Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in STEM Education- Mahmoud A. Allam


As part of the CUT program that I have recently completed, I was required to conduct a research project on university teaching. I decided to do my research on an effective interactive teaching/learning method. The first thought that came to my mind was to reflect on my own learning: what is the most effective way for me to learn something new? Thinking back to my undergraduate studies in Engineering, I recalled that my most enjoyable learning experience was the senior-year capstone project, where we were given a real-world problem, and we had to work in groups to come up with a design that fulfills all the project requirements. It was my first time to realize that authentic projects were not as simple as well-structured problems in textbooks. Although it was a challenging experience with all the practical obstacles that we often encountered, it was the most effective way to get hands-on experience on many concepts that we had to put together to successfully achieve our goal. Even by reflecting on my past MSc and current PhD research works, I came to realize that researchers follow almost the same approach to learn new concepts and skills to complete their research – we face a problem, we self-study and learn until we reach a solution. My conclusion after a brief research was that one of the most effective teaching/learning philosophies, especially in STEM disciplines, was “Learning by Doing”, which encompasses Project-Based Learning. So, here I started asking myself questions: can we, university teachers, embrace similar strategies in teaching most (or all) our subjects instead of limiting it to upper-year subjects? how can we gradually train our students to be independent thinkers rather than lecturing them? what frameworks do exist for this type of teaching, and how to implement them? Finally and most importantly, are these methods really effective, or is it just my personal thought/experience?

I started my research on Project-Based Learning, and surprisingly ended up researching its “sibling”, Problem-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a teaching method that was first introduced in medical education where the students work in groups to solve ill-structured, open-ended, and authentic (i.e., real-world) problems. In this approach, the whole subject is structured as a set of problems that cover different topics of the course. The instructor here acts more like a facilitator than a lecturer. He/she is primarily responsible for guiding the students rather than teaching them, while the students mostly self-teach the material. To better understand the whole process of PBL, let’s have a look at the the following chart.

When introducing a new problem in a session, the facilitator provides the problem statement to a group of learners (5-10 students), and helps them Identify the Problem. Next, the facilitator lets them brainstorm to Generate Hypotheses on the possible causes of the problem and to think about Possible Mechanisms to solve it. The learners from this point can Identify their Learning Issues (i.e., what they need to learn and how to learn it). At this point, the facilitator’s role is to make sure that the learners are on the right track, but not to identify the learning goals for them. As the session ends, the students begin their journey of exploring the available resources (e.g., textbooks, online resources … etc.) to Self Study the subject. The group of learners meet with the tutor again to Re-evaluate and Apply their New Knowledge: have they acquired enough knowledge to solve the problem? were their initial hypotheses correct and/or complete? are there more learning issues they were not aware of? Finally, the students are given a chance to Asses and Reflect on their Learning. They should give each other feedback about their contributions to learning, and evaluate the group work. The cycle is then repeated as the learners generate new hypotheses about the problem with the new acquired knowledge and skills until they finally achieve a solution, or sometimes many possible solutions. As we can see, the process does not include lectures at all; it is a fully student-centered method.

Although the original definition of PBL comprises complete “self-directedness” of learners and “ill-structuredness” of problems, instructors have often adopted different versions of PBL that better suit their subjects and teaching goals. For instance, Project-Based Learning is considered one form of PBL where problems are partially well-structured and learning is partially self-led and partially instructor-led. Other methods such as Case-Based Learning and Anchored Instruction also lie under the big umbrella of PBL. In general, PBL has gone a long way in medical education. It is, however, not often implemented in STEM disciplines even though it has proved effective by those who have applied it. I believe that the challenges associated with such an advanced method, such as the students’ resistance, shortage of resources, and lack of experience with the method, are still a burden against wider application of PBL in STEM schools. However, if we look at the other side, the potential benefits of this method can outweigh its challenges. Who wouldn’t want STEM graduates who possess highly developed communication, teamwork, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills? Who wouldn’t want self-directed students with deep and long-lasting knowledge? Who wouldn’t want learners that have acquired hands-on experience for their years of university education?

