Problem Based Learning

The purpose of this report is to provide an overview and understanding of the potential of Problem Based Learning for a specific audience as a method of encouraging a dynamic group learning environment. We won’t just be evaluating the learning outcomes but the potential of the shared learning experience in itself. This will allow us to see, did our learning outcomes match our desired outcomes from the plan and if not, why hasn’t it?

Critical Analysis of PBL
The term Problem Based Learning (PBL) is used within education and training in a variety of educational circumstances that focus on encouraging students to learn from the exploration of a pre-defined research problem set to them. This allows us to redesign the usual classroom based teaching or lecturing approach, instead opting to allow students to work in small self-directed teams to work upon their research question, which is generally a topic relevant to the students situation. The concept is generally to remove a teach the basics then apply knowledge scenario, choosing instead to allow the student to learn the concepts themselves as they need to apply them. For this scenario the teacher is to be more involved as a facilitator with whom the students can come to for direction. The level of involvement from the teacher should be determined as per the desired speed of progression of the group. In an Ideal situation the less involvement from the teacher, the greater the learning experience of the student. PBL can potentially be applied to a variety of disciplines and teaching situations both academic and professional. This is verified by multiple studies. (Central Queensland University 2002) (University of Colorado Denver 2000) (University of Cincinnati 2005)

Although PBL would appear at first glance not to be much different to a standard exercise in the classroom environment, which from my own experience is a criticism I have come across from colleagues, there are several unique aspects that define the PBL approach if properly implemented. These are, but not limited to:
  • The idea that student learning takes place within the contexts of authentic problems aligned with real-world concerns, ideally in line with areas of concern or interest to the student. (San Francisco State University)
  • In a PBL learning environment students and the instructor can become co-learners as they simultaneously develop a curriculum in real-time. (San Francisco State University)
  • PBL is based on solid academic research and on the best practices that promote it, an idea that is easily transferred and indeed used in business environments as well as the academic. In fact, this approach promotes students to take responsibility for their own learning, since there is only structured guidance and facilitation rather than a full course layout and classes, which is much more in-line with a real world professional environment. (San Francisco State University)
  • Also, we see PBL is unique in that it cultivates collaboration among students as the individual is now part of, and responsible to, a team. This means the student can be much less likely to get stuck as there is constant support from others as well as the group dynamic towards driving the individuals learning. (San Francisco State University)
  • PBL encourages the development of problem solving skills and self-directed learning whilst being aimed at increasing motivation for life-long learning.
All this can be summarized in a design where we see the learning as a constructive process, as the student grows in his own educational environment whilst allowing for social influences on the learning. But we have to ask, does PBL promote deeper learning?

Although we can see many interesting points on how PBL can be used to promote a deeper and more personal learning experience we do have to consider the implications of using PBL and, just as importantly, how we use PBL. Firstly it can be said that PBL may not be suitable for all types of learning. Even though commonly frowned upon now in recognition of its lack of promoting understanding, rote learning can be more applicable to a topic of learning like mathematics or chemistry; in fact most sciences require a solid theory background before progression. It would not be appropriate to expect a student to learn the basis of the sciences from this sort of teaching method.

Which leads us to another point, does the student need a background in the subject before entering into a PBL scenario? In an inexperienced or undergraduate scenario, it could be quite a daunting task to have to teach themselves an entire subject from nothing. It could appear that they are unsupported and may lack the confidence that having an experienced expert leading their progression may bring.

In saying this we need to ask now, how involved should the facilitator be? If the facilitator is too heavily involved it would take away from the PBL, turning it into a class based exercise. Should the facilitator step too far back from the problem, the students may lose their direction and develop slower than they would in a classroom scenario or even in some cases learn the incorrect information.

In saying this we should not take these away as problems or flaws with Problem Based Learning but rather as considerations in the designing of the curricula. For instance we have suggested that although it may not be appropriate to teach a full science like mathematics with PBL, could PBL be used to further the learning of the student’s mathematics in conjunction with another subject or question, allowing them to apply the mathematical skills to a scenario to promote better understanding of the topic. Nevertheless a student would still need the background of the mathematics to complete this task, but maybe only the basics would be necessary and the student could develop their further understandings themselves, with some backing from the facilitator when necessary. It is important for the educator to decide if PBL is better used as a tool for education or a curricula device unto itself depending on the type of knowledge the student is to learn.

