visionary leaders. (See ‘How do we know we have improved anything?’ in Chapter 6.)
For further case studies and discussion of the difficulty of embedding pedagogic change in universities you should read Graham (2012).
End of Chapter 3 (please add a comment)