Graduates need to be able to acquire transferable skills so as to enable them gain employment in the treacherous and unpredictable environment of today's world. As educators in the higher education sector, how are we going to engage all students in the deep learning process so that they could resolve problems themselves? This paper delimits the exploration and evaluation of problem-based learning (PBL) and its effects on student learning. In this study, the original pure PBL model is modified and developed into a form that is suitable to both deep and surface students in a Higher Diploma engineering course of Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (Tsing Yi). This PBL model started with a problem at the beginning of the term given to a group of students. Then, a variety of teaching and learning modes which included lectures, tutorials, group discussion, and presentation were used to facilitate students to solve the problem. Promising results gathered from summative test and student interview show that this modified PBL model is suitable to students of both learning approaches. This PBL model is worthwhile for further investigation to improve the quality of student learning and problem solving skill to survive in this fast changing society.
Conventional teaching emphasizes that the role of teacher is the transmitter and student is the absorber of knowledge (Biggs, 1995). This teaching and learning approach produces graduates who lack the transferable skills required by industry. As teachers and trainers, how can we help students to learn in the right way and obtain these skills? In other word, how are we going to engage all students especially those surface students in the deep learning process so that they could resolve problems themselves? In fact, it is better to provide a learning environment that facilitates students' development of problem solving and cognitive skills, enhances students' acquisition of knowledge, encourages the retention and transfer of such skills, knowledge and abilities to other situations (Deek & Turoff, 1999). This study delimits the exploration and evaluation of hybrid problem-based learning and its effects on student learning.
PBL is one of the most effective ways for preparing independent life-long learners (Boud, 1985). Problem-based learning, perfectly in keeping with contemporary constructivist views of education, is an instructional method that uses real world cases or problems as vehicles for students to acquire critical thinking and problem-solving skills (Lai & Chu, 1997). The reason for using real world cases rather than abstract one is to raise student's interest to take part actively in the process. Students can learn problem solving skill and acquire knowledge from this active learning process.
PBL is one of the student-centered teaching approaches that are proved to be effective to foster deep learning and improving problem solving skill (Boud, 1985; Lai & Chu, 1997). Traditionally, PBL works well in small classes and this method emphasizes the learning process in which students actively engage in collecting information and solving a problem. Students are not working alone as they can build their own understanding under the guidance of instructor, but the instructor does not do the building for them.
"Logic" was a core engineering subject area used in this study. Two naturally formed classes, with 74 students each, had the same entry qualification. In line with the idea of Tang et al. (1997) that a direct import of a typical PBL model was inappropriate, a hybrid PBL model was designed to suit the course requirements and standards set by external engineering professional bodies (Chan, 1997). The hybrid PBL model was run for one semester (i.e. fifteen weeks) during the 30-week course. The experimental class (N=74) was taught by using the hybrid PBL model while the control class (N=74) was taught in the usual expository way.
In the experimental class, students were freely to form a group. The members (3 to 4) of each group were the same throughout this period of study. The hybrid PBL model was applied to this class for 15 weeks. This PBL model started with a problem which was given to a group of students at the beginning of the semester. A variety of teaching and learning modes which included lectures, tutorials, group discussion, and presentation were used to provide basic knowledge, improve students' problem-solving skills, and facilitate students to handle the problem.
Interactive presentation was integrated in the lectures for students of each group to ask questions and share ideas. Based on the students' responses, a follow up problem was given to enable students extrapolate the basic knowledge that they had acquired. This challenging problem helped students develop their ability of reconstructing knowledge and apply knowledge they had acquired to handle difficult problem.
Further support could be provided in the tutorial sessions. The aim of the tutorial was to develop students' skills to solve practical problems based on the topic that they had learnt in the lecture. Practical problems which required students to apply the basic knowledge learned in the lecture were given to students at the beginning of the tutorial (N=20). Students within the same group discussed and helped each other to find information and solved these problems. Each group of students presented their result or idea either at the end of the tutorial or in the next tutorial. During the presentation, classmates from other groups could have a chance to discuss or challenge the findings.
Students could acquire and construct knowledge in different teaching and learning modes. They could also obtain more practical skills and improved their problem solving technique through the process of solving this practical problem.
In order to assess students' approaches to learning, the Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ) (Biggs, 1992) was given to both experimental and control classes prior to the intervention. Then, a summative test was given to both experimental and control classes at the end of the study to assess the learning outcome. The questions of this summative test were related to basic knowledge taught in the mass lecture as well as the materials extracted from the practical problem. Students could make use of what they had learnt from lecture, tutorial, and practical problem to answer the questions. This summative test consisted of two types of question. The first task assessed the low-order skills whereas the second task tests the higher-order cognitive abilities. The low-order skill question was simply testing the memorization of the students towards the basic knowledge taught in the class. On the other hand, the high-order question was going to test students' problem solving skills which required students to apply knowledge they had acquired to handle difficult problem found in the real world.
