Teaching and Learning Forum 2002 Home Page
Teaching and Learning Forum 2002 [ Proceedings Contents ]

A comparison of pyramids versus brainstorming in a problem based learning environment

Wendy A. Davis
Departments of Medicine and Public Health
The University of Western Australia
Two years ago, the Department of Medicine at the University of Western Australia introduced problem based learning (PBL) into Foundations of Clinical Practice (FCP). The aim of this study is to compare pyramids and brainstorming in a PBL environment. First year medical students participate in one two-hour PBL tutorial every week as part of FCP. There are approximately twelve students in each tutorial group. Generally, two tutorials cover one problem. During the first tutorial a carefully constructed problem based on Public Health, Behavioural Science, General Practice, and/or Aboriginal Health, is brainstormed by the group as a whole.

Not all students are comfortable participating in such an environment and one of the tasks of the tutor is to facilitate the process by encouraging all students to contribute equally. In the first part of one of these PBLs the pyramid method was used to determine whether it might be more effective and acceptable to the students compared with brainstorming. The eleven students present sat in groups of three or four and were instructed about the pyramid method. After each trigger was introduced the students worked alone to tackle the problem before teaming up with their neighbour to share ideas. Each group then came to a consensus and pooled ideas in turn for the nominated scribe to write on the whiteboard. At the end of the PBL the students completed an anonymous, voluntary questionnaire comparing pyramids with brainstorming.

When considering increased personal involvement in the discussion, the students favoured the pyramid method over brainstorming. All students thought that pyramids allowed the group as a whole to define the objectives better, without taking longer, compared with brainstorming. An ideal PBL tutorial would encompass the creative thinking of brainstorming with the increased individual contributions of the pyramid method.


Background

Two years ago, the Department of Medicine at the University of Western Australia introduced problem based learning (PBL) into Foundations of Clinical Practice (FCP). FCP is an integrated course spanning the first three years of the medical curriculum[1]. It replaces units previously taught by the Departments of Public Health, Psychiatry and Behavioural Science, and General Practice. FCP has three main types of learning sessions: PBL tutorials, fixed resource sessions (eg. lectures), and communication and clinical contact/skills sessions.

PBL tutorials occur early in the week and are two-hour small (approximately 12 students) group sessions. In most cases a PBL spans two weeks. In the first session students identify learning issues that arise from a carefully constructed problem based on Public Health, Behavioural Science, General Practice, or Aboriginal Health and decide on research topics. The following week, the students present their findings and engage in evaluation of their own learning, that of others, and the overall problem.

During the first part of the PBL, the problem is brainstormed by the group as a whole. Not all students are comfortable participating in such an environment and one of the tasks of the tutor is to facilitate the process by encouraging all students to contribute equally.

Objective

The aim of this study was to compare pyramids with brainstorming in a PBL environment.

Design and methods

In the first part of one of these PBLs the pyramid method was used to determine whether it might be more effective and acceptable to the students compared with brainstorming. Pyramid groups, also known as "snowball" groups, involve students working alone, then in pairs, then in fours or sixes, and finally as a whole group in a plenary[2]. In contrast, brainstorming is a technique for creative problem solving. It involves a group of up to about 12 in suggesting ideas, initially without any discussion, elaboration, or criticism, and then going back through the list of ideas generated to see which are worth pursuing. The larger the group, the less likely that students will be willing to express half-formed ideas[2].

The eleven students present sat around three tables in groups of three or four. They were instructed about the pyramid method and reassured that they would not be disadvantaged by participating in the trial. After each trigger was introduced the students worked alone to tackle the problem before teaming up with their neighbour to share ideas. Each table then came to a consensus and then pooled ideas in turn for the nominated scribe to write on the whiteboard. At the end of the PBL the students completed an anonymous, voluntary questionnaire comparing pyramids with brainstorming. The questionnaire (Figure 1) comprised four closed questions, three of which were based on a Likert scale from strongly agree (score 1) to strongly disagree (score 5), and an open question.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Comparison of pyramids versus brainstorming in PBL tutorials

Results

Nine students completed the questionnaire (82% response rate). The results are presented in Table 1. When considering increased personal involvement in the discussion, the students favoured the pyramid method over brainstorming with females preferring pyramids more than males. All students thought that pyramids allowed the group as a whole to define the objectives better, without taking longer, compared with brainstorming.

Table 1: Questionnaire responses by gender

QuestionMean score
1.Gender.Male
(n=5)
Female
(n=4)
Total
2.I found the pyramid method involved me in the discussion more.2.42.02.2
3.I thought that the pyramid method enabled the group to define the objectives better.1.81.81.8
4.I thought that the pyramid method took too long.3.23.03.1

The open question lead to generally positive comments: "I like working in (groups of) four" and "better". In addition students felt that the pyramid method "allowed everyone to contribute to a more equal extent. The quieter group members had a chance to express themselves instead of sitting back"; "...works better but only if everybody is willing to be dedicated"; "...allowed a little more individual clarification/definition of objectives"; "...(allowed) everyone more of a say"; "...(is) more interactive. Quiet people have a chance to voice their opinions too. Everybody contributes in some way"; "...allows (you) to get (your) own points across, but less gets said".

However, a student noted that the scribe "had to keep running back and forth" from table to whiteboard so that he could participate in the discussion, and another thought the process could have been "better managed".

Discussion

In a tutorial group of twelve it is likely that there will be a mix of personalities. Some students will not feel inhibited about voicing half-formed ideas, whereas others will be reluctant to do so. The strength of brainstorming is the separation of the creative and analytical stages[2]. The application of the pyramid method in this setting may allow more students to participate in the process by making them feel safer to voice their opinions in smaller groups, but with a concomitant reduction in creativity.

The pyramid method worked well in the PBL setting, but required more facilitation skills from the tutor and dedication from the students. It encouraged everyone to contribute equally, even the quieter students, and was more interactive. It allowed more discussion and definition of objectives at the individual level, within the same time frame, but this may have come at the expense of some creativity. An ideal PBL tutorial would encompass the creative thinking of brainstorming with the increased individual contributions of the pyramid method.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Ms Sally Reagan (Senior Lecturer, FCP unit coordinator) and Dr Allan Goody (Lecturer, Higher Education Development, Centre for Staff Development, University of Western Australia) for encouragement and feedback on this study and for the cooperation and enthusiasm of my PBL tutorial group. My participation in teaching during the past year and attendance at the 2002 Teaching and Learning Forum has been supported by a Teaching Internship from the University of Western Australia.

References

  1. Foundations of Clinical Practice 111 and 112 Student Unit Book. Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, The University of Western Australia, 2001.

  2. Gibbs, G. Discussion with more students. The Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council, Oxford, 1992: 8-17.

Author: Wendy Davis, PhD student/Teaching intern, Public Health/Medicine, The University of Western Australia. Email: wdavis@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Davis, W. A. (2002). A comparison of pyramids versus brainstorming in a problem based learning environment. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/davisw.html


[ Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forum 2002 ] [ TL Forums Index ]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/davisw.html
Created 16 Dec 2001. Last revision: 1 Feb 2002. HTML: Roger Atkinson [ rjatkinson@bigpond.com ]