12 Days of Teaching, Day 4: mini Problem Based Learning

I love the idea of problem based learning (PBL). To me, it is one of the most sticky forms of learning and the one most relevant to the holy grail: life-long learning. It’s how we all learn as adults really, well I do.

The principle idea behind problem based learning is…that the starting point for learning should be a problem, a query, or a puzzle that the learner wishes to solve.

Boud, 1985 as seen in Boud and Feletti ‘The Challenge of Problem Based Learning’ LINK

For me, I am most motivated to learn when I have something to solve. Why is my monitor blinking on and off? I have learned how to roll back graphic card drivers and stop automatic driver updates. How do I knit socks? I have not yet learned to turn a heel but can do everything else. So I can assume that at least some of my students may be similarly motivated. There are problems however with PBL, no pun intended, mainly how the PBL process fits into courses. If I may digress, installing a 5-credit PBL unit into an existing chemistry course pretty much involves upending the existing patchwork quilt of modules, lecturer blocks, assessment, university guidelines, experiments etc. If not upending then likely creating a sufficient hole to darn in a new patch. If you’ve got the scope in the course, there are some wonderful PBL resources on LearnChemistry.

Boud and Feletti outline the following features of ‘classic’ PBL (paraphrased from Boud and Feletti ibid):

  • use stimulus material to help students discuss an important problem;
  • present the problem as a simulation of professional practice or a ‘real life’ situation;
  • guiding students’ critical thinking and providing limited resources to help them learn from defining and attempting to resolve the problem;
  • work cooperatively, in groups, explore information in and out of class, access to the tutor to facilitate the group’s learning process;
  • students identify what they need to learn and use available resources
  • reapply newly acquired knowledge to the problem and evaluate.

We can summarise the key features: students work in groups to solve an authentic problem with access to tutors, tutor provided resources and other resources they find. The in and out of class aspect is one that gives me pause, alongside the scale of the activity. A few years ago, this all brought me to asking how I could fit PBL-like activities within standard teaching sessions and with no requirement to do formal activities outside of class.* The answer was mini-PBL that fit within 50 minute teaching slots. Obviously to do this, the problems had to be scaled back and focused, and some consideration of the learning made. My solution was to focus on application of knowledge and bringing in external ideas through rapid research in-class. I aimed more for different ways of thinking about material and stuck to problems that had no singular solution to inspire a bit more discussion.

The rough format I followed for these sessions was:

Pre-session: upload version of slides with ‘information slides’ present, and outline of problem. [My version had ‘solution slides’ present]. Activity is room-agnostic, and I’ve done this in lecture theatres and flat rooms.

Setup: lecture-style, recap any previous sessions of relevance, outline any core concepts, introduce problem. Typically 10 – 15 minutes

Problem: typically a ‘scenario’ followed by ‘prompts’ to structure the response of each group, and a request for a final ‘recommendation’. Groups were formed informally in class by students and students permitted to work alone or with those around them.** A fixed time point for reporting back to the class is given, typically 15 – 20 minutes (but judge by relevance of overheard discussion, you can tell when it’s drifting). Additional information may be on slides (thus creating a more solid set of revision notes), on the VLE (for example relevant papers), and BYOD (bring your own device) students can look things up.

Reporting: go through the prompts asking for responses to each. It helps if you can summarise the responses using a tablet PC or whiteboard. Ask for the recommendations (the solutions to the problem given in the scenario). (5 – 10 minutes depending on how chatty the class are feeling)

Wrap-up: emphasise that the problem was open ended so there is no one ‘correct’ solution (which will frustrate some students). Summarise/recap any key concepts/ideas.

The types of problems this works well with are where there are modest amounts of information where recall of key points is important. If there’s content where the exam questions are written ‘compare’/ ‘critically appraise’ ‘the difference between X and Y’ / ‘possible solutions to problem X’ then this could work. I’ve never seen a way to make it work with closed problems (with single correct/incorrect answers) or those problems that are solved by applying aspects of algorithmic problem solving (see Overton and Potter, Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 2008, 9, 65–69). At least by prompting discussion and debate in class, students may see the content from different perspectives and think of the relative importance of different aspects. The students have the methodologies to tackle this kind of activity: it’s very similar to deciding where to go have dinner in an unfamiliar city.

Some example scenarios (both of which fed into summative end-of-module exam questions) in a module that sadly is no longer taught:

  • (in a homogeneous catalysis course) you are a start-up company looking to invest developing catalysts. You plan to select one method of ‘overcoming the problems of homogenous catalysis’ and develop it for market. For reaction X, which solution do you pick and why?
  • (in a metals in medicine course, after covering metals that’ll kill you and treatments) you are asked to advise a local hospital looking to purchase a method of detecting heavy metals in biological fluids. The following technologies are being considered: X, Y, Z. Make a recommendation that takes into account: sample collection, sample processing, speed and accuracy of analysis.

There are, of course, additional benefits to this format for a class here or there. If you change the reporting requirements to a short group presentation (particularly for scenarios requiring the evaluation of different solutions and selecting on), it resembles an assessment centre style activity [https://www.prospects.ac.uk/careers-advice/interview-tips/assessment-centres] and can boost job seeking skills and touch on the ’employability’ agenda. Short timeframe, off the cuff presentations are a good skill to develop. It’s always interesting facilitating that style of session and ensuring that the students question the assumptions they are making about the information supplied, and restricting their answers to what is knowable (a great skill to develop). I often find that many students will pick an answer based on a set of assumptions about the scenario that are not necessarily valid assumptions.

In the context of a more ‘traditional’ teaching block with its lectures and workshops, concepts and ideas, this can be a nice change of pace for a bit of consolidation if you take a more synoptic approach. A good way to draw some of the key ideas together and develop a real-world context for the knowledge by developing a scenario around the social, political or economic context of chemistry. A side order of ethical dilemma is always a good way to inspire debate.

*The problem with demanding a lot of stuff be done outside of contact time is that students can’t do everything, and if all teaching staff are asking for things to be done by way of any flipped classroom methodology, then it’s an excessive workload. I believe (quite strongly) that I’ve got my allocated timetable time and unless my module explicitly has ‘out of class activities’ time designed in, then I ask no more than the standard: go through the notes shortly after; do the assignments; revise. Even where my modules have time allocated to ‘out of class’ stuff, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get students to do it consistently.

** Let’s just acknowledge that not everyone wants to do social learning in class, so I always allow people to work individually if they want to. They develop different but equally important skills in doing so.