5.5 Project-based Learning

Project-based learning is often confused (or conflated) with problem-based learning and both usually carry the acronym PBL, although Graham (2010), in a recent very comprehensive report, has coined the abbreviation PjBL.

A definition of PjBL given by Prince and Felder (2006) is:

‘Project-based learning begins with an assignment to carry out one or more tasks that lead to the production of a final product — a design, a model, a device or a computer simulation. The culmination of the project is normally a written and/or oral report summarizing the procedure used to produce the product and presenting the outcome.’

Two institutions which have devoted a lot of time to PjBL (both in developing it, and in offering it in their curricula) are Aalborg University in Denmark (http://en.aau.dk) and Franklin W Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts  (www.olin.edu). You can even study for a Masters in PBL (with PjBL) at Aalborg if you want to take it very seriously!  However there are many more modest examples of project-based activities at many universities in the UK and elsewhere. Indeed Graham comments that the majority of PjBL in the UK is delivered through isolated modules by a small number of champions, posing the problem that such developments are rarely sustained beyond the tenure of the champion. A further, more surprising, comment is that the majority of PjBL experiences do not involve a hands-on element. It is not clear whether this dominance of paper-based or web-based exercises results from constraints imposed by lack of finance and suitable spaces, or whether teaching staff want to run them this way.

A key issue for the delivery of effective PjBL (or PBL) is the training of facilitators. Graham (2010) comments on this, as does anyone who has tried it. Effective learning via projects or problems requires significant human resources. The School of Computer Science at Manchester may be an extreme example, but Graham reports that they deploy, for a PBL module with a cohort of 250 students in teams of 6, two academic co-ordinators, 40 tutors and 12 graduate student ‘demonstrators‘, together with some external guest lecturers. Clearly the tutors are only occasionally involved, but all these people need some training to ensure that they facilitate, rather than ‘demonstrating’ or ‘lecturing’.

Colleagues commonly ask how we know that techniques such as PjBL are effective. Here at least there is some evidence, in a meta-analysis by Strobel and van Barneveld (2009) that PjBL enhances long term retention, skill development and satisfaction (of both students and staff!). Satisfaction is, if you like, a bonus – but an improvement in long term retention is very much to be welcomed. However I cannot find any thorough analysis or evaluation of whole engineering programmes delivered partly or largely by PjBL or PBL. Those evaluations which have been performed used to be found on the PBLE (Project Based Learning in Engineering) web site (www.pble.ac.uk – now apparently removed) or on the site of the former Engineering Subject Centre (http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/disciplines/engineering-materials).

A good resource to support PjBL is the Handbook assembled by Hadgraft (2009) for the University of Melbourne but openly available on the web.

For tips on how to incorporate PjBL into your teaching, look at the check-list of actions given at the end of the previous section on PBL. I will close this paragraph with a last quotation from Graham (2010). ‘The single most important element for the adoption of sustainable and successful PjBL activities is the creation of a culture/environment of support, promotion and reward for excellence and innovation in engineering education’. I agree.

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

One Response to “5.5 Project-based Learning”

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