Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Integrating a problem based learning approach into undergraduate teaching

Peter R. Davis, Senior Lecturer
Department of Construction Management
School of Architecture Construction and Planning
Curtin University of Technology
The theory of Problem Based Learning (PBL) is discussed and applied to a final year unit of teaching in the BAppSc (Construction Management and Economics) Course. The core idea of PBL in education is to use problems as the focus of student involvement. PBL is a learning experience profoundly different from the more usual subject-based learning (Margetson, 1997).

The paper discusses the advantages and disadvantages of PBL in the context of a current course learning environment. The Department, in providing a PBL unit in the final year, set out to execute a seamless transition from a wholly subject-based syllabus to an integrated PBL approach. It was largely successful in this. However the success did provide a dilemma, being; How should the Department continue, encourage and develop integration of the PBL approach into the earlier years of the course?

Secondary issues are concerned with the students ability to manage PBL in the early years of an undergraduate course, and the significant departure that PBL is from traditional subject-based learning.


Outline

The Department of Construction Management offers a course that includes a Problem Based Learning (PBL) unit.

The unit, which is in the final year, contains small group case studies and presentations (Curtin University of Technology, 1997). It was run for the first time in Semester One 1998. The learning objectives of the unit, which are similar to Kajewski (1996), include:

Question

The core idea of PBL in education is to use problems as the focus of student involvement. PBL is a learning experience profoundly different from the more usual subject-based learning (Margetson, 1997).

The Department, in providing the unit in the final year, set out to execute a seamless transition from a wholly subject-based syllabus to an integrated PBL approach.

The dilemma is: How should the Department continue, encourage and develop integration of the PBL approach into the earlier years of the course?

Secondary issues are concerned with:

Context

In 1992 revisions were made to the existing BAppSc (Construction Management and Economics) Course, including the introduction of a PBL based unit called Building Industry Applications (BIA). The unit is described in the Curtin University Handbook as a unit containing small group case studies and presentations (Curtin University of Technology, 1997). The unit is in the final year of the four year program and it was run for the first time in Semester One 1998. This paper describes the process that the Department undertook in designing and running the BIA unit.

It sets out the path that was taken to incorporate PBL into a course of ostensibly discrete units. It provides the reader with an insight into the methodology undertaken by the Department team in attempting to execute a seamless transition from a wholly traditional syllabus to a somewhat integrated PBL approach.

Problem based learning

In earlier work Baccarini (1998) identified the characteristics and identifiers of problem-based learning (PBL). PBL has been described as 'the most significant innovation in education for the professions for many years' (Boud & Feletti, 1997). PBL is not new and its origins lie in North American health science education in the 1960s. However there are examples of its use in education in the fields of mechanical engineering, social work, optometry, nursing, law, and business. Of particular interest to this paper, PBL has been applied in Australian construction management by the University of Newcastle (Maitland, 1997;McGeorge, 1996) and Queensland University of Technology (Kajewski, 1996).

PBL has been defined as "the learning which results from the process of working towards the understanding of, or resolution of, a problem" (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980). Hence the core idea of PBL in education is to use problems as the focus of student involvement and work. This approach contrasts with traditional teaching that is teacher-centred. The teacher selects and presents knowledge and develops the learning environment (Woods, 1985). PBL starts with a problem that acts as a catalyst for students to acquire knowledge and skills supported by learning material and teacher access.

Consequently PBL is "a conception of knowledge, understanding, and education profoundly different from the more usual conception underlying subject-based learning" (Margetson, 1997).

Hence the aim of PBL is to encourage open-minded, reflective, critical and active learning and reflect the complexity and dynamism of knowledge (Margetson, 1997). The following three tables identify typical features, problems in implementation and objectives of the problem set. Table 1 identifies typical features of PBL. Table 2 identifies problems in implementing PBL.

Table 1: Typical features of the PBL approach (Boud & Feletti, 1997)

using stimulus material to facilitate the discussion of a problem
structuring the problem into a 'real-life' scenario
providing limited resources to help them with the PBL process
having students work in groups
getting students to identify their own learning needs

Table 2: Problems in implementing PBL (Boud & Feletti, 1997)

confusing PBL with teaching problem-solving
insufficient commitment of staff
lack of research and development of the problem
insufficient resourcing, particularly at start-up phase
insufficient staff induction and development
inappropriate assessment methods

Formulation and management of the problem

The problem selector can be an academic individual or group, academics in liaison with students, or by students as a group or as individuals. The form of the problem may be an event, descriptive statement or set of questions. Resources used by the students can be selected by the academic group, by students from a resource package, or from any sources available to them. Finally, the problem may be solved by students working in groups (with or without a tutor/facilitator) or as individuals (Ross, 1997). Table 3 lists some common objectives of a typical problem.

