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In 2000 the Department of Materials at Queen Mary University of London introduced Problem Based Learning (PBL) into their first year undergraduate program - being the first Materials Department in the UK to do so. A year later PBL was further expanded into their second year undergraduate program. To make space in the curriculum, the teaching load was reduced by 20% and most of the traditional practical classes were removed.
Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a concept used to enhance multidisciplinary skills using planned problem scenarios. It is an active way of learning that teaches students problem solving skills, while at the same time allowing them to acquire basic knowledge. PBL was first introduced in the late 1960s at McMaster University in North America, and has since spread around the world mainly in medical education.
The principal aims of implementing PBL are:
This guide is based on what Queen Mary University of London does and its context. It can be used as a guide to developing a PBL system that works in your context.
At Queen Mary University of London, for first year students, the PBL program consists of 6 case studies (3 per semester) and some initial sessions of key-skills training, as well as some miscellaneous lectures that are beneficial and essential to the development of students. For second year students, PBL consists of 4 case studies (2 per semester) and some key-skills sessions that prepare them with skills required in order to complete PBL tasks.
Appendix 1 provides an Example PBL Case Study
In PBL two different roles for teaching staff can be distinguished:
During the case studies, PBL groups meet regularly for at least an hour each week. There are no compulsory times and locations for these meetings; it is up to the individual groups to decide when and where to meet. However, it is a requirement for all members of each group to meet up at least once a week with their case group tutor. Attendance at all these group meetings is compulsory and is registered by the case group tutor.
PBL in the Department of Materials at Queen Mary University in London is conceived as a way of reinforcing the traditional lecture-based process of delivering academic content, and it is not designed as a substitute. It is primarily a problem-solving programme that seeks to provide students by the end of Year 2 with a checklist of transferable skills and underpinning subject-specific knowledge for more detailed project/research work and further study/application in subsequent years.
By completing PBL, students are expected to learn how:
Each PBL case study has a champion who conceives the case study, puts it onto paper, gives a verbal and written explanation for tutors, and assesses how PBL student groups deal with the case study. It is important that students are able to contact the case study champion at designated times during the period in which the case study is being completed.
The following stepped plan approach is essential in order to ensure a systematic method of working is used for all the case studies. Thus group meetings should be structured to conform to the following 7-Step Project Plan of PBL:
First, students will read the problem outline, and then they should
identify any words, terms or concepts whose meaning they are unclear
about. Other student members of the group may be able to provide definitions.
It is important that students feel safe to be frank about what they do
and do not understand.
Output: Words on which the group cannot agree a meaning should be listed as learning questions.
Students are encouraged to contribute their views concerning the nature
of the problem. The tutor may need to encourage them all to contribute
in a broad discussion. It is quite possible for different group members
to have a different perspective of the problem. Comparing these views
helps to define the task ahead.
Output: List of problems.
This is the most crucial step in the problem solving process. Here students
test out a wide variety of possible explanations or solutions for the
problem using information from memory. With brainstorming, each member
of the group makes suitable suggestions, until no more ideas are forthcoming.
Initially, no priority is set for the suggestions and all ideas are viewed
as being equally valid no matter how strange they may appear at first.
The scribe writes down all possible ideas that contribute towards understanding,
explaining and solving the problem on a white-board or a large sheet
of white paper. Only after all the ideas
are written down can they be discussed in more detail and priorities
can be set. The tutor should discourage students from going into too
much detail during the brainstorming phase. This step is essential as
it encourages students to come up with different solutions to the same
Output: List of possible explanations or solutions.
Here the group re-examines the ideas raised in the brainstorming in
more detail and compares their ideas against the problem outline to see
how well they match, which solutions are linked and where further exploration
is needed. This step will help define the self-study assignments of Step
5, as the group needs to organise the different explanations and solutions
to form a limited number of tentative solutions.
Output: Ordering or linking of possible solutions from brainstorming.
The group agrees on a core set of learning objectives, often in the
form of questions, which form the basis of students' self-study.
These learning objectives should be specific and achievable within the
time available between two group meetings. At the beginning
of a case study (after the first meeting)
it is important that all students share the self-study assignments, whereas
in a later stage of the case study some students may have assignments
that are not shared by the whole group.
Output: The written objectives are the main output of the group after each group meeting. These are circulated to all students and the tutor immediately after the meeting.
In this step, the students will individually seek out any available
learning resources to obtain the information that will contribute towards
understanding, explaining and solving the problem. It should be emphasised
that each student is responsible for their assignment and must be prepared
to contribute to solving the problem. After each group meeting, the group
will formulate the next stage of the self-study assignments. For some
PBL problems, students (as a group) will be requested to undertake experimental
investigations to support their case studies. In these instances, it
is essential that students liase with appropriate lab staff identified
by the case study champion prior to booking a time slot to use lab facilities
relavant to their case study.
Output: Students' individual notes.
In the second meeting, the group returns to discuss the self-study assignments.
Each student reports on the output of their study, shares information
about sources, helps each other understand, and identifies problem areas
that need further study or expert help.
Output: Students' individual notes.
Whenever a case is completed with a written group report and/or a presentation, then the draft version of the report or presentation needs to be discussed during the last group meeting of that case.
