Tag Archives: problem based learning

Huston, we have a problem…

Problem based learning was first used to prepare medical students for their profession. It uses group work, and student directed leaning to tackle real life challenges. The benefits have been reported to include better recall of information, ability adapt information, and higher motivation (Hung et al. 2008).

A prime example of a great problem solving in real life is the Apollo 13 oxygen tank failure. The resulting rise in carbon dioxide levels threatened the astronauts life.  The researchers had to figure out the fix using materials available to the spaceship crew. The fix using duct-tape, moon rock bags, covers of manuals, and tubing worked in the end (Atkinson, 2010). Failure was not acceptable. Failure would have resulted in death of the astronauts.

“You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’
‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
‘What if she cuts herself?’
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (1996)

Fear of failure in problem based learning can be high. The students will be stressed about grading and group dynamics. And faculty will fret about too little content covered. There are things to be said about having the room to fail as a student. The environment of a class room should be a place where students can safely try their wings on problem solving. The failures and mistakes should not carry huge penalties. As long as students learned from the mistakes made, the goal of a class has been reached.

That is how I learned to trouble shoot my scientific experiments. The undergraduate laboratory course experiments with notoriously nonfunctional equipment, required me to think what caused my experiments to go wrong. Was it the 50-year-old detection system? Or the reagents used? Or was it my own mistake? Having to support my trouble shooting with the scientific principles behind every step of the experiment, made me a better scientist.

There needs to be a level of trust by faculty that students will solve the problems given to them. Students also need to trust the faculty not to give them problems that are beyond their maturity level as learners. Mistakes provide valuable learning opportunities, if there is trust on both sides. And nothing prepared me better for real life work than encountering those errors during my education.



Do you believe in magic? – How not to do flipped classroom

Eric Mazurs peer instruction is very interesting and the article describing it’s use is inspiring. I found another article “Don’t lecture me: Rethinking how college students learn” describing his style of teaching by Emily Hanford. The article itself mirrored the others written on the topic and my attention was drawn to the comments section. One comment especially caught my attention.

A student opened up about his experiences on a physics class taught using only peer instruction. His experience was extremely negative as the class lacked structure and the TA did not even point the students to a correct direction during supplemental class, even if it was clearly needed. The answers to this post were basically telling the student to suck it up, work harder, and questioned his motivations.

This could be a case of resistance to learner centered model, but the student’s response hinted, that he had tried to talk to the professor and the university to have some sort of a balance. This alone could be a sign of commitment to the class. He was trying to make it better. The teacher has responsibility here to listen to the student and alleviate their anxieties. In case of one student, an open conversation is a good way to start. If multiple students in the class struggle severely despite the effort they put in, the teacher has a bigger problem.

To me this comment about peer instruction showed how the approach can go terribly wrong. Student could not make sense of the bigger picture or even the assigned. Even if this was just one students experience, I would be worried. The lack of any posts or responses from any professor or university on this matter leaves their side defenseless, so I cannot for a full understanding of the situation.

If any of the new or re-emerging pedagogical techniques are used like magic, they will not work. Just making students learn from each other will not work. The teacher needs to be invested in the students and their learning. This is the case with Dr. Mazur. He assesses students before starting the peer instruction and listens in on the conversations. When communicating about these “new” pedagogical techniques, we need to underline the increased involvement of the teacher. If this stuff was magic, universities and teachers would be no longer needed.