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

Classroom

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.

mallam

mallam

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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Debunking the Learning Styles Myth – Crystal Tse

Photo of a person's brain outlined into aidfferent sections
Image provided by William Creswell under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.

Franz Josef Gall was a neuroscientist in the 1700s who developed phrenology, a field that attributed specific mental functions to different parts of the brain (i.e., that certain bumps on a person’s head would indicate their personality traits). This field has since then been widely discredited as pseudoscience. It is often comforting to be able to categorize things and put people into neat boxes, and phrenology is one example of this tendency. Learning styles is another example.

The idea of learning styles began in the 1970s, where a growing literature and industry posited that learners have specific, individualized ways of learning the work best for them. There are many different theories of learning styles, including ones that classify people as visual, auditory, or tactile learners, or ones that outline different cognitive approaches people take in their learning.

However, there is virtually no evidence that supports that individuals have learning styles, nor that when taught in a way that “meshes” with their learning style that there is greater learning. A group of psychologists reviewed the literature and in their report on learning styles state that while there have been studies done on how individuals can certainly have preferences for learning, almost none of the studies employed rigorous research designs that would demonstrate that people benefit if they are instructed in a way that matches their learning style. In a recent study, Rogowsky and colleagues conducted an experimental test of the meshing hypothesis and found that matching the type of instruction to learning style did not make a difference on students’ comprehension of material. Furthermore, certain teaching strategies are best suited for all learners depending on the material that is being taught – learning how to make dilutions in a chemistry course, for example, requires a hands-on experiential approach, even if you have a preference to learn from reflection!

Instead of fixating on learning styles, I recommend we instead focus on engaging our learners in and outside the class (by using active learning strategies where appropriate – there is good evidence that active learning benefits learners in STEM classrooms, for example). As instructors we can also try vary our teaching methods so all students have a way into the material. Lastly, learning doesn’t always have to feel easy – research from growth mindsets shows us that feeling challenged and failure itself is important for students’ learning and growth.

Crystal Tse

Crystal Tse

Crystal is the Educational Research Associate at the CTE where she contributes to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning work and to program evaluation. She received her PhD in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, where her research involved applying psychological theory to inform evidence-based interventions that address different social issues.

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Why Education is important to me – Haroon Pervez

BirdsAs I near the end of my post-secondary education, I find it fitting that I reflect on my past years at the University of Waterloo and ask “why am I doing this?” and “is it worth it?” Is the investment of pursing this abstract concept of “education” worth the headaches, stress, and doubt that comes along with it?

Though often taken for granted, elementary school and high school have taught most people how to function in everyday society. It taught us how to read, write, communicate and socialize with the people around us. It allowed us to explore (to some degree) subjects that we would learn to love or despise completely. But one thing that I have noticed, for me at least, was that it felt forced. It was something that we HAD to do, and for good reason. Yet at the end of grade 12, the pressure to pursue further education was somewhat lifted. Students now had a choice to continue to learn or just sit at home on the couch all day (something I wouldn’t advise).

I found it interesting that I felt so troubled at the idea of me wasting my time away sitting on a couch. Why was I so motivated to continue to learn and educate myself?

Mohamed Reda, in an article called “Top 10 Reasons why Education is Extremely Important”, mentions some interesting points as to why many of us dedicate so much time into continuing to educate ourselves, even after we have finished formal schooling. I won’t touch upon all the points he lists, but I’ll mention some points that resonated with me and helped me realize why I want to continue educating myself.

To start, the reason I continue to educate myself is to secure a good and happy future. To be able to do the things I want in life, I must first learn how to do them. Whether it’s wanting to become a professor or an entrepreneur, I must actively learn the necessary steps to achieve these goals. Educating myself gives me the option to choose to do what I like rather than being forced to do something else.

Education can also help when looking at finances. As the entrepreneur Tai Lopez loves to say, “the more you learn, the more you earn.” By educating myself, it opens up the possibility of me making a lot of money in the profession I choose. But even if I don’t pursue professions that make hundreds of thousands of dollars, by learning how to manage money effectively, I can still live life comfortably while doing the things I love.

Lastly, the reason why I want to continue educating myself is to bring about positive change in the world. It can be as simple as teaching others about love, equality, and respect or as complex as ending a war, by learning about these problems, it gives me the ability to act upon them. If we all follow the pattern of learning important topics, then teaching others about it in a positive manner, I believe we can change the world for the better.

