Curriculum Development in Problem–Based Learning

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Curriculum Development in Problem–Based Learning

Curriculum Development and PBL
PBL Curriculum Planning
Examples of PBL Curricula

Curriculum Development and PBL

There is a plethora of literature on curriculum development in general and a myriad of curriculum development models of varying complexities. Curriculum development models can take a deductive approach or an inductive approach (Tan, 1994). Deductive models proceed from a general consideration of the needs of society, the professional knowledge required and so on, and move on to the specifics, such as specifying observable learning outcomes. Inductive models start with the actual development of curriculum material and proceed to more global aspects of the curriculum. Whichever approach one takes, there should be three levels of considerations: the mega level (the “why”), the macro level (the “what”) and the micro level (the “how”). The “why” takes into consideration the desired graduate profile, the “what” looks at the intended learning outcomes and the “how” concerns designing for the learning. When considering the curriculum, issues that need to be addressed include the following:

  • What is the desired graduate profile?
  • What are the aims of the programme?
  • What are the competencies, knowledge, skills and attitudes to be developed?
  • What are the specific goals in the disciplines of the programme?
  • For a specific module, what are the syllabus, learning goals, topics and concepts that are important?
  • What is the assessment structure?
  • How do we monitor and assess students' learning?
  • How do we evaluate the effectiveness of the course?
  • What are the course structure and the time frame?
  • How do we optimize the learning approaches, resources and environment for the desired learning?
  • How do we develop the learning packages?
  • How do we use PBL to revamp the curricula or infuse it into relevant modules?

Figure 7.1 illustrates these considerations.

Glasgow (1997) observed that most curricula tend to “focus on content coverage and exposing students to wide knowledge base … the better models engaged students in problem scenarios that are similar to authentic real-world situations” (p. 13). He advised:

Curricular planners and designers do not have to look any further than the real world, outside institutionalized education frameworks, to find curricular and pedagogical models for relevant learning applications. The bottom line here is that the world is an integrated, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary place. It is also filled with problems, projects, and challenges. Beginning to create curriculum that reflects this reality makes sense (p. 14).

In designing problems, we have noted the need to establish our goals for using PBL. Once you have decided on your goals, you need to consider at which level you can introduce PBL into the curriculum. This is illustrated in Figure 7.2. If you are in a position to influence major changes in your institution, you may advocate a change from the mega level, which entails a total revamp of curricula in terms of course structures, assessment structures and the design of the entire learning environment. It is, however, not always easy or necessary to implement PBL at this level, although there are newly established institutions that

may be prepared to adopt such challenges, having been convinced of the potential benefits of using PBL approaches. Such implementation would require a great deal of planning, expertise and resources for it to be successful. One should be aware, however, that PBL is not a “one size fits all” methodology. It is more of a philosophy and approach that emphasizes the effective use of problems through an integrated approach of active and multidisciplinary learning. A review of the desired graduate profile of the programme, the nature of the disciplines, disciplinary goals, assessment criteria, current resources and the profile of students is essential to bring about effective introduction of a PBL curriculum. With good planning, management support, resource allocation and staff development, PBL can become a predominant mode of learning supplemented by a range of good instructional methodologies. We have mentioned earlier that many medical schools have successfully adopted PBL in their curricula.

Although the benefits of PBL may be apparent, the practical conversion from a traditional curriculum to a PBL curriculum can be a daunting task owing to administrative and logistic considerations as well as the lack of resources. Therefore, introducing changes at the macro level is more common, where certain courses or modules adopt a PBL approach. Such hybrid approaches may in fact be a promising way to go, as observed by Marincovich (2000). Many high school and secondary school curricula are also restrained by limitations posed by national or state assessment systems and the academic requirements of college entry systems. The lack of curriculum flexibility will limit the ways in which PBL can be used. Nevertheless, there are hopeful signs of gradual change with the diversification of national assessment modes, and PBL will have an increasing role in more innovative education systems.

Teachers can begin at the micro level by using PBL in project work or in certain subjects. However, we do not want too much of the same thing, such as repeating the same emphasis of the PBL cycle in all courses. It may suffice to have a few courses or modules where generic problem solving, collaborative learning and communication are emphasized through the use of PBL approaches. It would be overly repetitive if in every course students have to spend a large amount of time doing peer and group presentations. The key is to use PBL strategically and align the approach with desired educational outcomes.