Furthermore, in regards to how involved the facilitator should be this could simply be prepared by the use of pre-defined learning outcomes, given to both the facilitator and the student. It is important that the student has a clear objective so as not to veer too far from the desired goal, but still to allow them to get to the objective along their own path. This also allows the facilitator to benchmark the progression of the students on an interval basis, stepping in if they believe the group or even an individual is behind, yet without pushing too hard as to give them an advantage or as to hinder them if the students manage to progress beyond the desired level of learning.

Modern technology has led to a mass of readily available knowledge for students. With knowledge bases and shared college resources growing at an exponential rate and the sheer omnipresence of Internet-based technology, it means that this information is more accessible than ever. This growing technological environment leads to an additional social dynamic with the need for cross-skilled and work-based teams. Today, students need to be more self directed and possess lifelong learning skills. The necessity for them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers is higher than ever. They need to be able to assimilate knowledge and skills from a variety of disciplines whilst having the interpersonal skills to be an effective team member.

Problem-based learning allows us to develop the student sharing the required level of knowledge, whilst also facilitating the development of practical research and application of their skills, helping to lead them into a much smoother transfer into professional scenarios where application of their knowledge would be necessary.

Theoretical Rational for Design Concept

The Problem
As project managers, time management is an essential factor in accomplishing the multiple projects due for completion in any period. The problem is that, at any given time, extra projects can be assigned to the team and they will be presented in a variety of time frames, sizes and levels of priority. In the ensuing confusion, important deadlines can be missed or projects not given the level of attention they require. With such a variety of methods in how we all approach these projects, is there a best practice structure we could use to improve our approach?

The objective is to improve time and project management structuring with a direct improvement on meeting deadlines and understanding priorities. This is to be presented and documented in appropriately effective formats to be decided by the team members.        

The problem itself is a broad yet contained topic which will allow the students to develop in a way that will both allow them to flourish as students yet develop towards a specific skill set required by the role. Time management is a skill that each individual coming from college or even the workplace will have at one level or another. The social aspect to the project will allow them to combine their knowledge whilst inputting their own approach into the matter.

Each of the students will be therefore coming with some level of prior knowledge, be it a scheduling or study rota or a business project plan. There will also be an element of new learning for the student as they will be considering the various factors in not only planning the timing of project but in how the business would prioritise and value the various potential projects. This will further their understanding of the business in itself as well as their role and the various potential impacts on the business. Students would be expected to consider the various formats of time management planning and the tools involved in the process.      

The course should be structured in a 4 week plan, with 2 catch-up sessions a week for 3 weeks and a singular round up session in the 4th week for the students to present their work. This is to allow for the student to develop over their 4 week development schedule for their new role. Any longer would impact upon their target start date and any shorter would not allow for the potential development encouraged from PBL learning in this scenario.
To assure the development take place in an appropriate manner, pace and to the required level of learning, a benchmarking scheme should be adopted by the facilitator (Wee 2001). This is not to restrict the learner as they may approach the topic in an unexpected method.

Possible PBL Benchmarks expected from the student (Tracey 2002)

I. Initial Beliefs
1. Comparative Priorities are not given for projects.

2. Time management is an issue to be improved.
3. Some methods may be better than others in dealing with time management.             

II. Learning Issues
1. What methods are there for time management?

2. How do we clearly define the priorities of projects?
3. How fellow managers approach the situation?
4. What is the appropriate amount of time/attention to give a project dependent on its priorities? 
5. Consider the use of delegation in regards to the time allotted.

III. Information Search
1. Talk to fellow managers. 

2. Investigate time management tools.
3. Investigate project management tools.
4. Study previous successful project plans.

