|Teaching and Learning Forum 2008 [ Refereed papers ]|
School of Plant Biology
The University of Western Australia
Problem based learning (PBL) is a teaching approach developed over 30 years ago and involves students undertaking a less structured 'task' set in a relevant context. Students work in small groups to identify the knowledge or skills that they must attain to approach the task. PBL encourages independent learning, critical thinking and many other skills valued by employers, such as working effectively in teams. Despite the reported benefits of PBL, it has not been widely implemented at universities, particularly at first year level where it is perceived to be too challenging for students. This study assessed the implementation of a PBL format in a first year biology practical class at The University of Western Australia. 135 students and 8 demonstrators were surveyed and their responses to the PBL task analysed. The survey results indicate that students were generally positive about the PBL task, they did not find it too challenging and particularly liked the 'team work' aspect. Some students initially found the lack of direction and defined outcomes difficult, while others found adapting to group dynamics a challenge. The demonstrators' perception of the PBL format was variable. Some found this teaching method successful and beneficial for students. Others were uncomfortable with their role change from 'teacher' to 'facilitator' and did not see benefits in using PBL. The survey results indicate that PBL can be successfully implemented on a small scale and PBL is not too challenging for first year students. The results highlight the need for both students and staff to be well trained in the theory of PBL for its implementation to be successful.
There are several definitions of PBL in the literature, but its principle involves designing a task for students as the source of learning, and setting it in a context that may be relevant in the 'real world'. The task is often a 'less structured' problem or scenario (often interdisciplinary) that provides a focal point for student learning. The problem should confuse the students just enough to provoke curiosity (Ward and Lee, 2002). Students are encouraged to determine what they do not know, and the resources they need to access, in order to learn for themselves (Shelton and Smith, 1998). PBL involves students working in small groups supported by tutors or laboratory demonstrators, with the emphasis being 'learner centered' rather than 'teacher centered' (Aldred et al., 1997). This approach enables the learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills while developing solutions to the defined problem (Savery, 2006). The intentions of PBL are to change the teacher's role from a 'transmission' perspective to an 'interaction' oriented approach (Dahlgren et al., 1998). The change in the teacher's role has been well described as:
PBL is not merely a teaching method; it is rather a re-orientation in the sense that learning is made the main activity, and teaching is considered as a support activity for learning (Dahlgren, 1993)These are the general concepts of PBL, and the approach can be used in many different applications. It is likely that even the less 'pure' forms of PBL are likely to confer many of the benefits of true PBL (Schwartz et al, 2001).
The general concepts of PBL distinguish the approach from other teaching methods; however, there is often still confusion about the difference between PBL and problem solving. The key distinction is that problem solving requires students to use prior knowledge to find a solution, where as in PBL the knowledge arises from the problem itself (Davis and Harden, 1999). Thus, the problems in PBL are designed to stimulate learning and so the concepts are uncovered by the problem, rather than the focus on actually solving the problem (Walton and Matthews, 1989; Schwartz et al, 2001). The main difference is that in problem solving, the problems are used as the context for applying previously learned information, whereas in PBL the problems are used to stimulate learning.
There are several reasons why PBL may be a more effective teaching method than just teaching problem solving skills. PBL promotes lifelong learning by making knowledge relevant and in context (Aldred et al, 1997). Students develop reasoning and critical thinking more efficiently than by traditional methods of largely rote learning (Walton and Matthews, 1989). This is done by encouraging students to understand different interpretations of problems from various perspectives, which develops a 'deep approach' to learning (Dahlgren and Oberg, 2001). PBL also enables students to develop skills that are highly valued in the professional world; such as negotiation, research and presentation skills, absorption of new ideas, adaptation to change, and working collaboratively (Savin-Baden, 2000; Ward and Lee, 2002). Most importantly, the literature suggests that students clearly prefer this approach (e.g. Norman, 1988; Bridges and Hallinger, 1997; Shelton and Smith, 1998; Anderson and Glew, 2002). PBL integrates learning: knowledge is gained in a relevant context making it more interesting for students, and hence motivating them to learn for themselves.
