Welcome to my blog!
It’s better to regret trying something than to regret not trying it! … so here goes
If you’re like me then you just want your kids to realize their full potential and be happy. We can’t guarantee their happiness but some of us are in the very privileged and responsible position of having a direct influence on their educational and skills development which can in time certainly have a direct bearing on them realizing their full career potential. There is strong evidence that a fully integrated problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum has significant advantages over traditional higher education models and as such warrants careful consideration by higher education faculty and decision makers.
I set up this blog in the hope of stimulating some reflection (and maybe even discussion) on student-centred learning. I suppose even if it just captures some of my own reflections on the topic that will still be good use of my time. I’m going to try to keep it as constructive as possible and also as scholarly as I can. If you agree with any point which I make and have a supporting citation to strengthen or refine that point then please do share it. Similarly, if you disagree with anything please feel free to say so. If you have a supporting citation to back your view please share it too. I find that such discourse, when engaged in constructively, can be a really effective way to learn (in fact, social constructivism is one of my favourite learning theories!). Whether you post a comment or not, I’d just like at this point to thank for reading this far and to warmly welcome you to my humble blog! I hope you get something helpful from it.
What does student-centred learning really mean?
Well if you look it up you’ll quickly realise that it’s hard to find a concise definition.
In fairness, wikipedia gives a nice description with some supporting peer-reviewed citations. It states, for example, that ‘in a student-centered learning space, students choose what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will assess their own learning’ and cites what looks like a fairly scholarly peer-review chapter by Michael and Kathleen Hannafin (2010).
This sounds all very well in theory but without some sort of structure it also sounds like a potential recipe for disaster.
But how does this relate to problem-based learning (PBL)?
Well from what I can make out, PBL can provide such a structure while at the same time giving the students significant input into what they will learn and how they will learn it as well as effectively integrating formative and self-assessment into the whole learning process.
I don’t think PBL is the only way to foster student-centred learning. For example, so-called ‘connected learning’ and ‘integrative learning’ have attracted much well deserved attention in recent years and much of what’s written on these topics makes a lot of sense. For example, the opening sentence of a recent book on Integrative Learning [Blackshields 2015] reads: ‘Current teaching, learning, and assessment practices can lead students to believe that courses within a program are self-sufficient and separate’.
Now that’s a statement which I can relate to! I lament the number of times I’ve met students coming out of one lecture and going into another one and not having a clue how the two relate to each other. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve met students coming out of one lecture and going into another one and having a clue how the two relate to each other.
And whose fault is that? Much of what’s written about ‘connected learning’ and ‘integrative learning’ seems to suggest that the student is responsible for ‘connecting’ and ‘integrating’ all of their learning and past experiences and activities. Sure they have a big role to play in all of this and sure I’ve met lots of students over the years who try hard with varied levels of success to make this happen. But I think a lot more can be done at the programme/curriculum design and delivery level to help the students make such connections and integrate their learning in this way.
From what I’ve seen of PBL, I think it has the potential to really help the students to make those connections and pull it all together so to speak.
However, realizing the full potential of PBL requires a coordinated and systematic approach at a full program level. This in turn really requires an entire program board to work closely together to design and deliver their program. Barrows (1996) looked at the then growing use of PBL in medical education as well as a number of other disciplines and noted the wide variety of approaches with many medical schools wanting to ‘create their own variation of problem-based learning to reflect their rigor and excellence’ (p. 4). He also noted, however, that what often happened instead was more of ‘a hybrid blend of problem-based learning with elements of their conventional teaching as a compromise with faculty unconvinced about the value of problem-based learning’ (p. 4-5).
I’m not in favour of criticizing such unconvinced faculty. A lot of material which is published under the PBL banner is based on such hybrid PBL studies which are most unlikely to realize the full potential of PBL and produce convincing results.
Oleson (2014) notes that ‘faculty teach the way they were taught’. You can’t really blame them for this because when a new teacher finds themselves landed in front of a new class, they’re naturally going to be strongly influenced by their own past experience of this kind of situation. In fairness, any faculty that I’ve ever met do their absolute best to give their students the best possible learning experience and are certainly interested in trying out new approaches towards this end. But they’re generally limited in what they can do within their own individual module(s). This in turn often leads to the kind-of compromise bolt-on PBL module described above and in turn ‘requires students to move in and out of different learning approaches, passive versus active, dependent versus independent’ [Barrows 1996 p. 4]. This can make for a bad experience for both the students and the lecturer resulting in the lecturer reverting to a conventional delivery of their module. Worse still, such a bad experience of bolt-on PBL will probably turn them (students and lecturer) against PBL.