PBL Curriculum Planning

The first step in planning your PBL curriculum is to align your goals of using PBL with the curriculum goals of your programme. As discussed earlier, this could take place at the mega, macro or micro level. For example, if it is decided that the entire second-year Bachelor of Commerce programme will adopt a PBL approach, we are dealing with changes at a mega level. Suppose only the engineering design and technical communications modules in a third-year engineering course would adopt a PBL approach, the change would be at the macro level with each module lasting 15 weeks or so. PBL is often simultaneously used in general subjects such as service skills, project work or standalone electives on creative problem solving. Lastly, PBL can be incorporated at various micro levels as part of a module or for a selection of topics in a subject.

Figure 7.3 depicts the PBL planning and curriculum development process. Like in any standard curriculum development, we start with a statement of the course objectives. Next, we prepare a document that articulates:

  • the rationale for using PBL
  • what PBL is and what it entails
  • PBL goals and outcomes

With a clear idea of where PBL will be incorporated and the likely scope of PBL, we then develop more specific PBL objectives (problem solving, teamwork, presentation skills, etc.) and specific content learning objectives. The scope of learning should then be practically conceptualized in terms of the PBL course structure and time frame. The course structure is usually described in terms of the PBL cycle, such as:

  • Meet the problem → Problem analysis → Discovery and reporting → Solution presentation → Integration and evaluation
  • Meet the problem → Problem inquiry → Generation of learning issues → Discovery and peer teaching → Solution presentation → Review
  • Problem encounter → Analysis → Research and field work → Reporting and peer teaching → Presentation of findings → Reflection and evaluation

Many other variations and innovations are possible. The relative emphasis of the PBL stages depends on the PBL goals and the nature of the problem.

To draw up the PBL course structure, we need to decide on the following:

  • The nature of the PBL cycle (a schema should be drawn)
  • The time frame for the whole cycle and the timetable for each stage
  • The PBL tutorial hours, taking into account the time needed for self-directed learning
  • The type, scope and number of problems that students will work on

A key step of the PBL curriculum development process is the design of problems, which is usually accompanied by the development of a learning package comprising guides for students and teachers. Included in the guides are key aspects of the learning environment, learning resources and assessment criteria.

It is important to note that assessment often drives learning. Thus, PBL assessment goals should be aligned with the desired outcomes of the curriculum. This means that, besides assessing the acquisition of content knowledge, problem-solving, teamwork and communication skills would also be evaluated. A wide range of assessment methods and strategies will need to be used in PBL, which may include observation charts, reflective journals, checklist on presentation skills, checklist of problem-solving processes, peer assessment and self-assessment.

Finally, it is necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of PBL implementation through a variety of monitoring and evaluation methods. It is only through the implementation of the PBL curriculum and feedback from teachers and students that various aspects of the PBL programme can be fine-tuned and improved.

The best way to illustrate how PBL is infused into the curriculum is to look at practical examples of PBL applied in various courses at the macro and micro levels.

PBL curriculum development involves a review of the desired graduate profile, examination of the goals and nature of the disciplines, the employment of PBL cycles, and detailing of resources and assessment criteria. Problems are designed such that learning and assessment are aligned with the curriculum goals and PBL goals .

Examples of PBL Curricula

Educational Psychology Course

In an educational psychology course for postgraduate trainee teachers, PBL forms 60 per cent of the programme. That means 60 per cent of the course is assessed in terms of PBL. All essential course information, course structure and course assessment are posted on the course Web site, including PBL problems. Students are expected to log on to the Web site to read through the course information and come prepared. Table 7.1 shows a sample of the course objectives.