The benefits of PBL as an effective approach to learning have been well described, yet PBL is still not widely implemented across universities. This has probably been mainly due to a lack of understanding about what PBL involves, and the cultural changes it requires from teachers who are used to traditional lecture based, 'rote learning' approaches to teaching. Some teachers are less willing to change from lecture based instruction where they are in control and the 'expert' that dispenses information and need to be motivated to put in the time to develop PBL (Ward and Lee, 2002). Teachers are often concerned that key content will be missed in PBL courses and they have difficulty in controlling the students' factual knowledge (Dahlgren et al, 1998). Studies have found that PBL students may not perform as well on multiple choice tests as students taught by lecture based instruction, but PBL students will have better long term knowledge retention and better problem solving skills (Ward and Lee, 2002; Savery, 2006). The implementation of PBL is also restricted by institutional constraints, lack of available resources and time costs (Dahlgren, 1993; Aldred et al, 1997; Davis and Harden, 1999; Ward and Lee, 2002). The perception of increased workload was confirmed in a recent study that found staff workload had increased with the implementation of PBL (Evans and Jayasuriya, 2007). However, another study at a medical school found that PBL could be implemented with the same amount of human resources, but utilised in a different way (Anderson and Glew, 2002). Another concern is that first year undergraduate science classes are often extremely large and thus impractical for PBL (Aldred et al, 1997). Most of the factors described above that may adversely affect the implementation of PBL should be considered as challenges, rather than barriers that cannot be overcome (Aldred et al, 1997).
The purpose of this study was to examine the implementation of a PBL exercise in a first year biology practical class. PBL is often perceived to be 'too hard' for first year students who are not used to critical thinking and learning for themselves. This study gathered students' perceptions of PBL and assessed how demonstrators responded to the change in teaching method. In addition, this investigation identified some of the problems affecting the successful implementation of PBL and how these might be overcome.
All students in the unit (150) were surveyed after completing the second week of the PBL exercise. 135 surveys were returned. This gave an adequate sample size to assess students' perceptions of PBL as applied in this practical class. The eight demonstrators for the practical were also surveyed to gain their perceptions on how students respond to PBL exercises and to elicit suggestions on how to improve the implementation of PBL. The demonstrators in this survey had been given a brief overview and handouts of what PBL involves.
Figure 1: First year biology students' rating of their understanding of problem
based learning (PBL) after two 3 hour practical sessions using the PBL approach
Figure 2: First year biology students' response to the question 'Did the
PBL exercise help you think more widely about the concepts presented?'
|Aspects students like about PBL||Aspects students dislike about PBL|
|1.||Teamwork (57)||Task not clear, lack of structure (24)|
|2.||Observing live animals (24)||Relying on others, group work (14)|
|3.||Hands on practical (22)||Time consuming (12)|
|4.||Independence, freedom, using initiative(18)||Lack of direction initially (11)|
|5.||The learning experience (13)||Assessment unclear (8)|
|6.||Learning about classification (8)||Not knowing if made mistakes (4)|
|7.||Research (7)||No clear objectives, problem vague (4)|
|8.||Meeting new people (5)||Not being able to ask questions (3)|
|9.||Fun (2)||Bringing the information together (3)|
|10.||Self motivated (2)||Groups poorly put together (3)|
The survey responses indicated that students enjoyed the freedom that the PBL exercise gave them in being able to use their initiative and be more independent. As PBL is more 'learner based' than 'teacher based', students are treated as 'colleagues' in the learning process, and by giving them freedom they may also be more motivated. Self motivation is essential in the resource finding and other self directed learning that are integral to PBL (Watson and Matthews, 1989). A survey of students in a first year undergraduate science laboratory also found that students enjoy PBL based practicals (Shelton and Smith, 1998). The findings from their survey were similar to the results of this study, in that the students found the task oriented project 'relevant', it gave them the chance to use their 'initiative' and they enjoyed working in teams.
Despite the overall positive responses from students to the PBL practical, there were some aspects they did not enjoy. The main concern was that the task was not clear and that there was a lack of structure to the laboratory class, making them initially unclear on what direction to take. These are common problems associated with PBL, particularly when students are not accustomed to this style of learning. Some of the negative responses, that are more likely due to poor implementation of PBL rather than the concept of PBL itself, include 'assessment unclear' or 'time consuming'. However, as this was the first year the practical had been modified to a PBL format, it is likely that sufficient time might not have been allocated to complete the tasks or to modify the assessment before the class was conducted. Most students rated the implementation of PBL in this practical as average, good or excellent (Figure 3).