Without going into too much detail, those are the main reasons that keep me motivated to continue to educate myself. With a lot of thought, I’ve realized that continuing to educate myself is worth all the trouble that comes with it.

Others may have a different ideas of why they think education is or is not important but I can confidently say that knowledge is an extremely powerful tool. You can educate yourself through formal schooling or even through the internet, there are many resources for us to access! But whether it’s learning the basic skills of how to survive as adults in the world, or finding a cure to cancer, education is key.

As you go on with your day, I challenge you to think about the reasons why you choose to continue or not continue to educate yourself! I’d love to hear about it.

Black History and the Education System – Carlton Darby

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Happy (belated) Black History Month! It’s hard for me to imagine that it’s already March when it just felt like yesterday I began my first co-op term at the Centre for Teaching Excellence. I guess time flies when you’re having fun! But as my second term of studies gets closer and closer, I reflect on my life in education, and consequently powerful quotes like this one here by Nelson Mandela. At the same time, however, I try to fathom how quickly yet another Black History Month has gone by. So with these two thoughts in my head, they come together to form the big question that many people have already asked: “Why don’t we teach more black history in our education system?”

As a young man of a Jamaican background that has received his entire education in the Canadian school system, I think about this question often and how it speaks to my experience with learning about black history in school. I vividly recall a lesson in my Grade 10 history class where we read a chapter about World War II. As I flipped through the plethora of pages that described the war, I noticed that a couple of pages were dedicated to a black Canadian soldier that made notable contributions to the war effort (I wish I could remember his name). But that was it. Only two pages of black history mentioned within the entire story of World War II. Now to be fair, since that class was a while back there could have been other parts in that textbook that mentioned black history and the history of other minorities which I may have missed, or just simply don’t remember. But I think there’s something to be said to the fact that from my Grade 10 history textbook, the only memory I have of it commemorating black history in Canada was a two-page profile on one individual.

Even when I think about black history and education on a larger scale – outside of Canada – up until this past year my knowledge only went as far as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and other widely-known black historical figures that were mentioned year after year (but my deepest respect has always gone out to these individuals and their contributions to black history). My knowledge of black history didn’t really get the opportunity to truly evolve and develop.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no historian and I’m definitely not trying to undermine the same education system that has equipped me and so many others with endless opportunities to succeed (I think that’s a misconception many people have when a topic like this is brought up). But I just think that there’s so much more students deserve to learn when it comes to how black individuals have contributed to the history that has led to present day. Did you know that African-American inventor Garrett Morgan innovated the traffic light? (Check out “Garrett Morgan”) Or that the richest man in all of history is thought to be King Musa Keita I, an African man that ruled the Mali Empire in the 14th century? (Check out “King Musa”) I just found out about King Musa last week. But there’s a sense of empowerment and enlightenment that comes along with knowing that the story of black history is much larger than we think it is – a story the precedes slavery and goes beyond the big names we always hear about.

I felt this empowerment only after reading about a couple of individuals. Imagine how a whole classroom or a whole school would feel if they regularly learned about these people in a school year? Imagine the potential that would grow inside of them, the things that they would then know they can accomplish. This same empowerment translates to the history of all minorities, for all races to benefit from.

But as good as the idea sounds to incorporate more of the history of minorities into our education system, it faces the opposition which says that there simply isn’t enough resources (ie. time, money and curriculum space) to incorporate such material. Now this is a very reasonable and fair point to make. I can definitely see how it can be a challenge to introduce any new material into a curriculum that’s already trying to work with the material that’s currently being used. But at the same time I think it’s easy to say we don’t have enough of something when the task placed before us is challenging. Consider a father whose son has a championship soccer game coming up. Now the father’s weekly schedule may make him feel justified in saying that he doesn’t have enough time to go and watch the game. But because he knows the game means so much to his son, he accommodates and makes the time to go watch his soccer game. This isn’t to say that everyone has the resources to do anything and everything regardless of how limited you are, but I think we can all agree that if you are truly passionate enough to see something happen, you will make the time and generate the resources necessary to make it happen. If we all adopted a mentality like this, think of all the amazing things we would accomplish that we never thought was possible. Why did it not seem possible before? Because we convinced ourselves that we didn’t have enough resources to accomplish the task.

Check out this CBC news report called “Teaching Black History in Canada”, as they cover the benefits and challenges an Ontario teacher faces with her new black history course.

