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.

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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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