Based on the numerical result of this summative test, any change of memorization skills or problem solving skills between these two classes could be found. Also, learning outcomes of solving these two completely different types of questions between deep and surface students in this PBL program could be studied. At the end of the study, sixteen students (8 surface and 8 deep bias) were randomly selected to conduct interview. The aim of this interview was to probe an open-end way how this hybrid PBL model might have affected their learning and their views towards this new teaching approach.
Class | Learning Approach | ||
Surface | No | Deep | |
Control | 39 | 18 | 17 |
Experimental | 32 | 18 | 24 |
Figure 1 lists the results of low and high order skill questions for students with different learning approaches in both experimental and control classes.
Class | Low Order Skill | High Order Skill | ||
Surface | Deep | Surface | Deep | |
Control | 66.80 | 60.88 | 26.90 | 35.00 |
Experimental | 65.63 | 63.96 | 44.22 | 50.00 |
The average score of low order skill question shows only slight difference between each catalog of students, i.e. between all students, surface students, and deep students in control and experimental class. Hence, this PBL treatment had no effect on student's low order problem solving skill. However, difference existed between the scores of students of both learning approaches in the high order skill question. A two-way ANCOVA with approaches to learning and PBL treatment as independent variables, the high order skill scores as dependent, and Physics scores as covariate, was performed. Only the treatment, F(1, 6179) = 8.416, were significant at the 0.05 level. This findings conclude that this PBL treatment did improve high order problem solving skill of students of both learning approaches.
Positive feedback was obtained from student interview. Most students enjoyed the chance to discuss together during the completion process of the main problem. Actually, students could teach each other and remember the discussion process for a longer period of time.
"Every one in a group has his/her own opinion but will finally obtain only one solution to solve a problem. There are strong arguments during the process but we learn many during this discussion process."Even a surface student, who was not so active in the discussion, could learn difficult concept through the discussion process.
"The basic concept was learnt in the class and the difficult concept can be learnt during the discussion process in solving the problem. Although I contribute not much in the discussion process, I can learn much when I listen to the conversation of my group members."This teaching model created more interest for the students in learning. Students could learn deeply and remember their work done for a longer period of time.
"I can remember longer and understand deeper when using this method in learning. I can also know what is the difficulty in applying the concept into practice."Students reported positive changes in learning style after they had experienced this PBL model. For deep students, better time management, deeper thinking, and different viewpoints were reported. For surface students, they would have confidence to ask more questions after experiencing this teaching model. Also, they learned to transfer knowledge into practice and became more concentrated in the lecture.
Biggs, J.B. (1995). Constructing Quality Teaching. Paper presented to Quality Assurance in Higher Education Seminar, Hong Kong.
Boud, D. (1985). Problem-based learning in education for the professions. Higher Education and Development Society of Australasia.
Bridges, E.M. (1992). Problem-based learning for administrators. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EA 023 722.
Chan, C.C. (1997). The Role of Engineers and the Challenges of Engineering Education. Asia Engineer, 1997 Oct: 28-29.
Coles, C.R. (1993). Difference between conventional and problem-based learning. Medical Education, 19(4), 308-309.
Deek, F.P. & Turoff, M. (1999). A common model for problem solving and program development. IEEE Transactions on Education, 42(4), 331-6.
Lai, P. & Chu, K.C. (1997). Who benefits from Problem-based learning? Zeitschrift für Hochschuldidaktik, Special Issue Problem-based learning: Theory Practice and Research, 21(1), 148-160.
Leung, D. (1999). Some Issues in the Implementation of Vocational Education. Paper presented in the 2nd Joint Conference of SCUT and IVE(TY), Hong Kong, 1-2.
Soden, R. (1994). Teaching problem solving in vocational education. London: Routledge.
Tang, C. and 12 others (1997). Developing a context-based PBL model. In J. Conway, R. Fisher, L. Sheridan-Burns and G. Ryan (Eds), Research and Development in PBL, Vol.4: Integrity, innovation, integration. Newcastle: Australian Problem Based Learning Network.
Wong, Y.L., and Montague N. (1996). A Pragmatic Approach to Vocational Curriculum Design: A case study. Paper presented to Vocational and Technical Education for 2000, Hong Kong.
Woods, D.R. (1994). Problem-based learning: How to gain the most from PBL. McMaster University, Canada.
Contact details: K. C. Chu, Department of Electrical and Communications Engineering, Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (Tsing Yi), 20 Tsing Yi Road, Tsing Yi, HONG KONG Phone 852-2436-8657 Fax 852-2436-8643 Email kcchu@vtc.edu.hk Please cite as: Chu K. C. and Lai, P. (2001). Can PBL work for surface students? In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 142-147. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/chu1.html |