Again, I’m no expert on the school system, but I think understanding the student perspective on issues such as this is imperative towards creating a meaningful solution. This solution won’t come overnight – it may take years of trial and error to bring a feasible plan to fruition in the classroom. But it’s important to realize – especially in 2017 – that incorporating this history into our education system not only helps us understand where we are coming from, but where we are truly going.

On the topic of music education – Anastasiya Mihaylova

Bassoon reeds in cupI could write this blog post about all the ways music is beneficial to us as learners and teachers – the positive effects it has on our standardized test performance, memory, motor, communication and analytical skills. I could continue that conversation and provide the dismal array of stats on the decline of public school funding for art programs across multiple countries and how this is a really bad idea.

Or I could talk about the real reason music is important – it is profoundly human, universal and magical and should not be defended solely because it is good for something other than simply. being. music. Continue reading On the topic of music education – Anastasiya Mihaylova

Learning to Leap via Experiential Education — Michelle Gordon

michelle gordonI can’t say enough about experiential learning.  By stepping outside of textbook learning and living the experience, you develop personal connections to the theory. In my experience, this personal connection creates a drive to learn more about a topic, similar to how when you meet a person you like, you want to know more about them. Through experiential learning, I have also found that I develop soft skills that are not replicable in classroom learning, and which stay with me long after the experience is over.

This fall I was fortunate to be one of six student delegates selected from the University of Waterloo to attend the 21st Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which was held in Paris, France. Also known as COP21 for short, this conference resulted in the Paris Agreement — an agreement to limit climate change to well below 2C of warming — being adopted with the consensus of 195 states. This was a historic moment to be a part of, where climate change was front and center on the world stage and it was finally agreed upon that quick and drastic action needs to be taken on a global level. Climate change is one of the global challenges of our century, and I hope that COP21 will be written in history as the turning point towards a cleaner and brighter future without fossil fuels.

Through this experience I learned much more about climate change than I could have in an entire semester in the classroom, but I think the most important thing I learned is confidence in my ability to leap. I believe to leap, or to jump into something new and unfamiliar when the opportunity presents itself instead of waiting until you feel “good enough,” is an essential skill to succeed in what you want in life.

Theoretical Knowledge

When I first applied to be a student delegate for COP21, I was hesitant as I thought I was less knowledgeable than many of my peers who were applying. Because I am in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability program, I had a working knowledge of climate change but by no means considered myself anywhere close to an expert! I applied anyway, and was thrilled to be selected. I studied climate change negotiations leading up to COP21, and observed them all around me during the experience. From this I gained a deeper knowledge than I had expected, and I am glad to have made the leap to apply and learn as I went, even if I was hesitant about my experience beforehand!

Social Media

Before attending COP21 I used social media such as Facebook, but I was shy about voicing my thoughts about social and environmental causes. Leading up to and during COP21, it was our job as student delegates to involve the wider campus community in awareness of the conference and climate change. It felt very uncomfortable at first, but I began posting on Facebook, joined Twitter, and then decided to make the leap by volunteering to be one of the lead students on the delegation’s communications and social media team. I felt out of my element at first, but through working in a team with two other students we created a successful and engaging campaign.

Networking and Meeting Influential People

At the COP21 conference, you are surrounded by people from all around the world, many of whom are very influential and knowledgeable. At first I felt a bit intimidated and timid in approaching people. However, I gained confidence when professor Ian Rowlands arranged for a few students and me to chat with Marlo Raylonds (the Chief of Staff to Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change) as well as David Miller (the President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada and former mayor of Toronto). Chatting with these intelligent people help me build confidence in knowing that influential people are just like anyone else, and I will now feel more comfortable approaching leaders in the future.

Bringing Experiential Learning into the Classroom

I understand that not many teachers can simply take their students abroad on a whim.  However, experiential learning opportunities are out there — they just need to be found and acted upon!

I think that classroom and lecture studies are important, and can serve their purpose as theoretical foundations for experiences. However, I strongly urge students to be always searching for opportunities to experience their passions outside of the classroom, be it conferences, volunteering, or through work experience.  Remember, Google is your friend!  For example, an afternoon spent searching can uncover field courses you can take for credit abroad or in Canada, bursary programs, and much more. Teachers can support students by sharing opportunities that they become aware of, and urging students to leap: to apply, follow through, and have the confidence to make it happen.