Overall course objectives: Upon completion of the module, student teachers will be able to do the following:

  • Appreciate the basic needs and individual differences of students
  • Apply theories and principles learnt to their classroom teaching
  • Handle students with special needs with sensitivity and understanding

Course objectives: Upon completion of the module, student teachers will be able to do the following:


  • Appreciate and accept individual differences in students
  • Model a positive attitude towards learning and teaching


  • Synthesize the theories learnt and apply them to their classroom teaching
  • Model thinking behaviours in classroom teaching
  • Reflect on and evaluate their own attitude and performance as trainee teachers


  • Explain the developmental needs and individual differences in students
  • Analyse cognitive, psychosocial and cultural factors that may facilitate or impede students' development and learning
  • Interpret the implications of individual differences in learning and teaching

The specific objectives of the PBL components in the course are:

  • To articulate the theories of cognitive development. Trainee teachers are expected to be able to describe, explain and apply the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and other relevant constructivists' theories.
  • To articulate learning theories from the perspectives of behavioural and cognitive theories. In particular, trainees are expected to apply the concepts of (1) classical and operant conditioning, social learning and cognitive behaviour modification; and (2) information processing, structuring and organization of learning and discovery learning.
  • To apply reflective, collaborative and self-directed learning processes in PBL.

At the start, trainee teachers are given the rationale for a PBL approach and are told that the programme on learning theories will not begin with the usual dissemination of content knowledge or theories. PBL requires a mindset change on the part of students and calls for initiative, ownership and independence, that is, entrepreneurship. Table 7.2 shows sections on the Web site that give the why and what of PBL.

Figure 7.4 shows the PBL cycle of the course. Table 7.3 gives the course structure with the time frame and Table 7.4 shows the guide to essential reading and suggested resources. Samples of the tutor's guide are presented in Tables 7.5 to 7.8. In this case, students are required to work concurrently on three problem scenarios, but the PBL tutor would subsequently allow students in various groups to focus on different problem scenarios owing to time constraint. However, by using a variety of cooperative learning techniques, it is possible to ensure that students learn from each other how to solve all three scenarios. The problems designed for this course are real-life classroom case scenarios. Two of the case scenarios are shown in Figures 7.5 and 7.6. Figure 7.7 provides a sample of the student's guide. The assessment requirements and criteria are shown in Tables 7.9 and 7.10.

Table 7.2 The why and what of PBL
Why PBL?What is PBL?
The course will begin with a problem-based learning (PBL) approach in week 5. Why do we need this curriculum innovation? The Committee on Singapore Competitiveness (Ministry of Trade and Industry, 1998) noted that to “improve the longer-term competitiveness of Singapore, we should refine our education system to help foster creative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit among the young”. It stated that three major components of the education system should be addressed, namely, the content of the educational curriculum, the mode of delivering this curriculum to students and the assessment of performance. The Ministry of Education (1998) in a booklet entitled The Desired Outcomes of Education listed the goals of postsecondary and tertiary education as, amongst other things, being innovative and having a spirit of continual improvement, lifelong habit of learning and enterprising spirit in undertakings. The challenge is indeed for educators to design new learning environments and curricula that really encourage motivation and independence to equip students with learning and problem-solving skills and competencies that employers are looking for. In a university survey of employers' rating of important skills, the top eight skills in order of importance are teamwork, problem solving, ability to take initiative, desire to learn, interpersonal skills, ability to work independently, oral communication and flexibility in applying knowledge (National University of Singapore, 2000).
The Enterprise Challenge Unit recognized PBL as a useful attempt of educational innovation for the knowledge economy when it gave one of its awards to a PBL innovation in its year 2000 awards. In recent years, there have been a proliferation in the use of PBL amongst professional programmes in areas such as medicine, engineering and business.
PBL is an educational methodology that emphasizes real-world challenges, higherorder thinking skills, interdisciplinary learning, independent learning, information-mining skills, teamwork and communication skills. In PBL, students experience a problem as the trigger, stimulator and motivator for learning. Students work in small groups to generate hypotheses, identify learning objectives, seek sources of knowledge, evaluate information obtained, reflect, integrate and synthesize plausible solutions. The difference between the traditional approach and the PBL approach can be represented by the three loci of preoccupation as shown.