Prince (2004) discusses PBL in the context of a number of active learning strategies and notes that while such strategies are ‘often presented or perceived as a radical change from traditional instruction’, they ‘frequently polarize faculty’ (p.1). Such conflicting opinions among faculty are not new. The use of project work at architectural schools in Europe can be traced back as far as the late 1500’s [Knoll 1997]. During the period 1765 – 1880, the project was used as a regular teaching method and was transplanted from Europe to America as well as beginning to find application in Engineering education. Two schools of thought emerged, namely, those who argued that ‘theory and practice belonged together’ and saw the project method as an effective means to facilitate this and those who argued that ‘the scientific engineer was the ideal’ (Knoll 1997 p. 61). In 1887, Calvin M. Woodward declared that ‘the practical side of life, with it’s thousands of material and physical problems, was looked down upon as ignoble and unworthy serious study, … we are gradually learning that exclusively intellectual education is not exactly what the people want’ (p. 262).
The period 1915 to 1965 saw the beginning of a redefinition of the so-called project method and its transplantation from America back to Europe. An educational philosophy emerged which promoted the co-education of the hand as well as the brain, but striking the right balance between the hand and brain was an issue which generated a lot of debate among the pedagogical community (Woodward 1887 p. 264). One of the pioneers of this era was John Dewey (1859 – 1952), an American philosopher whose ideas had a strong influence on the development of both problem and project-based learning. A central facet of Dewey’s educational philosophy was the need to strike the right balance between knowledge-delivery and hands-on or experiential learning through active enquiry.
Another pioneer of this period was William H. Kilpatrick (1871 – 1965), an American pedagogue who was strongly influenced by Dewey’s ideas on education. Kilpatrick’s 1918 publication titled ‘The Project Method: The Use of the Purposeful Act in the Educative Process’ led to his name being widely associated with the modern project method.
It seems that striking the right balance between the co-education of the brain (exclusively intellectual) and the hand (practical), as Woodward puts it, has remained a bone of contention in educational philosophy right up to the present day. Perhaps there is no right balance or at least the right balance is so context-dependent that what works well for one age-group on a particular education programme will not necessarily work when applied to a different age-group and/or programme. The demands of many modern industries and professions often change such that a purely practical graduate skill-set is likely to become quickly obsolete in this age of ‘life-long learning’. Woodward’s description of the educational trade-off between exclusively intellectual and practical education may be less applicable to many areas of modern education with the growing demand for practical skills such as communication and teamwork skills (although it’s nonetheless worth noting that even as far back as 1887, Woodward stated that ‘we want a fuller knowledge and a greater familiarity with the material world with which we are surrounded, through the medium of which we act for and upon each other’) which have very little to do with the ‘hand’. Such so-called ‘soft-skills’ are widely recognized as important drivers of collaborative innovation which many modern companies and corporations recognise the value of and rely on in order to remain competitive [Katzenbach, 2006].
Many higher education institutions too recognize the importance of such skills but struggle to effectively integrate opportunities for their development into their programmes. There is, however, growing evidence that the key to successfully integrating such opportunities into existing curricula is not to bolt on yet another course(s) but rather to recognize that such skills are best developed experientially and to adapt the programme structure and delivery to facilitate such experiential learning [Moesby 2005, Kolmos 2014]. Such programme structures and delivery techniques have received significant and growing interest in recent years and comprehensive comparative studies have indicated that graduates of such programmes show significant advantages over their conventional counterparts [IFO 2004, Kjærsdam 2004].
As discussed above, Barrows (1996) looked at the growing use of PBL in medical education and beyond and identified significant variation in how it was applied. In fact, he noted that ‘all these approaches to problem-based learning represent such a wide variety of methods that now the term has far less precision than might be assumed’ (p. 5). Davies et al (2011) compiled and edited a comprehensive set of case studies of ‘PBL across the disciplines’ which included ‘six papers on PBL across the disciplines and emphasising the interdisciplinary approaches’ (p. 2). De Graaff & Kolmos (2003) also looked in detail at a number of universities at which PBL has been used extensively for many years and identified three common characteristics of the PBL models in use at these universities. These common characteristics are:
- Programme or Curriculum Structure
Each study programme is structured into a logical series of thematic semesters. In this way, all of the taught modules delivered in a particular semester are directly related to the semester theme. The student project topics within any particular semester are also directly related to the semester theme and provide a structured mechanism for each project group to discuss, reflect on and apply the taught module content in specifying, orienting, analyzing and ultimately solving the problem upon which their group project is based. Kjersdam (1994) presents detailed guidelines on how to organise the curriculum into themes in an engineering programme (p. 16).