In the first year, the initial group selection for the first two case studies is determined by merging two tutor groups. For at least one of the two case studies, a student's individual tutor will also act as their case group tutor. After this, the groups will change on a random basis. This ensures that any effect of group selection is evened out over the first two academic years. Average group size is approximately five or six members.
By rotation at each meeting, students play four specific roles within the group. These are chair, minutes-secretary, scribe and general group members. Rotation ensures that students are exposed to all of these roles.
During a group meeting, the chair has the task of maintaining the agenda and steering the conversation. In order to have information available to the entire group, it is useful to keep a record as part of the work on a case study. The scribe does so by taking down important matters on a white board, flip chart or large sheet of paper. The information addressed in a student group must be incorporated in minutes of the group meeting. This facilitates the recording of a case study, and is part of the process of ensuring that the case study functions well. During each group meeting, one of the students therefore acts as secretary.
Prior to each group meeting, an agenda is made. After every meeting is held, minutes are written and circulated. During the meeting the agenda should be followed systematically.
The standard agenda for the first group meeting is given below:
The model agenda will be changed or altered depending on the progress of the case study. The following agenda is suitable for most of the subsequent meetings; (during the meeting the agenda should be followed step by step):
Other items might have to be added at certain specific meetings. For example, the tutor should conduct a mid-project review on each of the group members' individual performance before the close of one of the meetings. Also, in the final meeting, an item should be included where the tutor can review the group's draft PBL submission, to ensure that no factual errors are contained and to give advice on presentation and style.
After every meeting, minutes are written by the minutes-secretary (using the format given below), and then typed up and circulated before the end of the day to all participants in the group including the case group tutor. The minutes are a record of how the PBL case study progressed, and will be submitted with the other submissions at the end of the PBL activity for assessment.
Below is a model for writing up meeting minutes for a normal meeting. The format will change depending on the progress of the case study. For example, for the first and last meeting during a case study the agenda will need special issues for those meetings.
Minutes of Meeting:
During the case study, a tutor works with each PBL group. This person is usually an academic member of staff or a research assistant in the department. As tutor to the group, they have several tasks. They should:
The overall role of the tutor is:
Tutors should never:
Prior to the start of the case study, tutors should:
During the initial case briefing session, tutors should:
During the case group meetings, tutors should:
At the end of the case study, the tutor should:
Please note that the tutor is also responsible for moderating the individual scaling factor generated from the peer review process. This should reflect each individual performance, with consideration given to the feedback from the Peer Assessment Forms completed by all the students at the conclusion of each project, as well as reflecting their own observations recorded on the Meetings Review Form.
The case study group is typically expected to submit one or a number of the following at the completion of each project:a poster, report, oral presentation, html web page, or design and build device. The specific format will be identified on the initial case study outline. The case study champion will assess the work to generate agroup mark.
Each individual's performance is reviewed using the peer review process to generate an individual scaling factor for each student. This is done by each student completing a Peer Assessment Form (Appendix 4) at the conclusion of each project. This is handed to the case study tutor at the formal assessment event.
The case study tutor is responsible for moderating the individual scaling factor generated from the peer review process. This should reflect each individual performance with consideration to the feedback from the students. Each tutor should then complete a Case Group Assessment Form (Appendix 5) for their group that should be handed over to the case study champion.
The case study champion collates all the group marks and the scaling factors to generate individual marks for the PBL case study. Tutors are encouraged to differentiate between individual performance marks, and should note that the marks should not alter the average mark obtained by the group. Therefore the average of the multipliers for the whole group must be 1.00. For example, if a tutor wants to award a higher mark to a member of the group, then one or more members' marks must be reduced by a similar amount.
Suggested scaling multipliers are:
As an example for a case study that required a report and a presentation to be completed then the typical individual mark is derived from:
[(report + presentation)/2] x individual scaling factor
Each individual in the group will be assessed upon how well they demonstrate the following attributes:
In addition, their team roles will be evaluated, including how well they performed as:
A single submission for each group is frequently (but not always) expected for a case study. The report should be:
Students may be asked to carry out a group presentation on their findings. Typically only 1 to 3 members should actually make the presentation. But throughout the year, every student is expected to have presented their findings at least once. Presentations are restricted to 10 minutes each, with 5 minutes for questions, and immediate feedback is provided on team performance.
Occasionally, the formal assessment can be based upon a poster presentation. This should be clear, concise, attractive, and easy to read.
Occasionally, students are asked to create a web-based report to explain their findings. This should incorporate colourful graphics and should be easy to navigate. Again, only a single web-based report per group to be submitted.
Occasionally, students in their groups are asked to make a device or structure as part of a case study. This must be submitted at the end of the study period for either evaluation or testing.
B oud D and Feletti G (eds) (1998) The challenge of problem-based learning, 2nd ed, RoutledgeFalmer, London
Schwartz P et al (eds) (2001) Problem-based learning: case-studies, experience and practice, RoutledgeFalmer, London
Savin-B aden M (2000) Problem-based learning in higher education: untold stories, SRHE & Open University Press, Buckingham
For further information regarding PBL at the Department of Materials at QMUL, please visit the following website: http://www.materials.qmul.ac.uk/pbl
Department of Materials
Queen Mary University of London
Mile End Road