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What is Problem-Based Learning?

DIT's Physics undergraduate programmes make use of e-learning in many areas and begin in first year with the teaching of physics through Problem-Based Learning which the School has pioneered through the work of the Physics Education Research Group. The ability to solve problems is more than just accumulating knowledge and rules; it is the development of flexible, cognitive strategies that help analyse unanticipated, ill-structured situations to produce meaningful solutions. Even though many of today's complex issues are within the realm of student understanding, the skills needed to tackle these problems are often missing from our pedagogical approaches.

Typical problem solving often tends to be situation specific with well-defined problem parameters that lead to predetermined outcomes with one correct answer. In these situations, it is often the procedures required to solve the problem that are the focus of instruction. Unfortunately, students skilled in this method are not adequately prepared when they encounter problems in which they need to transfer their learning to new domains, a skill required to function effectively in society.

Problem based learning (PBL) is a total pedagogical approach to education that focuses on helping students develop self-directed learning skills. It was originally developed in medical education in 1960s but has since spread into other subjects. It derives from the theory that learning is a process in which the learner actively constructs new knowledge on the basis of current knowledge. Unlike traditional teaching practices in higher education, where the emphasis is on the transmission of factual knowledge, the courses consists of a set of problems that are carefully sequenced to ensure the students are taken through the curriculum. The students encounter these problem-solving situations in small groups that are guided by a tutor who facilitates the learning process by asking questions and monitoring the problem-solving process.

What the students think of PBL

  • "having fun learning"
  • "learning from each other"
  • "don’t fall behind as everyone is constantly learning"
  • "it is more effective and enables you to remember better"
  • "you have to interact and so cannot be lazy"
  • "the real-life problems are more interesting and challenging"

You can read more about the student perspective as reported recently in the Irish Times Education Supplement. The article is reproduced here.

What does PBL try to do?

The main goal of a problem-based learning course is to promote deep learning in order to achieve higher levels of cognitive learning. If the students adapt a deep learning approach they will attain a thorough understanding of the subject instead of the superficial understanding associated with surface learning. The methodology also helps students learn how to learn in order to develop self-directed learning skills. Another outcome of this teaching methodology is the development of key skills such as the ability to work in a group and to communicate, and present, information effectively.

Even though problem-based learning developed out of practice in McMaster University in the 1960s, it is soundly based in well established learning theories, such as

  • Learning is a process in which the learner actively constructs new knowledge on the basis of current knowledge and understanding
  • Learning is an active process of finding out in which learning only occurs by doing
  • Social and contextual factors influence learning
  • Students should be allowed to learn in a way that suits them
  • Knowing about knowing (or metacognition) affects learning

In PBL the problems are encountered before all relevant knowledge has been acquired and serve as the context for new learning. Their analysis and resolution result in the acquisition of knowledge and problem-solving skills.

pbl_01.jpg PBL is not just about problem solving

It is important to have a clear understanding of the distinction between learning via problem-solving learning and problem-based learning (PBL). In engineering and physics the use of problem-solving learning is well established. In this method the students are first presented with the material, usually in the form of a lecture, and are then given problems to solve. These problems are narrow in focus, test a restricted set of learning outcomes, and usually do not assess other key skills. The students do not get the opportunity to evaluate their knowledge or understanding, to explore different approaches, nor to link their learning with their own needs as learners. They have limited control over the pace or style of learning and this method tends to promote surface learning. Surface learners concentrate on memorisation whereas deep learners use their own terminology to attach meaning to new knowledge.

In PBL, the students determine their learning issues and develop their unique approach to solving the problem. The members of the group learn to structure their efforts and delegate tasks. Peer teaching and organisational skills are critical components of the process. Students learn to analyse their own and their fellow group members learning processes and, unlike problem-solving learning, must engage with the complexity and ambiguities of real life problems. It is ideally suited for the development of key skills, such as the ability to work in a group, problem-solving, critique, improving personal learning, self-directed learning, and communication.