Table 3: Typical objectives of problems (Ross, 1997)

to ensure that students cover a pre-defined area of knowledge
to help students learn a set of concepts, ideas, techniques
to lead students to the 'field'
purely for its intrinsic interest or importance
to represents a typical problem faced by the profession

Risks associated with PBL

Kenley (1995: 3-4) identifies several risks associated with PBL, these are reinforced by Kajewski (1996) and should not be ignored. They include:

Problem based teaching

From the outset it was considered that it was imperative to involve all the stakeholders associated with the project. The Department wanted to involve the students from the earliest opportunity. Meetings were held independently with the Department staff and students. The Department identified numerous reasons for the implementation of PBL. Parallels to those determined by Kajewski (1996) were noted. Kajewski's (1996) objectives are; As indicated above the Department considered that the students were in a position to provide valuable input into the structure and content of the BIA unit. The Department team wanted to know the students' worst fears on their day one in the construction industry to enable phases to be set that extended their knowledge. A comprehensive list was established. In addition to content, the following interesting issues were raised by the students in the meeting: This meeting provided assurance that the students were enthusiastic to learn in different ways and keen to sample PBL. There was quite understandably some reluctance from some students which follows Kenley (1995) and Kajewski (1996).

Design of a typical phase

With the experience of running two units using a PBL approach the following check list has been established (complete with additional notes for assistance). The purpose for detailing the check list is to provide the stimulus for the dilemma discussion.

Determine the phase objectives. These may be as simple as:
To understand the process of PBL
To develop report writing skills
To enhance presentation skills

Outline the competency outcomes required.
In the BIA unit the competencies published by the Australian Institute of Building (Australian Institute of Building, 1996) and Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors (Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, 1998) were used as guidance. These two professional bodies provide the professional accreditation of the course and are most relevant to the students'.

Generate an appropriate problem or question.
It is important to identify the scope of work required from the students and provide parameters.

Outline the resources required for staff input.
In the BIA unit a weekly guide was produced detailing indicative content and hours of contact. This was an important issue as we had to manage the phase as a unit within other non-PBL units of teaching. This accords with Boud's (1997) research.

Determine the teaching pattern.
A pattern of teaching, which accords with McGeorge (1996) and Kajewski (1996) was determined. It recognises the need for greater contact time in the early stages of the phase (Boud & Feletti, 1997). Less contact is required as the students become familiar with the phase.

Identify the study coverage area.
In the BIA unit the phases extended and integrate the students' knowledge base. They provided integration.

Assign assessment criteria.
In terms of assessment the BIA phases required multiple assessment including written reports and oral presentations to the phase coordinator. In one phase of the BIA unit the students had to provide an individual critical analysis.

The dilemma!

In this Dilemma Sessions you will have the opportunity to discuss and work with other Forum participants to explore the answer to the question set concerning PBL. The question to be resolved is detailed in Table 4.

Table 4: The dilemma for discussion.

How should the Department continue, encourage and develop integration of the PBL approach into the earlier years of the course?

Secondary issues are concerned with:
the students ability to manage PBL in the early years of an undergraduate course.
the significant departure that PBL is from traditional subject-based learning.

References

Australian Institute of Building (1996). Information Publication No. 14. Competency Based Standards for AIB Membership, 1 Ed, The Australian Institute of Building, Canberra.

Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors (1998). National Competency Standards for Quantity Surveyors-Construction Economists, The Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, Deakin West ACT.

Baccarini, D. & Davis, P. (1998). 'Integrating problems in discrete parcels and hoping no one will notice: A case study in integrating problem based learning', in AUBEA 1998, ed. M. Skitmore, AUBEA, Brisbane Queensland, pp. 1-16.

Barrows, H. S. & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education, Springer, New York.

Boud, D. & Feletti, G. (1997). 'Changing Problem-based Learning. Introduction to the Second Edition', in The Challenge of Problem-based Learning, 2nd Ed, Vol. eds. D. Boud & G. Feletti, Kogan-Page, London, pp. 1-14.

Curtin University of Technology (1997). Curtin University of Technology Handbook and Calendar 1998, Publications and Events Management Group Curtin University of Technology, Perth WA.

Kajewski, S. L. (1996). 'PBL and Construction Management Education: An Independent learning case Study', Australian Institute of Building Papers: Education for Construction Management, Vol. 1, pp. 20-31.

Kenley, R. (1995). 'Problem Based Learning within a Traditional Teaching Environment', in AUBEA Conference Proceedings, AUBEA, Sydney.

Maitland, B. (1997). 'Problem-based Learning for Architecture and Construction Management', in The Challenge of Problem-based Learning, 2nd Ed, Vol. eds. D. Boud & G. Feletti, Kogan-Page, London, pp. 211-217.

Margetson, D. (1997). 'Why is Problem-based Learning a Challenge?', in The Challenge of Problem-based Learning, 2nd Ed, Vol. eds. D. Boud & G. Feletti, Kogan-Page, London, pp. 36-44.

McGeorge, D. (1996). 'An Advocacy for the Use of Problem based Learning in Construction Management Education', Australian Institute of Building Papers: Education for Construction Management, Vol. 1, pp. 4-9.

Ross, B. (1997). 'Towards a Framework for Problem-based Curriculum', in The Challenge of Problem-based Learning, 2nd Ed, Vol. eds. D. Boud & G. Feletti, Kogan-Page, London, pp. 28-35.

Woods, D. (1985). 'Problem-Based Learning and Problem-Solving', in Problem-Based Learning in Education for the Professions, ed. D. Boud, Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia, Sydney, pp. 59-66.

Please cite as: Davis, P. R. (1999). Integrating a problem based learning approach into undergraduate teaching. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 93-98. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/davis.html


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