- The Learning Process
Students work in groups and each group has a facilitator with whom they typically meet once per week. A common criticism of PBL from students is that they are given a problem at the outset and after that their facilitator is too busy to meet them. If the above programme structure is in place then an experienced facilitator can play a very important part in the learning process. This does not mean that the facilitator spends lots of time with their group(s). In fact, Kolmos (2014) states that ‘a good PBL facilitator does just two things, namely, they observe and they comment’. The terms of engagement of the group meetings and the group-facilitator meetings are central to the learning process. Jensen (2013) notes that ‘groups who take the time to agree and work to a collaborative agreement tend to do better’. Group sizes vary (typically from 4 to 10 members) across different universities as well as across semesters within individual university programmes.
‘Assessment drives learning’ and close alignment of the assessment methodologies with the programme learning objectives is another characteristic of best practice PBL models. De Graaff and Kolmos (2003) cite the absence of such alignment as ‘one of the classic mistakes made when changing to PBL’ [p. 659]. If important process competences are to be effectively achieved, then this importance needs to be reflected in the assessment methodology. Fundamental to this alignment of assessment methodology with programme learning outcomes is the percentage allocation of marks to the programme components. At Aalborg University project work accounts for 50% of the students’ time and this percentage is also allocated to the project assessment [Moesby 2004]. Studies show that this percentage is optimal in the sense of allowing students sufficient time to actively reflect on the application of the taught material in a real problem-solving scenario [Moesby 2002, Kjersdam 1994].
Despite the above findings, de Graaff notes that many universities which were implementing PBL were only allocating around 20% of the student time and marks to project work. This relatively low percentage effectively devalues the importance of process competence development in favour of an ‘overstuffed curriculum’ [de Graaff 2003 – p. 661] and significantly reduces the opportunity for students to actively engage in the application of taught content to the project(s) with which it is supposedly associated.
So what might an integrated PBL programme design look like?
I think the best way to think of a fully integrated PBL programme design in principle is as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. An Integrated PBL Programme Semester
The key features of the above integrated PBL semester are:
- The 3 taught modules and group project are all directly related to a central theme of the programme discipline (and this direct relationship isn’t just in the head of the academics i.e. it’s at least accessible to the students too from the start of the semester).
- The semester is front loaded with the taught modules and the group project work increases throughout the semester as shown.
- The taught modules still have written exams worth 50% of the overall marks. The other 50% goes for the group project e.g. group project reports (interim and final) plus individual interviews.
Note that identifying the discipline-specific semester themes and sequencing them in the right order is critical. Ideally this should be undertaken at programme board level. The sequencing of the thematic semesters should also aim to allow important key concepts to be reinforced and deepened from one semester to the next in line with Bruner’s (1960) spiral curriculum theory.
What does the above front-loading idea mean in practice?
For me it means making each full set of module course notes available online from day one of the semester. A full calendar of lecture topics is also made available and students are expected to study the relevant course notes in advance of each lecture. In this way, lectures gradually become more like tutorials. If a comprehensive set of past exam papers and solutions are also made available from day one of the semester, then the tutorials towards the end of the semester will just focus on questions which the students still struggled with after attempting them alone (or in groups) and looking at the indicative solutions.
Note also the sequencing of activities across the semester with the taught module related activity being prevalent early in the semester and the group project related activity increasing towards the latter half. The purpose of the shaded arrows is to indicate that the taught module content is applied in undertaking the group project. Note that depending on the nature of a particular group project, not all of the taught module content may be equally applicable and indeed some unanticipated theory not covered in the taught modules may need to be researched and applied. This can be a constructive feature of student-directed learning although often students need to be reminded to keep their approach simple and as much as possible within the scope of the semester theme.
By way of contrast to the conceptual visual model of Figure 1, the corresponding conventional programme semester can be thought of as being more like that of Figure 2.
Figure 2. Conventional Programme Semester
Typically this might involve six taught modules running in parallel throughout the semester and each having it’s own end-of-semester exam. Without the semester having a central theme of the programme discipline, learning is often fragmented with no clear connection between topics covered in the separate modules. Another common complaint of this conventional approach is what Harland (2015) describes as the assessment arms race whereby students are constantly struggling just to complete and submit their next assignment without having time to reflect on how their many assignments actually relate to one another.
Any evidence that the integrated PBL approach really works?
It’s hard to find comprehensive comparative studies of fully integrated PBL versus traditional teaching as so much of what’s written about PBL is based on the kind of hybrid implementations which Barrows (1996) and de Graaff (2003) have noted. However, in 2004, Kjærsdam presented findings of a very comprehensive and longitudinal comparative study carried out by independent consultants, Instituttet for Opinionsanalyse (IFO), in cooperation with the Danish magazine Ingenioren in which the directors of human resource management at 487 companies which employed graduates of two universities were surveyed. It’s worth noting that this was in fact effectively a 30-year comparative study as some of the subject graduates being compared began their engineering education in 1974 when Aalborg University was established with a fully integrated PBL curriculum. The key findings of this survey are reproduced in Figure 3. The DTU model was more like the conventional one of Figure 2 above.
