5.4 Problem-based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL), at its most straightforward, involves posing a question (usually but not always open-ended) to a group of students who are provided with resources and a facilitator, but no lectures. It is widely used in medical education. In engineering the problem might be in the context of design – ‘devise a system to … the lowest cost system meeting the specification wins.’; or ‘advise a car manufacturer how they can reduce the weight of their car door without losing impact resistance and without increasing cost’. Well-designed problems will require the students to engage in both qualitative and quantitative investigations which are new to them. PBL can also be used in a more academic engineering science context and in other professional engineering contexts such as management.

The justification for using PBL springs from the work of two extremely well-established intellectuals: Socrates espoused the dialectic method – leading and guiding students to discover for themselves: Jean Piaget – rather more recently in the first half of the twentieth century – discovered that children learn by doing, and that understanding is largely unaffected by direct instruction. He was working with younger learners than we are, but many people believe that there is still a large measure of truth in this axiom at the undergraduate level.

A key element of most PBL is that the students work in groups or teams. This implies that, before or during their first PBL exercise, they will need some training in the basics of team work (see Chapter 3.2). PBL can be used within a module, as the basis for a whole module, or as the context for a complete programme (see example below).

PBL can also refer to Project-based learning, which shares many characteristics with problem-based  learning  (see next section),  particularly  the  lack  of  lectures  and the reliance  on  the  students’  own  efforts  to  discover  and  understand. Enquiry-based Learning (EBL) is also very similar and there is a Centre for Excellence in EBL at Manchester which offers many resources on its web site [http://www.ceebl.manchester.ac.uk/ebl/].

For a more detailed exposition of PBL I recommend that you read Overton [2005]. For some examples of project topics see Chapter 3.2.

There is also an excellent report on the SHEER project which examined the attitudes of academic staff to PBL in 2008 [MacAndrew et al, 2008]. This report contains a very good discussion of the nature of PBL, its strengths,  weaknesses and practicalities. It includes such insights as (my comments in italics):

  • ‘A problem that is too simple or too complex will be counterproductive’; (see Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development in Chapter 2.4);
  • ‘[Lecturers] defined problem based learning in terms of active learning rather than passive absorption of knowledge. They put great emphasis on the technique as a means of inspiring thinking skills in their students‘;
  • Real-world problems are often fairly straightforward and do not necessarily require the qualities of a graduate’ (you could debate that one for a long time!);
  • ‘All [lecturers] equated problem based learning with students working together in small groups in order to promote engagement by students’;
  • ‘[Several lecturers] argued that part of the pursuit of excellence in teaching is that everyone ought to be using problem-based learning all the time. They went further in suggesting that it was impossible to teach properly without some element of problem-based learning in your teaching methods’;
  • ‘You have a lack of control over what they learn or the resources they use. Also they tend to remember bizarre things after class – they don’t always learn the thing you wanted them to’;
  • ‘There was agreement that well conducted problem-based sessions had a positive effect on students’ understanding‘ (NB: not learning, but understanding);
  • ‘When new lecturers start to teach they try to put in everything and this is not how you should do PBL‘;
  • ‘Some cultures engender obedience and strongly discourage challenge to authority or any form of questioning. Students from these backgrounds are likely to be bewildered by problem-based learning. These students must be helped to feel empowered in order to benefit from a problem-based approach’ (this is a very important point, but a difficult one to deal with);
  • ‘The loudest voice isn’t always the most accurate, however authoritative it might seem. Also, if they then share incorrect information it is a real problem’;(“He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.” attributed to Lao Tzu)
  • ‘The physical environment dictates what you can and cannot do’ (up to a point, Lord Copper).

Remember – these are not my points but those of practising lecturers.

So, if you decide to incorporate PBL, or indeed any teaching innovation, into one or more of your modules, how might you set about it? My check-list would be:

  • Construct the desired learning outcomes from your module. Remember that your LOs could include being effective while working in a team, and delivering outputs on time;
  • Check these against the LOs of the programme your module(s) contribute to. Revise your LOs if any particular outcome appears several times in other modules. (Twice is OK, but five times is probably not.);
  • Consider the best methods of assessing these LOs. Again check that you are not overloading the students with one particular form of assessment (e.g. written reports or oral presentations);
  • Devise, in general terms, a problem which is open ended, has qualitative and quantitative aspects, builds on understanding the students should have acquired at this stage, requires some (but not a huge amount of) new knowledge and new ideas, and leads to assessable outcomes; [This is probably your hardest task.]
  • Negotiate with your Programme Director, L&T Chairman or Head of School for the resources you will need to deliver the module. You cannot do this earlier because you need to develop an outline of your problem first. However there is no point in going further if you will not have the resources to deliver it;
  • Clear the administrative and quality procedures within your institution which apply to new or revised modules;
  • Enlist help with the detailed planning stage. You might consider employing (paid or as volunteers) postgraduates, undergraduates who have recently completed a similar module and/or staff from your university’s educational development unit;
  • Plan your approach to the many practical issues, which will include: Size of team; selecting the composition of each team; entering teams on your local VLE; location for project work and team meetings; training in team work (if not done already in earlier modules); number and timing of deliverables; whether to include a peer assessment element; who is to do the marking; mechanisms and timing of feedback to the teams;
  • Prepare (preferably using your helpers) briefing notes; deliverable pro-formas; data (is each team to use different data or work on a slightly different problem?); assessment pro-formas;
  • Brief and train the tutors, teaching assistants (TAs) and any others involved in helping with the running of the module;
  • Run the module for the first time;
  • Get student feedback (it is amazing how many questionnaires will be returned if you offer just a single mark for completion!) and consider the range of student marks;
  • Revise the module and, if necessary, its assessment procedures;
  • Report your findings and analysis to a conference on engineering education.

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

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