There has been a reluctance to introduce problem-based learning into physics courses due to the pedagogical view that the students require a sound body of knowledge and mathematical skills before they are equipped to engage with this process. It has been found in research that first year students tend to rely more on lecture notes more than students in later years and that first year students tend to be assessment driven. However, it has been shown in the School of Physics that problem-based learning can be successfully introduced into first year if it is facilitated correctly and the tutors are aware that the students are only in the early stages of developing as self-directed learners.

PBL in the DIT School of Physics

In September 2001 the School of Physics at the Dublin Institute of Technology introduced a Problem-Based Learning approach to the teaching of physics in the first year of the Degree in Applied Sciences. This method encourages students to engage in self directed study in a group environment. Alongside embedding scientific skills, many other skills are developed including team work, report writing, communication skills, critical thinking, problem solving skills and presentation skills. The course also makes use of the Virtual Learning Environment through the provision of web-based resources using WebCT.

The feedback from students, staff and international peer reviewers has been very positive. Unlike traditional teaching practices in higher education, where the emphasis is on the transmission of factual knowledge, a problem based learning course consists of a set of problems that are carefully sequenced to ensure the students are taken through the curriculum. The students encounter these problem-solving situations in small groups that are guided by a tutor who facilitates the learning process by asking questions and monitoring the problem-solving process.

Use is also made of the Virtual Learning Environment, which provides a platform for students to interact in a dedicated site as well as providing access to course material.

Staff members have found that this mode of delivery allows students to learn in their own learning style and at their own pace. It has been our experience that PBL suits students of all abilities. Within this course the entry points of the students range from 265 to 430. 50% have not studied leaving certificate physics and only 33% have leaving certificate mathematics at higher level.

The following outlines the key features of the PBL process in DT222: the orientation program, the problem development process, the group process, the assessment/feedback process, the reflection process, tutorial support and the website

    • Orientation Program
      Research has shown that students starting a problem-based learning course for the first time were at different stages of readiness for self-directed learning, and that they would benefit from an orientation course which highlighted: the lecturer’s expectation for self-directed learning; the role of the facilitator; the principles and practices of learning in groups; and issues of time management. In order to address these findings an orientation program was developed in the School of Physics which introduces and explains the PBL rational and philosophy, the teaching methodology, assessment strategies and the learning resources which are available to the students. The orientation process is designed to be interactive and discursive and allows the student to experience group learning for the first time as they work together to solve puzzles and trivial problems.
    • Problem Development Process
      Research carried out in Maastricht University showed that the most important elements for a successful problem-based learning course are the tutor and the problems. In designing our problems we started by listing the learning outcomes and then developing appropriate problems which would allow the students to achieve those outcomes. It is crucial to design the problems in such a way that the students are forced to achieve the required learning outcomes in order to reach a solution to the problem. The problems were developed along with an assessment strategy before the course was launched. Problems were developed for Year 1 of the course which covered particular sections of the physics curriculum, e.g. mechanics or optics.
    • Group Process
      The students work in groups to solve a problem. A typical group size is six students and at the start of the year each group will have a tutor observing the process and acting as facilitator. In Year 1 the students are presented one problem per week and have two two-hour PBL group sessions to work on these with a tutor present. The students are expected to work on their individual tasks outside of class time. During the first few problems they learn about group work and start to develop their interpersonal skills. At first the idea of a physics problem with no one correct answer or solving strategy inhibits the students learning. It is only after the students have had a number of group sessions that they begin to evaluate the problem in terms of prior knowledge and experience. During these brainstorming sessions the problem scenario becomes clearer allowing them to evaluate what knowledge and skills they will need to solve the problem. The process of explaining something to the rest of the group proves challenging even for the best of students. The students attribute this to the fact that they have never had to explain any of their knowledge to a peer. The students then find themselves facing the task of defending their knowledge if challenged by a peer. It is these situations that allow the students to gain a thorough understanding of the knowledge they already have and evaluate the gaps in this knowledge.