After researching the method and considering its various aspects, I went back to  reflect on my very first questions. Can we implement this philosophy in most (if not all) STEM subjects? Yes, we can; instructors have already done that in many courses at different levels. How can we teach our students to be independent learners? Just let them practice self-directed learning, but it takes patience and lots of guidance at the beginning from their instructors. What frameworks to use to attain that? We are lucky that hundreds of people have already developed, experimented, and reported numerous teaching approaches that follow the same philosophy. The PBL approach explained above is just a glimpse of one approach. All we need to do is to merely research and find the most appropriate strategy for our subjects and students. My last question was: are these methods really helpful? Well, the research results have been generally positive and encouraging in that regard. So, I have personally decided to apply some sort of PBL in my next teaching opportunity. It may take more work, but I strongly believe it is worth the extra effort.

Top image provided by Ohio University Libraries under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.



Mahmoud is a Graduate instructional Developer at the CTE where he facilitates workshops and microteaching sessions as part of the Fundamentals of University Teaching program. He occasionally conducts teaching observations to give feedback to his fellow graduate students on their teaching skills. He is also a PhD Candidate at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering where he is doing research on the integration of renewable energy resources into electricity grids.

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Lightboard: Mirror Magic – Mary Power

I was recently introduced to the lightboard technology and immediately I was hooked.

lightboard image
Open source hardware:

My discovery of the lightboard was timely as CTE colleague Mark Morton and I had just been discussing the mirror paradox, which is so eloquently explained in this Washington Post piece . Mirrors challenge us intellectually – oh you really do have to love physics!  Seeing a lightboard video presentation for the first time has the same effect (or did for me anyway). The first thought that went through my mind was “WOW….he can sure write backwards well!”  Watch this one minute video to see what I mean:

The original Lightboard designed by Michael Peshkin, an Engineering Professor at Northwestern University, allows the creation of videos that are filmed in reflection using a mirror, resulting in the apparition of the skilled backwards writer.  Another option for creating lightboard videos is a post-production digital horizontal flip of the video. I, however, am partial to the mirror model, which in addition to having a “cool” factor allows for the video to be uploaded instantly with no post-production processing.

So whimsy aside, what is a lightboard exactly? How and why would it be useful in teaching?  In most simple terms a lightboard is an illuminated sheet of glass on which an instructor writes with fluorescent markers, as on a  whiteboard or chalkboard. The major difference is that instructor is facing the “audience”. This is absolutely an improvement on the traditional chalkboard where an instructor’s back is facing the audience when writing and often, unfortunately, while speaking. As Peshkin says ” that just gives you a little bit better sense of engagement with your students as you’re talking, and gives them a better sense that they’re being spoken to, rather than somebody just writing.”

Some might argue that these videos are too instructor focused. I would argue however that the presence of the instructor is much of what makes these videos work. In part, it is the human presence that draws the viewer in and helps develop instructor immediacy, something often difficult to attain in online and blended course videos.  The other aspect is the potential for increased learning over a traditional voice-over PPT presentation. By actually watching the physical steps taken to solve a problem, for example, and seeing the visual emphasis placed on specific steps or items learning can be enhanced. A recent study by Pi el al. confirmed this; finding that student attention and learning was significantly increased using pointing gestures in recorded video lectures over non-human (PPT animation) cues or no cues at all (Pi et al., 2016).

I truly think the lightboard technology is not a gimmick, but is rather another great instructional tool that can be used to help explain challenging concepts. I believe that this technology can be used to create rich learning opportunities for flipped, blended and online courses.

I am currently working with our audio visual studio team to determine the feasibility of building a lightboard here at the University of Waterloo. I know a number of faculty already interested in using it and studying its educational value if we build it.  I would love to hear from others interested in using this technology when we have it operational, so please get in touch.


