This week’s readings focused on case-based and problem-based learning. A Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching on Problem-Based Learning (PBL) proposes that “Students learn best by constructing solutions to open-ended, complex, and problematic activities with classmates, rather than listening passively to lectures.”
This week’s readings led me to reflect on my own experiences with problem-based learning as an undergraduate student. I had at least three classes in my civil engineering program that made use of problem-based learning for a semester-long project: reinforced concrete design, steel design, and senior design. Each project was slightly different in its implementation, and each had different pros and cons.
Overall, I would say that I struggled with the implementation of PBL in these classes for several reasons:
- I generally did not care for group projects as an undergraduate, especially when groups were arbitrarily assigned, because I did not appreciate my grade being dependent on other people.
- The project was too ill-conceived. For example, it was so open-ended, that it felt like we could just do whatever we wanted and there was no clear outcome. As a result, even after the project was finished, I did not feel like we had “accomplished” anything or created a product (report) of any real value.
- We were trying to solve real-world problems that we did not have all the tools or guidance to solve. In many cases, the projects would have seriously benefited from more input from the instructor or the industry partner who was supposed to be mentoring us. Because of large class sizes, and each group working on a completely different project, it was impossible to get the mentorship required to create a successful project.
I think that a traditional approach to presenting course material working in tandem with a PBL approach could be very effective. Although the skills one can develop through a PBL are important (e.g. ability to work in groups, think critically about unfamiliar problems, make decisions, and apply knowledge to new situations), I think it is also important to make sure that the students have correct and relevant notes, handouts, and references on whatever material is typically presented in the given class, especially if they plan to pursue a career in engineering. When I worked in industry, I referred to my course notes every single day. This is not something I would have been able to do if all of my courses used a PBL model to deliver the material and all I had was a likely piecemeal undergraduate group project to show for my semesters.
I do think there are ways to incorporate PBL into a more traditional teaching style. For example, in-class, smaller-scale PBL activities sprinkled throughout the semester could be really effective in helping the students “see the bigger picture” and stay motivated in the class. Alternatively, a PBL-style semester project could be an effective way to implement this into a curriculum. I hope to teach an undergraduate section of “Introduction to Geotechnical Engineering” in the next year or so and am thinking of ways that I might be able to incorporate PBL into my class. I think in an introduction class, PBL would be very useful to help students get a better idea of how the things they are learning fit into the bigger picture.