>One can no longer expect to have spoonfeeding of notes, summaries and pointers. PBL requires a mindset change on the part of students. It calls for initiative, ownership and independence. This is what entrepreneurship is about. Instead of beginning with content knowledge, you will be confronted with a real-world problem. The problem will be your preoccupation for several weeks of the course. The problem will be an anchor around which you could achieve the learning outcomes of the unit. By working on unstructured problems, you would learn more about learning how to learn. By having real-life problems (rather than content) as focal points, students will take the role of active problem solvers and teachers will act as coaches.
What then would the tutor be doing? Whilst PBL is totally student-centred, the PBL tutor plays the critical role of developing the environment of learning and helps facilitate communication, problem inquiry, critical evaluation and metacognition. In most instances, to every question you ask, the tutor will throw you another question. It may appear difficult and even frustrating at the beginning, but you will really learn and think critically and creatively.
Table 7.3 Course outline of the PBL component of an educational psychology course
WeekCourse content
Induction weekIntroductory lecture
PBL preparation
Week 1Problem encounter
  • Problem statement
  • Problem scenario and analysis
Week 2Problem analysis and learning issues
  • Identification of learning issues and formulation of learning objectives
  • Preparation of self-directed learning and peer teaching
Week 3Discovery and reporting
  • Report on self-directed learning
  • Peer teaching
Week 4Preparation of solution presentation
  • Group preparation
Week 5Solution presentation and reflection
  • Group presentation of findings
Week 6Overview of learning theories
  • Q and A
  • Evaluation
Table 7.4 Guide to essential reading and suggested resources in educational psychology (truncated)
WeekTopicEssential reading
Week 1IntroductionIntroduction
Chapter 1: The teacher as practitioner and researcher
See also Web-site guides
Weeks 2–5Problem scenario 1Chapter 2: Development theory:
cognitive development
Problem scenario 2Chapter 6: Learning theories:
Chapter 7: Cognitive learning theories
Problem scenario 3Chapter 4: Exceptionalities:
addressing students' unique needs
Chapter 5: Student diversity
Suggested references
Tan, O.S., Parsons, R.D., Hinson, S.L., & Sardo-Brown, D. (2003). Educational psychology. A practitioner—researcher approach (An Asian edition). Singapore: Thomson Learning.
Chang, A., Gopinathan, S., & Ho, W.K. (Eds) (1999). Growing up in Singapore: Research perspectives on adolescents. Singapore: Prentice Hall.
Chang, A., & Goh, C. (2002). Teachers' handbook on teaching generic thinking skills. Singapore: Prentice Hall.
Elliot, S.N., Kratochwill, T.R., & Littlefield, J.F. (2000). Education psychology. Madison: Brown & Benchmark.
Suggested Web sites
Educational Psychology Interactive
Theory into Practice Database
The Jean Piaget Society
Southeastern Center for the Enhancement of Learning
Vygotsky Resources
Albert Bandura
Robert Sternberg's personal homepage from Yale University
David Ausubel
Howard Gardner
Table 7.5 Tutor's guide for PBL tutorial 1
Tutorial sessionLearning stageLearners' activitiesLearners' deliverablesPBL tutor's role
PBL tutorial 1 (2 hours)Problem encounter Induction into collaborative learning Problem clarificationDeveloping collegiality Individual reading, reflection and inquiry
Commitment to team roles and to group
Brainstorming and articulation of probable issues
Consensus on problem statement
Commitment to deliberate on problem scenario and problem analysis
Induction into self-directed learning
Forging professionalism and friendship
Notes or mind map of discussion
Journal of problem statement
Develop an environment of learning, sharing, collegiality and professionalism through appropriate ice-breaking activities
Present problem situation
Facilitate communication, problem inquiry, clarification, identification, definition and delimitation
Self-directed learning (1 hour)Deliberation of problem scenario and statement Initiation of problem analysis
Table 7.6 Tutor's guide for PBL tutorial 2
Tutorial sessionLearning stageLearners' activitiesLearners' deliverablesPBL tutor's role
PBL tutorial 2 (2 hours)Problem analysis and learning issuesBrainstorming and analysis of problem (e.g. generation of possible explanations, hypotheses, etc.)
Identification of learning issues and formulation of learning objectives
Assignment of self-directed learning and peer teaching
Journal of problem inquiry
List of inquiries, explanations, ideas and hypotheses
Statement of learning issues and objectives
Statement of learning contract on self-directed learning and peer teaching roles
Facilitate and guide identification of key learning objectives
Ensure learning and ownership of learning objectives
Provide guidance on possible sources of information for reading and research
Self-directed learning (4–6 hours)Identification of sources of information; reading, studying and research with a view to offering informed explanation for the problem and teaching peers on topic
Preparation of pointers and notes for sharing and teaching
Table 7.7 Tutor's guide for PBL tutorials 3 and 4
Tutorial sessionLearning stageLearners' activitiesLearners' deliverablesPBL tutor's role
PBL tutorial 3 (2 hours)Discovery and reportingReport on self-directed learning
Peer teaching
Evidence of integration and consolidation of information as a group and as individuals
Statement on sources of learning, information and research
Probe and question to facilitate learning of key concepts, principles and theories
Provide comprehensive and critical evaluation and statement of research resources
Self-directed learning (4?6 hours)Further self-study and research
PBL tutorial 4 (2 hours)Preparation of solution presentationSynthesis of findings for presentationWrite-ups and reportsFacilitate connection and communication of information
Ensure good research and deep learning
Self-directed learning (4–6 hours)Synthesis of learning
Review and evaluation of solution
Table 7.8 Tutor's guide for PBL tutorials 5 and 6
Tutorial sessionLearning stageLearners' activitiesLearners' deliverablesPBL tutor's role
PBL tutorial 5 (2 hours)Solution presentation and reflectionGroup presentation of findings
Learning from other groups
Presentation packageFacilitate and assess quality of independent and group work
Self-directed learning (6 hours)Compilation of group report, portfolio and essay
PBL tutorial 6 (2 hours)Presentation, overview and evaluationContinuation of group presentation of findings
Group evaluation of process and learning experience
Summary and integration
Learning portfolios, reports of group and individual reviews and evaluationsFacilitate and assess quality of independent and group evaluation
Summarize key learning theories