ELI: 7 things you should know about Lightboard

Northwestern Lightboard

UBC Lightboard

Pi, Z., Hong, J. and Yang, J. (2016), Effects of the instructor’s pointing gestures on learning performance in video lectures. Br J Educ Technol. doi:10.1111/bjet.12471


Mary Power

Mary Power

As Senior Instructional Developer, Blended Learning, Mary Power develops programming that promotes the effective use of the online environment in on-campus courses. Working closely with faculty liaisons, Centre for Extended Learning (CEL), and Instruction Technologies and Multimedia Services (ITMS), she helps manage initiatives related to “blended learning” courses. Mary is also involved in research projects related to the impact and effectiveness of blended learning.

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A case study of a new approach to a blended course — Meagan Troop, Centre for Extended Learning

Musical scoreI am an Online Learning Consultant (OLC) at the Centre for Extended Learning at the University of Waterloo. As OLCs we pride ourselves on a scholarly approach to course design and, as such, 20% of my time is allotted to research. One of the research projects that I began in Winter 2016 is a case study examination of a blended learning opportunity jointly offered by Wilfrid Laurier University and UOIT. In this case, not only did I have the opportunity to conduct research, but also to teach and contribute design changes to the course being researched. Both the research and teaching dimensions of this experience have been invaluable, greatly enhancing my perspective as an instructional designer. Continue reading A case study of a new approach to a blended course — Meagan Troop, Centre for Extended Learning

VoiceThread Project: Call for Participation — Gillian Dabrowski

voicethreadAre you looking for ways to engage your students in learning? Consider partnering with the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) and the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) to pilot a new instructional tool in Waterloo’s on-campus and online classes: VoiceThread.

You may be interested in learning about the pilot if your goal is to engage students in any of the activities below:

  • Idea sharing and interaction
  • Community building
  • Social learning
  • Peer instruction
  • Critical reflection
  • Presentation practice
  • Digital literacy skills building
  • Language practice

What is VoiceThread?

VoiceThread is a media-based discussion tool. A key feature of VoiceThread is that it enables you and your students to create digital presentations and make them the centre of a discussion. Presentations can include documents, images, PowerPoint slides, audio, or video. Students attach comments to the presentation using a keyboard (text), a microphone or telephone (audio), or a webcam (video). Discussions are asynchronous, meaning students are not online at the same time.

Why use VoiceThread?

Penn State’s Use Case Introduction gives several examples of why instructors use VoiceThread:

  • On-campus, create digital presentations on difficult to comprehend concepts and processes. Students can review content multiple times and ask the instructor questions on specific slides.
  • Enable students to present knowledge and research digitally. The class benefits from exposure to a multitude of topics. The presenter benefits from practice articulating themselves verbally and peer feedback.
  • Actively engage students in online lectures by prompting them to comment on specific slides or respond to questions posed within the presentation.
  • Increase your online instructor teaching presence and build online class community by initiating weekly kick-off discussions.
  • Create an online ‘seminar’ course experience where students grapple with heavy readings together in both written and verbal formats.

Pilot Details

The VoiceThread pilot is scheduled to run from Winter 2017–Winter 2018. Faculty who participate in the pilot will receive a VoiceThread account linked to their LEARN user account and a course site. Training and support for the pilot will be supported by CEL, CTE, and LEARN Help. Faculty participants and course participants will be asked to provide feedback via survey response, panel discussion, and interview.

If you would like to volunteer to be a part of this pilot, please contact CEL’s Gillian Dabrowski,, or your CTE Liaison with the following details:

  1. Name
  2. Course information (CourseID, name, section) and expected number of students
  3. A description of how you will use VoiceThread in your course to support student engagement and assessment. How might VoiceThread help solve a problem you are experiencing with discussions or assessment as you currently use them?

More Information


Gao, F. & Sun, Y. (2010). Supporting an online community of inquiry using VoiceThread. In C. Maddux et al. (Eds.) Research Highlights in Information Technology and Teacher Education 2010 (pp.9-18). Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE).

Why “Following Your Passion” Is Bad Advice – Elorm Agbeyaka

9318593026_fa45b15338_mFollow your passion; the mantra that successful people will preach to inspire those who will listen. I become a little weary every time I hear it. I have heard it preached from the likes of spokespeople, teachers, parents, mentors, and so on. I soon learned that this is not always the case, and in fact, it can be a hindering concept to believe in.