Session / Week
Student Benchmarks
Expected Input of the Facilitator
Session 1 /
Week 1
The students should start by trying to understand the problem itself.
Possibly assign roles to group members.
The facilitator should do no more than be certain that the groups understand the problem. Individual attention should be avoided to allow for group interaction.
Session 2 /
Week 1
Students should be considering the problem and have a role within the group and see how they’re going to approach the question.
The facilitator needs to see that all students are participating at this early stage and to establish if roles have been evenly distributed. If not, the facilitator should encourage the students to reconsider their structure but not do it for them.
Session 3 /
Week 2
Students should now be researching various methods of Time and Project management.
No input needed, this is for the students to find their own approach and group dynamic.
Session 4 /
Week 2
Students should be comparing or at least considering the various tools that could be beneficial towards the problem.
The facilitator could possibly direct the students toward information sources if they are falling behind.
Session 5 /
Week 3
Students should be comparing and contrasting their various researches to see what they deem the best approach and to start towards a final resolution.
Facilitator should just remind students that they need to start constructing a final piece from their findings so as not to allow them to get tied down in the research stage.
Session 6 /
Week 3
Students should have an action plan and be working on starting towards finalising their presentation.
Facilitator should see what presentation methods the students are considering and possibly recommend some if the selected method is not enough to convey their idea.
Session 7 /
Week 4
Presentation of Development and findings

This structure could be considered under the design of blooms taxonomy, specifically the five levels in the affective domain:
  • Receiving – Where the students passively pays attention to the PBL problem itself
  • Responding – The students participate on a practical level in learning as they research the necessary information
  • Valuing – The students attach value to the information as a group from their research and findings
  • Organising – The students then put together different aspects for all their findings to create the solution or approach to the problem
  • Characterising – in the presentation the students get the opportunity to display their newly validated beliefs in the researched problem.

Target Audience Profile and Possible Benchmarking
The target audience are business professionals in new Project Management roles. These will be a diverse mix of recently qualified students moving into a professional role and internal promotions into this position. The teams should be roughly 5 people in size.

The variety will allow for a diverse approach to the question as students tend to rely on rotas and schedules for time management, whilst professionals sometimes tend to be more reliant on applications and tools. Both will have new areas to explore yet at the same time be able to contribute on some level.

Design of Assessment with Support Materials
Like all forms of education, it is important to be able to validate the learning itself, as without validation we have no proof of the learning experience. PBL offers us a unique chance not just to vary our conventional assessment methods but to even combine them to get full exposure to a potentially well rounded learning experience. Below are some possible assessment methods that may be used to validate the effectiveness of the learning and of the problem in itself (Macdonald 2005). For our course design i would try to incorporate them all.

Firstly the use of concept maps as a vast amount of the learning that goes on during PBL is more than just a compilation of facts and, as such, written examinations would not give us a full analysis of the student’s growth. Getting students to create concept maps in which they visualize their thought process would present another option to determine their cognitive learning.

Peer and Self assessment could also be valid formats of assessment and professional environments generally require the ability to work with others. Peer assessment can be a viable option to measure student growth; students would need a detailed and well explained evaluation matrix to assure a fair marking. This also reiterates the social and environmental aspect of the PBL strategy.   Also a key focus of PBL is for students to have the ability to identify gaps in their knowledge, helping them to obtain a deeper learning result. Self-assessment permits students to critically analyze what they do and do not know, and somewhat more relevant, what they need to know to approach the problem.

A facilitator’s assessment can be used by the facilitator in encouraging the students to explore different ideas or even approach the topic from a different viewpoint. As previously mentioned, though, the facilitator should not dominate the group but rather encourage learning and exploration. Facilitator assessment may be an analysis of how successful students interacted with their group and their cognitive growth from the facilitator perspective.

More common yet just as viable forms of validation are oral presentations and written reports. Oral presentations allow the students to present ideas and results and some people or groups may find it easier to convey their ideas in a presentation format rather than a more text driven descriptive format. Oral presentations in problem based learning also provide students with an opportunity to practice their communication skills which may have been developed over the course of the PBL.  Written communication is still an important skill, however. The skill to document ones’ findings and have process and procedural documents to assure knowledge retention is important to have. Requiring a written report allows the students to practice and develop this form of communication.

From my own research and critical analysis of others studies in the field it can be seen that all these methods are valid forms for assessing the student’s performance and it would be more than appropriate to use an amalgamation of them. It would be beneficial as we could see the PBL from various standpoints and perspectives, e.g. the facilitators’ view of the project compared against that of the students. 

                  From the studies we can see that PBL is adaptive as the both a learning style and learning experience. The challenge is to use it in a manner appropriate to the materials to be covered and the objectives to be obtained. It may not always be appropriate to use PBL to create a full curriculum, but it can be tailored as a tool to enhance the learning experience. Like all styles it will have its drawback but the goal is to overcome these with better planning and understand of how and when it is appropriate to use PBL in the learning environment.


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