Jerry, Seow Jing and Pakti have been good friends since they met two years ago at a charity function. It all started with some ice-breaking activities at that function and they discovered that they have something in common—they like to work with people. Jerry had been working as a bank executive for two years until recently. His bank was reorganized and he volunteered to leave to take up a new job. He has just joined the teaching profession. Prior to his banking job, he had taught as an “untrained” teacher for six months at a neighbourhood secondary school. Seow Jing graduated from a local university and has been working as a relief teacher at a government-aided primary school for about two months to “test” if she would really enjoy teaching. Pakti graduated from an overseas university and is planning to join the teaching profession. He has been relief-teaching at an independent school. In a recent get-together, they got into talking about their experiences with students.

“The other week I had to teach a primary 4 class and I was supposed to teach them problems on volume. I really didn't know how I should do it, so I just gave them the formula L × B × H. However, I think many of them didn't understand,” Seow Jing began.

“You should have brought a rectangular tank, poured some water in it and shown them a real example,” Pakti suggested. “You're right. Then there was this word problem that even I took quite a while to understand, and they're supposed to learn that,” lamented Seow Jing.

“Nowadays, I think you're expected to add and multiply even at primary 1. I don't remember having to do that when I was six years old,” said Pakti.

“Sometimes I wonder if kids are ready to learn these things at that age. There must be certain ages when children are ready to learn something,” added Seow Jing.

“You know, I find that it's not easy to teach even secondary 1 students abstract concepts,” Pakti added.

“How do children and adolescents acquire concepts?” asked Seow Jing.

“Think of your own experience—how did you learn in school?” offered Jerry.

“I can't really remember, but I think people around me—my older brothers, parents and teachers—played a big role,” responded Seow Jing.

Pakti added, “For me, I think it was discussing with my classmates that helped.”

Alfonso, Celina and Toon have just returned from two weeks of school attachment. They are sharing their classroom observations and experiences.

Alfonso says, “I observed several English and mathematics lessons for secondary 3 normal-stream students. Often the students did not seem to remember what had been taught in the previous lessons and were very restless. It seems to me that most of the teaching was one way, with students listening passively and inattentively. A few of the students looked distracted and seemed to be preoccupied with other things.”

According to Alfonso, when he suggested to the teacher about using activities, the teacher's response was that “all these theories about learning and activities don't work in our situations”. Alfonso says, “I am not sure what theories she was referring to, but surely there must be better ways to help these students learn.”