I recently watched a video of a commencement speech by Mike Rowe, best known as the host for the television series Dirty Jobs, given to PragerU graduates. In five minutes, he explained why he thinks following your passion is terrible advice. The main idea of his speech, what he referred to as “The Dirty Truth”, is this; just because you’re passionate about something, doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it [1].  This implies that the hard work and effort that you put into your passion, does not necessarily mean you will obtain a successful lifestyle in that passion.

He goes on to describe the ineffectiveness of telling someone to follow their dreams, since it may not actually be clear as to what they are dreaming, and if that dream is feasibly attainable. The fact remains that passion and ability are two separate things.

To be successful, Rowe explains how following opportunity will more likely lead to prosperity, and that following passion can mean missing out on plenty of available opportunities. He uses the “skills gap” to illustrate his point; there are plenty of jobs that are available to which very few people are trained to do. This compares to the large number of people who are skilled at certain jobs, to which have few openings. Imagine how successful you could be if you went against the current and followed the path less beaten?5863884809_7dcbcea2e5_m

This was, personally, a very eye-opening concept that I had never really thought about. For most of my life, I was under the impression that hard work and perseverance meant that you could do anything you wanted. However, I believe much of what Rowe said is very true.

Now, this is not to say that following one’s passion is completely illogical; it’s not impossible to be successful at your dream. It is, however, important to gauge the pay-off towards your goal, versus how much effort, time, and money is going into it. To paraphrase Mike, staying the course only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Learn to pick your battles, and know when to tap out of the ring and take on a different battle that you believe can be concurred.

So now what? Instead of following passion in advance, what should be done instead? I decided to do some research and see what others had to say, and much of it was a relative reiteration of Rowe’s speech.

In an interview, Cal Newport, an author and 30-year-old assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, advocated for cultivating your passion, instead of following it. In essence, pay-off is greater when one decides to build a passion for their job. This is done by sharpening your skills and abilities within your work like a craftsperson, then shaping your working life towards the lifestyle that you desire [2].

Here are a few guidelines to help navigate you through your passion cultivation in the job market:

  1. Understand what skills and activities you excel at. Are you a good listener, or problem solver, or have always taken the leadership role in a group setting? What are you good at which you believe has been impactful or has made you particularly happy at one point?
  2. Understand where your skills can be applied. In what jobs and industries would you be able to hone your skills like a craftsperson, and gain more opportunities as a result of your improvement? Think broadly about your possible opportunities. For example, I love using Microsoft Excel, so I know there are a number of positions that would require proficiency in Excel than just Data Analysis jobs.

Seeing that it is convocation season for many University students, this might have some valuable insight for a number of graduates. Some will be entering the workforce, and may have hopes of landing that dream job, or pursuing that one thing they are passionate about. The real takeaway point: keep a mindful and realistic goals, and allow your passions to drive you throughout the journey. Take the time to understand if your passion is really what you’re meant to do, or if it is just meant to be a dream to hold on to.


[1] Mike Rowe – Don’t Follow Your Passion

[2] Joshua Fields Millburn – ‘Follow Your Passion’ Is Crappy Advice

[3] Nathaniel Koloc – Why “Follow Your Passion” is Pretty Bad Advice

[4] Lauren Friese –  Gen Y career advice: Don’t follow your passion. Do this instead.

Piazza – part 2 – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates


Back in January 2012 I wrote about Piazza, the free online Q&A site used by instructors for teaching. Since then, Piazza has grown even more popular with STEM subjects. Piazza reports that over 1000 schools and 300,000 students have participated in online discussions using their system. Continue reading Piazza – part 2 – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates

Paul Kates

Paul Kates

Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Liaison to the Faculty of Mathematics (

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Increasing student engagement through experiential learning and virtual language learning – Kyle Scholz

When considering what effective, stimulating learning experiences entail, my thinking is often relegated to purely logistical and structural considerations: students are typically enrolled in five courses a semester, each with approximately three hours a week devoted to in-class learning, and are then expected to do additional studying outside of class to make up a forty-hour work week. As much as we may hope (and even expect) that each student chooses to spend his or her time outside of the classroom focusing on our coursework, the reality is that many students simply do not devote the recommended time on the work that they should – in 1961, students were allocating forty hours a week to class and studying, yet since 2003 that number has been reduced to twenty-seven hours a week (Babcock & Marks, 2011).

