Evaluating the Effectiveness of Problem-based Learning Tasks
This paper discusses integrating Problem-based Learning (PBL) tasks into the curriculum for first-year undergraduate students in an English-medium university, in Turkey. First, brief review of a theoretical background to PBL will be described. The designing of the Technical English course, on the basis of this approach, will follow this. Sample tasks produced by the students will also be provided. The final section of the paper discusses the evaluation of the new course by means of student interviews. Interview findings demonstrate that the implementation of the PBL in the Technical English course encouraged students to take a more active role in their learning and made the course content more interesting. The study offers guidelines for the effective implementation of this novel approach to learning process, and discusses its wider implications.
1. The characteristic features of PBL
Since its introduction in medical education in Canada in the early 1970’s, PBL has been implemented in many other professional fields such as dentistry, law, engineering and education, and it has come to be known as an alternative approach to traditional disciplinary based educational programs in higher education (Boud & Feletti, 1997; Duch et al., 2001).
Problem-based learning is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn”, working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems (Duch et al., 2001). The principal idea behind PBL is that the starting point for learning should be a problem, a query, or a puzzle that the learner wishes to solve. The aims of PBL include developing the students’ competency in a number of skills, which will be important in their professional life: the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills, the encouragement of self-directed learning ability and co-operative learning.
In the implementation of the PBL curriculum, students carry out a series of tasks to be illustrated in relation to the components of the PBL.
1.1. Presenting a problem or a scenario
The basic premise of PBL is that learning begins with a problem, or a scenario, presented in the same context, as it would be encountered in real life (Woods, 1994). The teacher assigns the learners, in groups, a problem; alternatively the students themselves identify a particular problem they would like to work on. Learning becomes active in the sense that the students are continually encouraged to discover and work with content that they determine to be necessary to solve the problem.
Unlike traditional teacher-centered classroom where the teacher is the dominant figure, in PBL the students are at the center of the learning process: they are expected to assume a high degree of responsibility for their own education through effective self-learning, working with others, setting relevant goals for themselves and the group as a whole, and demonstrating an ability of their learning achievements. The teacher assumes the role of a facilitator, coaches the group by monitoring the group process and helping the students identify the knowledge that is needed to resolve the problem. This shift also means that the student’s role changes in terms of increased responsibility for active commitment in his/her studies and learning (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Woods, 1994).
1. 2. Identifying issues and clarifying learning needs
The students, in their groups, organize their ideas, and discuss previous knowledge related to the problem. Through discussion, students are continually encouraged to define what they know about the subject by brainstorming their ideas and formulate their hypotheses and, more importantly, what they do not know, called “learning issues”. They rank, the learning issues generated in the session, in order of importance.
1.3. Discuss actions to be taken
The next part of the study in a PBL class involves sharing responsibilities among the group members. The students decide which questions and issues will be researched by the whole group, and which ones can be assigned to individuals within a timeline.
1.4. Exploring the issues
The next step involves independent research and the gathering of information that confirms or disconfirms groups or individual student hypotheses. Developing skills at locating information is one of the most important components of PBL. Students, under the guidance of their instructor, discuss which resources and other materials will be needed to research the learning issues and, most importantly, where these may be found. Apart from using traditional resources such as textbooks and journal articles, students need to learn how to find and evaluate information from websites, newspapers and magazines. They might also carry out laboratory work, or identify academic staff or other contacts that can help them.
When the group next meets, each student has to report on their progress with their assigned task. The group compares the new information with the problem as initially understood. Reflecting on what they have learned, the students can decide if they are happy to move on to the final stage, or if they need to do further research. Throughout this process, the teacher called the tutor, instead of providing answers encourages useful lines of questioning, and where necessary, provides some problem solving structure. Working in this way, the problem and progress towards its resolution unfolds in stages (Boud, 1985).
1.5. Present and report findings
The final stage of the PBL process is the formal conclusion reached by the group, a solution to the initial problem. As part of closure, students are required to present their findings by writing a report to be submitted to the tutor, and give an oral presentation to their classmates to share research findings with their peers. The report should include the problem statement, questions, data gathered, analysis of data, and support for solutions or recommendations based on the data analysis. The oral presentation of the report, by the whole group, should include a statement of the problem and the conclusion, summarizing the process they used, and difficulties encountered.