Figure 3. PBL vs non-PBL comparative study [IFO 2004] [Kjærsdam 2004]
More recently the OECD [Hoidn 2014] carried out a comprehensive review of PBL and came to the conclusion that ‘overall, the PBL curriculum was found to have a more positive impact on student learning than more traditional programmes, particularly with regard to interpersonal skills like communication and teamwork, and student engagement’ (p. 30).
If, as Prince (2004) points out, some faculty are indeed divided over the use of active versus passive learning strategies then this is both unfortunate and unnecessary as I strongly believe that the above integrated PBL model actually requires both in roughly equal measures. What I mean by this and as indicated above, there is growing and comprehensive evidence that a coordinated and complementary blend of both active and passive learning strategies yields best results. By passive learning strategies, I’m referring to things like individual study, cognition and reflection. I’m often reminded of John Dewey’s famous quotation, namely:
We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience!
So if a student experiences some active learning intervention, we still need to design in time and marks for associated reflection if we want them to get the full benefit of this active learning intervention. A popular assessed deliverable in PBL is the student (group and individual) reflective journal. This blog is an example of a student reflective journal – I am a student (to teach is to learn!) and may I never forget that! The day I stop learning will be the day I can no longer teach.
Barrows, H. S., (1996), Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview, in L. Wilkerson and W. H. Gijselaers (eds.), Bringing Problem-Based Learning to Higher Education: Theory and Practice, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco (1996).
Bruner, J (1960) The Process of Education, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Davies, J., de Graaff, E., and Kolmos, A., (2011). PBL across the disciplines: research into best practice. Proceedings from the 3rd International Research Symposium on PBL, Coventry University.
De Graaff, E. and Kolmos, A., 2003. Characteristics of Problem-Based Learning, International Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 19, No. 5, pp. 657-662.
De Graaff, E. and Kolmos, A., 2007. ‘History of Problem-based and Project-based learning’, Chapter 1 (pp 1-8) in ‘Management of Change: Implementation of Problem-based and Project-based learning in Engineering’, edited by De Graaff, Erik and Kolmos, Anette, Sense Publishers.
Hannafin, M. J., & Hannafin, K. M. (2010). Cognition and student-centered, web-based learning: Issues and implications for research and theory. In Learning and instruction in the digital age (pp. 11-23). Springer US.
Harland, T., McLean, A., Wass, R., Miller E., & Nui Sim, K., (2015) An assessment arms race and its fallout: high-stakes grading and the case for slow scholarship, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 40:4, 528-541, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2014.931927.
Hoidn, S. and K. Kärkkäinen (2014), “Promoting Skills for Innovation in Higher Education: A Literature Review on the Effectiveness of Problem-based Learning and of Teaching Behaviours”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 100, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5k3tsj67l226-en
IFO (2004). Instituttet for Opinionsanalyse (IFO), Ingenioerens Undersoegelse af Ingenioerkompetencer. Copenhagen.
Jensen, L. P., (2013), “Learning in Teams”, Aalborg University Masters in Problem Based Learning (MPBL), course notes, Semester 2, Module 2, Course 1, Session 3.
Katzenbach, J., R., Smith, D., K., (2006). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (Collins Business Essentials) Paperback – July 25, 2006.
Kilpatrick, William H., (1918). The Project Method: The Use Of The Purposeful Act In The Educative Process. Reprinted in 2010 by Kessinger Publishing, LLC, ISBN 10: 1167152190 ISBN 13: 9781167152191.
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Kjærsdam, F., (2004). Technology transfer in a globalised world: transferring between university and industry through cooperation and education. World Transactions on Engineering and Technology Education Vol.3, No.1.
Knoll, M., (1997): The Project Method: Its Vocational Education Origin and International Development. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education 34, 59-80.
Kolmos, A., Graaff, E. de, (2014). Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning in Engineering Education : Merging Models. Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research. ed. / Aditya Johri; Barbara M. Olds. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Moesby, E. (2005), Curriculum Development for Project-Oriented and Problem-Based Learning (POPBL) with Emphasis on Personal Skills and Abilities, (2005). Global Journal of Engineering Education, Vol.9, No.2.
Oleson, A. & Hora, M.T. High Educ (2014) 68: 29. doi:10.1007/s10734-013-9678-9. Teaching the way they were taught? Revisiting the sources of teaching knowledge and the role of prior experience in shaping faculty teaching practices.
Prince, M., (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. J. Engr. Education, 93(3), 223-231 (2004).
Woodward, C. M. (1887): The manual training school, comprising a full statement of its aims, methods, and results. Boston: Heath.