Michelle Gordon is a third year undergraduate student in the Environment and Resource Studies co-op program. Michelle was part of the delegation of students from UW that attended COP21. Michelle’s other interests include outdoor education, ecological restoration, and illustration.

A Prelude to Pedagogy – Ilia Zenkov

LigImage of Neural Pathways in a Brainhts dim. A bright yellow beam illuminates the path to an exquisite 480kg creation: A Steinway & Sons Model D. The instrument’s golden cast-iron plate is striking against its velvet black finish. The silence is deafening. Energy and anticipation emanates from my fellow audience members. Without a semblance of warning enters Denis Matsuev – winner of the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23. As if struck by lightning, the piano begins to produce a breathtakingly intricate melody.

A brief pause arrests your attention. Two seconds of profound silence follow, the air all but crackling with emotion surging through the concert hall.

The audience’s inaudible sigh of relief is palpable as the second movement begins. We slide back in our seats, relax our shoulders, and resume breathing.

However, there is more to be examined here than a simple pause. These interludes are not just a component of the spectacular solo put on by Matsuev this past weekend – rather, the very nature of these interruptions has a deep-seated rooting in the neurological wiring of our brains.

Event segmentation: “The process by which people parse a continuous stream of activity into meaningful events” and “A core component of ongoing perception, with consequences for memory and learning.” (Zacks & Swallow, 2007).  The brain naturally separates perceived information into spatial (Biederman, 1987) and temporal parts (Zacks & Swallow, 2007). For example, a lecture hall contains chairs, desks, a podium, and a board. The brain automatically segments your perception of the lecture hall into such components so as to better remember it – to better store it in memory. In much the same way, boundaries in time allow the brain to temporally segment your perception of, for example, a piano concerto. Untitled

A graph of BOLD (Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent signal) responses in various regions of the brain in a 10 second window surrounding a transition period, whereby the body rapidly increases blood flow to active neuronal tissues. From Sridharan et al (2007).

 

Perhaps by using these concepts and even combining them in lectures, we can better cater to the brain’s natural information processing circuitry and facilitate a greater degree of learning. According to Zacks & Swallow (2007), ”Those who identify appropriate event boundaries during perception tend to remember more and learn more proficiently.” By creating appropriate temporal and spatial boundaries in lectures – perhaps a minute break between two related notions, a short discussion period, or even carefully planning how to situate problems and solutions on a board – professors may well aid their students’ learning by approaching pedagogy with event segmentation in mind.

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the peak of brain activity is at those moments of silence between transitions, when it indeed appears that nothing is happening (Sridharan et al, 2007).

fMRI images taken of subjects’ cognitive activity in the left and right sides of their brain while listening to music show that neurological signaling increases dramatically around the point between two movements. From Sridharan et al (2007). 

Perhaps most notable about this study is that while subjects’ attention to music differed, the anticipation of a transition point between movements was a universal phenomenon. Considering that the way our brains resolve our ongoing perception into discrete events is directly related to how our long-term memory updates from our working “short term” memory (Kurby & Zacks, 2008), this may very well be an effect worth exploring.

To encapsulate this compelling feature of the brain, I will provide a rather simplified analogy. Imagine a resonance effect: When you push a swing at just the right moment, you not only preserve the energy from its descent but add more energy to the system. However, if you push at the wrong moment you will not add energy. In fact, you will be taking it away! Similarly, we must use the brain’s inherent approach to information processing to our advantage, not to our detriment. Instead of longwinded lectures to drain students of motivation, it’s better to push them often and at just the right moments to promote a higher degree of learning. Event segmentation can help educators rethink the structuring and organization of their lessons, which in turn will help students expand on concepts and develop a more complete understanding of the ideas presented to them.

For further reading, this research and supplementary data is available online at these links:

Event segmentation

Segmentation in the perception and memory of events

Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks

References

Biederman, I. (1987, April). Recognition-by-components: A theory of human image understanding. Psychological Review, 94(2), 115–117

Kurby, C. A., & Zacks, J. M. (2008, February). Segmentation in the perception and memory of events. Trends in Cognitive Science, 15(2), 72-79.

Sridharan, D., Levitin, D.J., Chafe, C.H., Berger, J., & Menon, V. (2007, August). Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks. Neuron, 55(3), 521-532

Zacks, J. M., & Khena, M. S. (2007, April). Event segmentation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(2), 80-84.

Ilia Zenkov

Special Projects Assistant for the Centre for Teaching Excellence for Winter 2016, a 3A Biophysics undergraduate.

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