Implementing active learning has proven that it has a positive impact on student engagement and learning. Reading about the benefit of the Problem-Based Learning approach has assured me of the benefits that the school of architecture teaching methods has given me. The cased/problem-based pedagogy is driven by challenging, open-ended problems of multiple right answers designed on making students work as self-directed. The teacher role here is a facilitator for the learning process.
To establish a better understanding of this approach, I decided to reflect on a project base learning example that I facilitated last year in one of my courses. I believe with this example, I can share some beneficial experiences and highlight the main factors that this approach excelled in. The course was designed to try incorporating a real project in collaboration with another university (Nürtingen-Geislingen University) from Germany.
I used to teach Landscape Architecture in the Architectural Department at the German Jordanian University (GJU) in Jordan for 5 years. This course started last year trying to teach the basics of this class by incorporating a problem-based method. To add context for my example, GJU is a university that teaches the German language besides the intended degree to prepare them for their 4th year abroad in Germany where they study and work consecutively. Usually, in design courses within the architectural study, we teach undergraduate by designing existing sites and problems that require analysis, case studies, and end design proposals. Those design projects are supervised and facilitated by instructors and graded along with every phase. Which somehow resemble the approach of cased based learning. However, in this specific class, I thought why not to have a real project with real clients.
The project was introduced at the beginning of class, as I had 15 students and another 15 students from the business department at the other German university (multi-disciplinary). To ensure adequate learning, we divided the class into two phases; the first one is theoretical, lecture bases, bringing up methods and ideas of what is landscape architecture that included small exercises to develop some skills. In addition to that, weekly online meetings with the German students were conducted to provide extra material from guest lecturers. Following that, we have assigned the students into groups with shadow instructors to prepare for phase 2 and to get familiar with the other group. During this phase, the interaction was normal, similar to any regular class of mine, yet you can notice their hidden excitement to start phase 2 and the fun in making new friends outside of their department.
The second part of the course was Phase 2 that had all the fun of this project. We have introduced the target site area for the project ( Ajlun city in Jordan). The German students and staff flew to Jordan for this phase. The goal was to apply what they have learned from phase 1 in a real case situation. All the materials needed for the project were provided by a local person that also organized the meetings with current stakeholders and potential clients. This phase was an intensive 10 days of site visit meetings and interviewing the local community to come up with the initial problems from every group perspective, Supported by their analysis and observations. The student ended up with a solution or a design proposal that applied to their client.
Every group presented their analysis and results, got feedback from all other participants, to enhance and develop the final product. As a result, they have presented the outcome and business models as a presentation for the stakeholders, and clients to hearing feedback and comments. Being part of that was the ultimate achievement.
The students along this journey were engaged, optimistic, passionate, and creative. They initiated to go back to the site, work extra hours, and felt connected with the project and the community. It was designed to advance their skills and solving problem which I believe was accomplished. They learned how to work in groups and under pressure, not to mention that they have enjoyed every moment of it.
What I can conclude from this example is some advice that I had along with this problem-based approach:
- Always have a back-up plan for any last-minute cancelation
- Be flexible with the students and the project.
- Higher expectations may generate pressure for both parties, let the students design these expectations.
- The final results are not the goal; the process is.
- Always provide an example and show the best idea presented (what we did was that we let the staff and students chose the best 2 projects for each phase and we put the results on the board after lunch for motivation)
- Include fun exercises for the group to get familiar with each other
- If you saw any issues with the group, try to solve it from the beginning as it won’t solve by the time
- Always share with the client and community; once the project results are shared, the engagement increases.
This approach was a successful one and has been repeated annually for other students to participate in this experience.