Toon has this to share: “I had the opportunity to observe lower and upper secondary students in the normal stream. There was this teacher who taught chemistry and biology in a secondary 3 class. He seemed to use a drill-and-practice method rather successfully. He was very organized. What he did was to have a few objectives clearly stated before he explained the content. He then gave a number of short fill-in-the-blank questions. When the students completed the exercise, he would have them check each other's work in pairs as he went through the answers. At the end of each lesson, he seemed to give the students a sense of achievement in that they had at least mastered a few concepts. He would then give them some short questions as homework. Come the next lesson, he would start with the homework questions and then built on what had been taught. His method appeared to help students master the basic vocabulary, concepts and principles pretty well.”

“My students were express-stream and gifted students,” Celina says. “I was observing the students and I found that they were all very different in the ways they learnt. Some of them liked to ask a lot of questions, which could be disruptive; some worked well in pairs and group work; and others seemed to daydream but had no problem understanding when quizzed. I don't think the drill-and-practice approach will be helpful for the students I observed—they need much more challenging questions and tasks; otherwise they'd switch off. So it is very important to know how to stimulate these young minds.”

“So how do we know how to cater to different students and help them learn?” Alfonso asks. “Experience, I suppose,” Toon replies.

“Ya, but someone said, even if you have taught for ten years, it may be just ten years of the same experience rather than ten years of solid experience!” responds Alfonso, somewhat exasperated.

“Wise men learn from experience, but wiser men learn from the experience of others—that's what my university professor used to say!” exclaims Celina.

Problem statement

Read thoroughly the problem scenario. Give yourself time to think and try to contextualize the problem in the light of your prior knowledge and experience.

The purpose of the problem scenario is twofold:

  1. To trigger learning of the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to address such educational challenges
  2. To learn about the process of acquiring such knowledge and about the process of making informed decisions as a reflective practitioner

You are required to come up with a problem statement in your own words. You should work on the problem individually, pen your own thoughts and deliberate it as a group. As in real-life situations, the information given is never quite complete. You may want to clarify terms, concepts and assumptions. You are required to brainstorm and come to a consensus on a problem statement to be submitted as a group. To develop the problem statement, the group should attempt to understand the problem by asking questions such as these: What is the situation in need of improvement? What is the nature of the problem? What is your commitment to finding out plausible solutions?

Problem inquiry and analysis

You are to submit your group inquiries and analyses. You may list them as pointers and questions. You may use tabulation and various templates, such as a listing of situation and hypothesis. Do not be judgemental when the group is coming up with ideas. At this stage, you would be activating your prior knowledge or experience and addressing possible explanations and hypotheses. Allow a free flow of ideas and only prioritize and select at the later stage. If possible, you should also come up with a map (e.g. mind map, concept map, block diagram) as a conceptual framework for generating your “solutions”.

Learning issues and goals

Following your inquiry and analysis, you would want to confirm or reject explanations and hypotheses and address learning gaps. At this stage, the group will list learning needs and identify learning issues. This crucial stage of the problem-based learning process is when you state key learning issues and objectives (i.e. what is important for you to know). The group should formulate a list of learning objectives and issues. These may be stated in the form of questions. When that is done, the group will assign learning tasks for self-directed learning and peer teaching.

Table 7.9 Example of PBL assessment criteria for an educational psychology course
Problem and 5 learning issues (10 marks)Problem encounter and development of learning objectivesProblem statementClarity and definition of problem5
List of inquiries and generation of hypothesesThinking skills as evident by quantity and quality of ideas and hypotheses
Formulation of learning objectivesComprehensiveness and quality of learning objectives5
Group work (20 marks)Reporting, peer teaching, group presentationReporting and peer teachingPeer evaluation5
Group presentationQuality of solution (ideas and research) and presentation15
Learning to 10 learn (30 marks)Writing of portfolio and reflective essayIndividual portfolio: your learning and learning from others (1,500–2,000 words)Integration of group report and individual work. Quality of synthesis. Reflection and critical evaluation of self-directed learning. Quality of resources and team learning10
Reflection on learning and the learner (2,500–3,000 wordCritical reflection and understanding of learning and the learner. Articulation of solution and personal view and belief underpinned by informed knowledge, theories and contextualization20
Table 7.10 Sample peer evaluation form
Name of group member
(positiveness and helpfulness)
2 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 10
(commitment and sharing)
2 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 10
Communication (clarity and sensitivity)2 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 10
(motivate self and others)
2 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 10
(quality and comprehensiveness of contribution)
2 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 102 4 6 8 10

Health-care Course Unit

The following is a problem used in a health-care course unit on communicating with elderly patients.