Players playing Mentira game

This then leads to questions of how can we – instructors and educators – encourage our students to spend their time outside of the classroom learning our course content. I would suggest that exploring experiential, flexible learning opportunities (Biggs, 1999) as part of your class may in fact lead to further interest outside of specific class-time. Flexible learning offers “real opportunities to generate effective and high-quality learning in ways that are economical of the teacher’s time despite high student-teacher ratios” (Biggs, 1999: 115), and which typically encourage learning outside of the classroom. The experience of learning outside of the classroom can be very beneficial to learners too, as ecological perspectives inform us, according to Holden and Sykes (2011), that “place is not a mere practicality, an application for academic knowledge, but has a profound influence on what and how we learn, and is itself generative” (Holden & Sykes, 2011: 5).

My own research falls within this area, as I explore ways to motivate our students to continue the learning process outside of the three-hour classroom window. Specifically, I look at second language development and the affordances of technology to enhance the language learning experience. In particular, digital game-based language learning presents an intriguing means by which we can harness the ludic aspects of learning without explicitly pushing the structural aspects of the learning experience.

After having recently attended the Gamification conference in Stratford, held by the Games Institute here at UW, as well as the annual CALICO (Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium), a fantastic learning tool was brought to my attention: ARIS ( The ARIS program “is a user-friendly, open-source platform for creating and playing mobile games, tours and interactive stories… ARIS players experience a hybrid world of virtual interactive characters, items, and media placed in physical space”

Screenshot of Mentira game


To give an example of its possible implementation in higher education: imagine the University of Waterloo transformed into a lively, old, German town. The Porter library is in fact an old, historic Bibliothek (library), the SLC is the Markt (market), and Needles Hall is now the distinguished Rathaus (city hall). As students physically walk through the campus, they are guided by digital quests that an instructor has created using ARIS, populating the virtual representation of the physical space with interactive characters that speak in the foreign language and request things of the learner. The students, in pairs, must then in turn go from place-to-place, communicating with virtual characters, taking photos of landmarks and commenting on them, all of which in turn can then be observed and commented on by the instructor.

Screenshot of Mentira game

In many ways this is a valuable learning experience, enhancing student engagement and producing what Schuetz (2008) calls “a state of interest, mindfulness , cognitive effort, and deep processing of new information that partially mediates the gap between what learners can do and what they actually do” (Schuetz, 2008: 312). By rooting the learning experience in a ludic, virtual environment, and allowing students to work with another to assist in scaffolding potential gaps in knowledge, an otherwise mundane vocabulary/grammar lesson can be dramatically transformed. With a bit of time and effort, anyone can construct a virtual world such as this and make authentic use of the content that is being studied in a language course. The students in turn reap a number of benefits:

  1. it gets them out of the classroom and navigating a physical space;
  2. it prompts authentic language use, and;
  3. it begins to demonstrate that second language development is not confined to the classroom, and that learning can occur (and should occur!) outside of the structured classroom environment.

Such an approach can then, I would argue, lead learners to understand that the content you are teaching has larger implications, and may serve as that additional motivation to engage in the continuous process of learning beyond the three-hour/week administrative constraints.



Works Cited

ARIS Games. Last accessed November 14th, 2013 from

Babcock, P. and Marks, M. (2011). The falling time cost of college: Evidence from half a century of time use data. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 93(2): 468-478.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Society for Research into Higher Education& Open University Press: Philadelphia, PA.

Holden, C.L. and Sykes, J. M. (2011). Leveraging mobile games for place-based language learning. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 1(2): 1-22.

Schuetz, P. (2008). Developing a theory-driven model of community college student engagement. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2008(144): 17–28.

Kyle Scholz

Faculty of Arts and University Colleges Liaison

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