      Initially the students use the “four columns” technique where they list the facts, ideas, learning issues and tasks. However as the course develops the students develop their own strategies based on the four columns. The PBL group process can be loosely divided up into the following steps:

Group Process
Presentation of the problem
Delegation within groups
Brainstorming sessions with tutor questioning
Tutor observation, direction and support
Groups determine learning needs

Independent Study
Source material
Critical analysis
Self-directed learning

Group Process
Critical evaluation of acquired knowledge
Peer tutoring
Tutor interaction
Work towards a solution and understanding through consensus
Presentation of solution by report or presentation
Reflection on the process

  • Assessment/Feedback Process
    After a few problems the students become more aware of their roles and the expectations the tutors have of them as individuals and as group members. The group is continuously assessed and the students are given regular feedback. A complete set of assessment criteria for the group process was developed and includes such things as their level of contribution, peer-teaching, questioning, and completion of group assigned tasks. Based on these criteria each student is given a mark for their work and these marks are supported with extensive feedback.

Self-assessment is introduced about halfway through the Year 1. The students attend a workshop where the rationale and objectives of self-assessment are explained followed by a negotiation of the assessment criteria. From this point on, after problem each student is required to evaluate his or her own contribution to the group process and award a mark based on the criteria. The students complete a form on which they write a mark out of ten and justification for that mark. To develop self-directed and metacognitive learners the students are required to explain where they lost marks and describe what they will do different in the next session.

Upon completion of a problem the group produces a report or gives a presentation, both of which have detailed assessment criteria. This continuous assessment and feedback process is designed to assist student learning and promote deep learning. To augment this process a WebCT on-line learning resource was developed. While the WebCT site includes course information, a calender, links to other physics sites, simulations, quizzes, tests and communication tools it is mainly used as a vehicle for the tutors to provide feedback to the students.

  • Reflection Process
    Reflection is a key process in transforming and integrating new experiences and understanding with existing knowledge and is of critical importance when students are adapting to a new teaching methodology. In order to force the students to reflect on the learning process they are asked to reflect on the problems, the solving strategy they chose, the learning outcomes, the abilities they developed and problem-based learning. At first this can be a very didactic process in which the information has to be coaxed from the students but with familiarity with the process it becomes more discursive. Initially it surprises the students to see they are learning so much and they are developing key skills but this is all part of the learning process and the development of their learning identities.
  • Tutorial Support
    The physics students are given regular tutorials or review lectures on some of the theory or problem-solving tools they will have learned by solving the problem. The purpose of this is to re-affirm the knowledge the students have gained and to give the students confidence in themselves and the teaching technique. It also allows them the opportunity to assess their learning and evaluate their learning needs. The students are made aware of the objectives of these presentations so that they do not come to rely on this for their learning but only use them to reaffirm and check the level of their learning.
  • Outcomes
    The major advantages of problem-based learning courses are that the students develop the ability to learn independently and in groups, develop key skills and the ability to contest and debate. It helps the students acquire ownership of their learning experiences by giving them control of the learning process. By learning in this way the students become motivated self-directed learners. It also offers the students the chance to engage with real-life problems and helps them see the ambiguity that may exist in real life situations. It develops a sound understanding of the knowledge and the ability to critique information. It allows the students to make sense of the material in their own way by integrating newly acquired knowledge with prior knowledge and experiences.
  • Website
    When the problem-based learning (PBL) first year physics course was first introduced a website was developed to help manage the course. It was envisaged that the website would be used to provide the students with course information and feedback from formative assessments. However through continuous development the website has grown to become an integral and essential element of the PBL physics course. Its functionality has increased to include online tutorials, assignments, quizzes, individual students feedback pages, calender, noticeboard and details of the laboratory project programme. This virtual learning environment was developed using the WebCT course building platform that allows the PBL tutors to track the students usage and progress. The PBL course assessment strategy includes collaborative assessment of each student's individual contribution to the group learning process and assessment of reports and presentations. The feedback from these assessments, which are both formative and summative, is provided through the WebCT site. The students are also required to complete regular online multiple-choice quizzes as part of the overall continuous assessment. The site is being continually developed through student and pedagogical evaluations so as to enhance students learning.