2. Implementing PBL curriculum
The present study was conducted at the Department of Electrics-Electronics (DEE) of Çukurova University, Turkey, with the participation of 68 students. The DEE offers all subject courses in English, and a three-hour Technical English course is offered for the first-year undergraduate students to help support content courses.
An initial needs analysis conducted to identify students’ learning needs in their academic department revealed that students were assigned various tasks by their subject instructors with a major focus on solving a particular problem. The present study was therefore initiated in order to meet students’ specific needs by implementing principles of the PBL. The new course was designed according to the key features of PBL as described in the previous section. In the implementation of the PBL in the Technical English course, the following steps were introduced:
2.1. Orientation program
An orientation program was developed at the beginning of the course to prepare the students for the change in learning approach; from the traditional lecture-based instruction to student centered PBL. The introductory program gave the students an opportunity to develop an understanding of the educational principles of this novel approach, implementation steps, and the philosophy of the PBL. The students were also provided with the rationale for adopting PBL into the curriculum of Technical English course so that they would have clear ideas about the benefits they could gain.
Then, the students received PBL sessions during the next 14 weeks. The weekly schedule of the curriculum consisted of a three-hour PBL sessions, and one-hour lecture, which aimed to support PBL sessions, and give students guidelines about various tasks they were required to carry out, such as writing problem statements, report writing and presentation skills. In addition, weekly tutorials were set up to provide them with feedback.
2.2. PBL sessions
Following the orientation program, students were divided in groups of 4-5. Since students had very little experience of working together in groups, they were asked to establish rules for working together, which typically included mutual respect, regular attendance and good listening skills.
During the “problem identification” session, each group was encouraged to formulate and describe their own problem, consisting of a situation or scenario relevant to their area of study. Students formulated problem statements relevant to the discipline of Electrics-Electronics, such as dealing with “computer viruses”, “harmful effects of base stations”, “the use of blue tooth technology”, and “electronic cars as a solution to air and noise pollution”.
To carry out their research, the students were provided with access to computer learning resources such as the Internet as well as using traditional information sources including textbooks and libraries. They were also encouraged to consult their subject tutors in their department. PBL students completed weekly planning sheets to guide their learning for the following week.
2.3. Sample problem statements
Extracts from sample problem statements of two groups working on different topics are illustrated below:
Importance of Music in Our Lives
Alev has a big problem; she wants to listen to music all day long. First, she was listening from the cassettes. The major problem was that their storage capacity was not enough for her and the quality of the music was not satisfactory, either. The programmers and the scientists worked on this problem and eventually found a solution by inventing digital technology. They invented audio format and audio CDs. Audio CDs increase the quality of music but the storage capacity is still a major problem. Alev was happy but she had to carry a lot of Cds with her. Millions of music listeners suffered from the same problem. Then, the programmers and the scientists tried to find another solution to this problem. They invented compact discs, and later they compressed the music files. At the end of this long research, a new format was found: it was MP3… With this format, Alev can now store fifteen times as much music as the normal compact disk. She is happy now”.
Superconductivity and Superconductors
Superconductivity and super conductive materials are one of the most important working subjects for scientists in recent years when most energy source has been destroyed.
Too much energy is lost while it is carried from one side of conductor to another.
Super conductive materials are used to solve this problem, and many scientists work on this because efficiency is very important in our life for using the energy.
General use of superconductors:
In daily life
Many people understood the importance of energy and one of the most important solutions for using the energy efficiently is using super conducting materials. Our group is very interested in this subject and it is related with our departmental studies, so we decided to search superconductivity and superconductors.
3. Evaluation of the PBL curriculum
In order to explore the experiences of the students concerning the PBL approach, I conducted a semi-structured interview with each student, at the end of the course. In the interview, students were invited to reflect their experiences of this new mode of learning by answering the following questions:
a) What does problem-based learning mean to you?
b) What is it like to be a student in a problem-based program?
c) What problems did you experience?
d) What did you like most and least about PBL?