This is a journal entry of Florence, a health-care worker.

The door was ajar. I knocked on the door. There was a lady sitting in her wheelchair gazing out of the window. Since there was no answer, I decided to knock again. This time I asked, “Would you like to have a visitor today?” Still there was no answer. I thought to myself, “Maybe she cannot hear me.” As I walked into her room, she saw me and reached out to me. I took her cold hands and placed them both in the warmth of mine. I introduced myself in the hope of receiving her response. As I continued trying to communicate, I spoke into her ear, but there was no response. So I kneeled at her side and held her hands. Finally, I decided it was time for me to go. As I stood up beside her to leave, I said, “My dear friend, I have to go for now. I will be back to see you again one day soon.” While I leaned over and gently hugged her, she held onto me for a brief moment. I walked towards the door, and all of a sudden there was a wailing yell from inside the room. I turned around to face the elderly woman and she sweetly looked up at me. There was no one else in this room except her and me. As I walked over to her this time, I expected her to speak aloud. She looked at me, reached out her hand and still did not speak.

Suppose you were in Florence's shoes, what would you do to communicate with the elderly lady?

The learning goals in this PBL unit include content knowledge about interpersonal communication with the elderly, structured reflection to gain an enhanced insight into professional practice and development of therapeutic relationship with the elderly, problem-solving skills pertaining to analysis of behaviours and ways of managing functional behaviours, and lifewide skills of teamwork and information mining. The learning issues of this problem can be:

  • Learning issue 1: How can communication with the elderly be facilitated by active listening, hearing, verbalizing and visualizing verbal and non-verbal messages?
  • Learning issue 2: How does aging and diseases affect communication?
  • Learning issue 3: In what ways can one succeed in communicating effectively with the elderly?

The PBL cycle takes the unit through seven two-hour sessions as shown in Table 7.11.

Table 7.11 PBL cycle in a health-care course unit
Tutorial 1
PBL induction
(pre-PBL session)
Developing PBL environment: brief students on expectations of PBL and on independent and group learning
Preparing students' mindset for learning through problems, reflective thinking, online communication using discussion board with lecturer and group members
Preparing students to work as a team: explain roles of individual group members, specific roles and communication channels
Tutorial 2
Problem encounter
Learner's activities: understand and agree on what the problem is; delineate boundaries of the problem; clarify scenario and assumptions
Tutorial 3
Problem analysis and
learning issues
Brainstorming and analysis of problem: decide on approaches to solve the problem; present possible explanations and statement of hypotheses; identify learning issues, formulate learning objectives
Tutorial 4
Peer teaching and solution presentation of learning issue 1
Tutorial 5 Peer teaching and solution presentation of learning issue 2
Tutorial 6 Peer teaching and solution presentation of learning issue 3
Reporting on self-directed learning and peer teaching: group members take turns to present the information and share the research resources; group integrates and synthesizes the information, and assesses information gathered in terms of quality and comprehensiveness of coverage

Group presentation, role play and demonstrations to illustrate solution and findings; questions and answers from other groups
Tutorial 7
Closure and synthesis
Lecturer presents overview and critique Groups evaluate their learning experiences

Law Subjects

Here we shall see how the goals of PBL illustrated in Figure 6.1 are incorporated in law subjects. The PBL goals of this problem are as follows:

  • To acquire content and professional knowledge pertaining to the law of real property and to company law
  • To develop problem-solving skills in real-world business situations
  • To develop independent learning skills
  • To learn collaboration skills, teamwork and effective interdependence

The problem is designed as a sequel to an earlier problem on setting up a company and the purchase and lease of a property. The problems are designed to cater for cross-disciplinary learning in at least two subjects: property law and company law. This problem is meant to teach the application of the property and company laws to the construction/property business. The following is the problem scenario.