Figure 3: The first year biology students' ratings of the implementation
of PBL in an exercise across 2 consecutive, 3 hour practical sessions
The demonstrators rated their own understanding of PBL as average or good, and 3 of the 8 demonstrators had previously taught a PBL exercise. When asked what they think PBL involves, two of the demonstrators did not seem to understand the PBL process, and this is likely to have affected their teaching of the practical and hence how the students perceived PBL. Half of the demonstrators had also run the same practical in the previous year when PBL was not yet implemented. Of these, one demonstrator thought the laboratory practical had improved, as it 'made students think and not just ask automatically'. From the demonstrators who responded that the laboratory practical had not improved, one thought it had 'remained more or less the same', while the other demonstrator explained that 'the students didn't get as much out of it because they were not sure exactly what they had to do'. However, the demonstrators all agreed that the implementation of PBL in this practical was average or better.
The demonstrators were further divided on several aspects of the PBL exercise, as summarised in Table 2. While most demonstrators (75%) thought the PBL exercise encouraged critical thinking, they were also unsure if it improved the students understanding of the concepts presented. Two demonstrators thought the PBL exercise was too challenging for the students, while half thought it was appropriate for first year students and should be applied to more practicals at UWA.
|Did PBL improve the students' understanding of the concepts presented?||1||1||6|
|Were students encouraged to critically think?||6||1||1|
|Was the PBL exercise too challenging for the students?||2||4||2|
|Is PBL appropriate for first year students?||4||2||2|
|Would you prefer more PBL based student labs at UWA?||4||2||2|
Despite some of the differing opinions amongst the demonstrators on PBL, their responses to the question regarding the best parts of the PBL exercise for the students were aligned with the theory of PBL, and this concurred with the student responses. The demonstrators' comments included 'group work', 'more responsibility', 'thinking outside the learning objectives' and, most importantly, students were 'encouraged to think for themselves so more likely to retain information'. The aspects of the PBL exercise that the demonstrators thought were most challenging for the students were similar to other reported challenges of PBL and corresponded to the aspects the students also did not enjoy. Comments from the demonstrators included 'not having a clear idea what to do' and 'unused to defining their own objectives', which are commonly reported challenges associated with PBL. For example, Bridges and Hallinger (1997) found that PBL provides the flexibility for some students to identify their own learning goals, while other students are often frustrated about not knowing if they are learning the right things. This is when the demonstrator's role as 'facilitator' is critical to direct students towards the learning outcomes.
Differences in age and life experience will also occur in student classes. In the present study, some mature age students did not enjoy the group aspect of the PBL practical. One of the comments made was that they were 'thinking for and motivating the 'kids''. In another study, it was found that mature students can take too much control and allocate more simple tasks to younger group members (Schwartz et al, 2001). In contrast, a study by Aldred et al (1997) found mature aged students actually benefited more from a PBL approach compared with traditional learning. They found that mature aged students were able to draw on their greater life experiences and apply it to the PBL situation. Monitoring of the group dynamics by the demonstrators should again assist with balancing the contributions from all participants.
In large classes where a number of demonstrators are employed, there are often problems associated with the consistency of demonstrators in how the student groups are managed (Aldred et al, 1997). However, all demonstrators should be encouraged to enhance the students' self motivation and independence. This is one of the aspects the students most enjoyed about PBL in the current study. In PBL, the student needs to identify what skills they require to solve the problem. The demonstrator should then be available to help them with the method, as often specific training is needed, for example in laboratory techniques.
The true aim of the teacher is to impart an appreciation of method rather than knowledge of facts, for method is remembered when facts have been forgotten, and method can be used when there are too few facts (Walton and Matthews, 1989)It is a mistake for demonstrators to think their role will be reduced in PBL, rather that it will be a different role. Instead of just being a 'transmitter of knowledge', the demonstrator should be kept busy asking leading and open ended questions, pushing for explanations, identifying knowledge gaps, helping to generate and evaluate hypotheses, monitoring progress and encouraging reflection (Aldred et al., 1997; Hmelo-Silver and Barrows, 2006). The demonstrator should not be a passive observer, rather they should be active and directive about the learning process. Most importantly, the demonstrators need to encourage a positive attitude amongst the students, and this can only be done if they also approach the task as a positive learning experience for themselves.