The interviews were audio taped, and the tapes were fully transcribed. The student interviews were analyzed qualitatively, focusing on the individual students’ reflections of his/her experiences. The analysis of the interviews will be described in the following section:
3.1. The meaning of PBL to students
Students perceived the course to be a valuable, realistic and motivating experience. They stated that the course had made a major contribution in increasing knowledge about the topic investigated, followed by vocabulary (technical and new words), acquisition of presentation skills, i.e., using Power Point, and talking in front of audience. The students frequently raised the concepts of authenticity and relevance of the PBL tasks. Authenticity was highlighted as part of a real life experience, as illustrated below:
“Music is the most important factor on teenagers’ life. The teenagers want to listen to music all day long. MP3 Format was developed for this purpose. We have chosen this topic because it is a very common concept used all the time but nobody has proper information about it. MP3 is a new invention in engineering. I like this subject so much because I have learned new information about my major. It is also very good to know how stuff I use every day works” (Orhan)
Below is another extract illustrating a student’s feeling of authenticity of dealing with the kind of problems they will encounter later as professionals:
“Our project is very interesting. It is about one of the most important problems in business life; cables. This project is useful for me because I am learning that blue tooth is a system without cables. Nowadays most of the big companies have started to use bluethooth technology. So, it is very important for me to learn about it. This will help me in the future” (İsmail).
3.2. Being a student in a problem-based program
What students felt about taking part in the PBL curriculum, developed around the feelings of challenge, usefulness of the tasks, feeling of satisfaction, self-confidence, and few students feeling anxious or nervous.
For majority of the students, PBL curriculum was a real challenge, helping them acquire a new identity; an identity of a real engineer, as illustrated in the following extract.
“While working on this project we felt ourselves like a scientist. Really, identifying a problem and investigating ways of solving this problem has been very enjoyable for us” (Korhan).
Most students also found it an “enjoyable experience”, and were pleased about being offered with this opportunity.
3.3. What students liked most/least about PBL
Most engineering students had a favorable attitude towards PBL course, with an awareness of the purpose, appropriacy of PBL curriculum against traditional grammar based English language courses.
“I think this project has been of a great benefit for the students. In fact, the purpose of the project is to encourage students to do research and more importantly to get them to think. It is very logical that this objective is aimed at in the English language course because I really do not think that anyone in our class would take an interest in the boring grammar subjects usually taught in English lessons” (Hüseyin).
The fact that the students were required to formulate problems by themselves also made them pleased, as indicated in the following quotation:
“As we have chosen the project topic ourselves, the topic is both within our area of interest that is electrics electronics and is related to our professional life. It was apparent that it would be interesting and of a great advantage to us. It is good to be offered with this opportunity to search widely on our selected topic” (Aylin).
Students often mentioned that they liked group work in terms of preparing them for future professional life, helping them work collaboratively to solve problems, and taking responsibility for themselves and their peers as well as appreciating different points of view. The following quote exemplifies most participants’ responses concerning the benefit of the group work:
“I learned how to deal with conflicts of interests. I am now better able how to handle situations where I’d have to reach common understanding. Working in a group has strengthened my relationship with group members. The project became simpler when we shared responsibilities” (Musa).
Most survey respondents (65 out of 68) supported the implementation of PBL, and the majority believed that this mode of learning was more “valuable” and “interesting” than traditional lectures. Many acknowledged that studying problems had “enhanced their problem-solving and decision-making skills” and “connected them to the real world of their professional life”.
3.4. Problems experienced
Only six engineering students mentioned experiencing difficulty due to lack of technical facilities at home (computers), having time constraints due to other assignments and the difficulty of narrowing down the topic. The rest of the students stated that they did not experience much difficulty except for initially having minor problems with group work.
Many interviewees explained that they had never been involved in-group discussions in English before. Therefore, they stressed the need to have more opportunities to be involved with group discussion to build the confidence and skills necessary to take an active role in their future professional life. They pointed out that although working in-group initially caused some problems, they admitted that over the course of time they were able to sort out such difficulties involved.
This paper has discussed designing a Technical English Course based on the principles of the PBL. Interview findings demonstrated that incorporating PBL in the curriculum encouraged students to take a responsible role in their own learning; increased students’ level of inclusion in the learning process; made the course content more interesting; combined foreign language and professional subject knowledge. Overall, students’ experiences of this new experience showed a positive perception of how the PBL project functioned within the course and of the benefits students derived from this first experience with PBL. This study was conducted in the context of Turkish Higher Education, the process of course design described in this paper can serve as a model for similar contexts.
Faculty of Education
Department of ELT, Turkey
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