Training is essential for staff involved in PBL, particularly the demonstrators who will be directly facilitating the process for the students. Demonstrators need to have a thorough understanding of the PBL process, good facilitation skills and knowledge of the course (Davis and Harden, 1999). The demonstrators in this survey had been given a brief overview and a handout of what PBL involves, which may have been sufficient for one practical. However, if PBL were to be implemented into more practical classes in this unit, then more extensive training for the demonstrators would be recommended to ensure students receive the full benefits of PBL. When PBL was implemented at the University of Queensland, it was recognised the need for ongoing professional development of academics and tutors in PBL (Aldred et al, 1997). Similarly, when PBL was recently implemented in the engineering curriculum at Victoria University, it was highlighted that staff need to be trained adequately in managing group dynamics, but also that training is essential for a cultural change in their thinking about teaching and learning (Evans and Jayasuriya, 2007). However, as is often the case, the cost and time involved in training staff may be seen by some university departments as a limiting factor to the implementation of PBL.
This study identified training of the academic staff and demonstrators as a major factor affecting the success of PBL. The surveys from the demonstrators for this practical showed obvious differences in their understanding of what PBL involves and also conflicting attitudes towards PBL. This is a common problem, particularly when PBL is introduced to staff who are used to more conventional teaching methods.
I don't understand this problem based curriculum, but I know it won't work. (Unidentified department chairman quoted by Abrahmson, 1997, cited in Schwartz et al 2001)As mentioned previously, extensive training of staff is often not financially viable in university departments. A solution could be to develop a staff mentoring and support role; for example to assist with problem design (c.f. Aldred et al, 1997). Academic staff who decide to implement PBL need to ensure their demonstrators are supported and encourage a positive approach to PBL for both the students and staff involved. One of the challenges is that the title 'problem based learning' is itself not positive! I think the connotation of the word 'problem' is negative and would prefer the 'problems' to be referred to as 'tasks' or 'scenarios'. Walton and Matthews (1989) proposed an alternative title to PBL of 'learning in a functional context'. I feel that this is a better alternative and more representative of the outcomes that PBL aims to achieve. Although the term PBL is now too widely used for any name change to be successful, when explaining this method to students they are more likely to relate to the term 'learning in a functional context' and respond more positively to the set tasks.
This study has found that PBL can be successfully implemented on a small scale. Students are likely to benefit from a wider application of PBL, however factors such as institutional restrictions, unit outcomes, staff motivation and training, availability of resources and the learning context are likely to impact on the implementation of PBL (Davis and Harden, 1999). The perceived disadvantage of large numbers in first year undergraduate classes should also not be seen as a deterrent to the implementation of PBL. For example, Oliver (2005) successfully introduced PBL into a first year communications course with large numbers by using a combination of web based PBL exercises, workshops and lectures. The recommendations made by Aldred et al (1997) for implementing PBL were all underpinned by 'a continuing need to promote a culture of learning and teaching and reflection on educational processes'. Even by considering PBL, teachers will be motivated to reflect on their own teaching methods and how well they motivate students to learn and prepare for their future careers. Despite the reported benefits of PBL, it does require teachers, students and administrators to change from 'traditional' teaching methods. More importantly, it is likely to require a change in attitude, which is probably the greatest challenge of all in the implementation of PBL.
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|Author: Natasha Teakle is a PhD student in the School of Plant Biology and CRC Salinity. Her research is focusing on the physiological and molecular mechanisms of salt tolerance in a perennial pasture legume. In 2007 she was awarded a UWA teaching internship. In Semester 1 she lectured in a pastures unit and in Semester 2 she has been involved in improving the practical classes for a first year biology unit. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Teakle, N. (2008). Problem based learning for first year students: Perspectives from students and laboratory demonstrators. In Preparing for the graduate of 2015. Proceedings of the 17th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2008. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2008/refereed/teakle.html
Copyright 2008 Natasha Teakle. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.