You are working in a legal firm and have been assigned to interview the clients Mr Neta and Ms Flora. Your boss has asked you to draft a legal opinion to address the concerns of these clients. The following is the information given by the clients.

Mr Neta:

My business partners, Flora and Dino, are giving me problems. They have decided to convert our tea business into a spa business without consulting me. They held an informal tea party last week and made that decision, even though I objected. They conducted an informal vote by a show of hands, which I feel is improper for such an important decision. I am only one shareholder against the two of them, so I was outvoted. What can I do? They also mentioned something about IPO [initial public offering] and thinking “big”. I'm not very educated; I don't know what the big deal is about IPO.

Ms Flora:

Our company has decided to buy a piece of land in the business district to build a high-rise commercial building. We will sell the top floors and keep the ground floor for our new spa business. We've never built any high-rise buildings before, so I'm not sure what legal issues we need to look at. One thing I'm concerned with is how we will divide the title of the land among all the buyers. I understand that we must be careful to ensure that the buyers do not change the “external look” of our building on their own without our consent as it will affect the value of our property. We must find some way to control the buyers' renovation plans. One of our partners, Mr Neta, is giving us trouble—he is against the purchase of any type of land except freehold. He found out that the land we are buying is an “estate in perpetuity” and is kicking up a big fuss over it. I told him that it is the same as freehold, but he is not convinced.

Problems can be presented through role play, besides as textual information. At Temasek Polytechnic, where PBL has been used creatively in its law courses, tutors actually role-play as the clients. In that way, students learn interviewing skills, and these competencies too could be assessed by the tutors.

The learning issues in such a problem can be:

On company law:

  • What is the procedure for changing the nature of a company's business?
  • How do clients amend object clauses?
  • What are the proper procedures in a meeting? What is voting by hand and by poll? Were there any irregularities in the shareholders' meeting?
  • What are Mr Neta's rights as a minority shareholder? Can he take action if his views are disregarded?
  • Is it worthwhile for the company to be listed? What is an IPO? What are the advantages of an IPO?

On the law of real property:

  • How does a company go about developing a high-rise commercial building? What are the steps they have to take?
  • How does a company transfer title to each individual purchaser when the units are sold?
  • How can a company ensure that all purchasers (present and future) abide by the restriction of not altering the external look of their unit?
  • Is an estate in perpetuity also a freehold property? How are they different?

In this case, a six-week PBL cycle is used, as shown in Table 7.12.

Table 7.12 PBL cycle for teaching law subjects
WeekPBL stageActivities
Week 1Meet the problemStudents interview “clients” to obtain information for the problem. They also get together in their groups to set the ground rules for the group's functioning.
Week 2Problem analysisUsing a template of Facts-Ideas-Issues-Action, students organize the information and decide what extra information is needed or what assumptions they have to make. They put their questions in the Action column and then post them online for discussion.
Week 3Generating ideas and learning issuesStudents generate ideas on how to solve the problem and decide on the topics they need to read up in order to come up with their learning issues. At this point, they may split up the research work. Students will then do preliminary research and reading and formulate their learning issues. They will discuss the issues with the facilitator, who will help them refine the issues.
Week 4Discovery and reportingArmed with the issues, students will do detailed research on the laws relating to the concerns of their clients. At this point, the facilitator will do a resource critique with students. Students will then share their findings and undertake peer teaching with their group members.
Week 5Solution presentationAfter some discussions on how the laws can be applied to their clients' cases, students will draft their individual written legal opinion to be handed in to their “boss”. The opinion will contain the learning issues as well as the researched laws and their application, the conclusion and recommendations for the cases.
Week 6Reflection and consolidation of learningStudents will reflect on their problem-solving process and how they have performed as a team player. They will look at the ground rules set earlier by the group and evaluate their own performance as a problem solver and as a team member as well as their adherence to the ground rules. This will be done in an open feedback session with their
facilitator, where team members will also give each other feedback on their performance in these areas. The facilitator will assess their ability to self-evaluate and to give and receive feedback. There will also be a session for consolidation of learning where the facilitator will go through the answers for the problem and teach the content using mind maps drawn by students of the various topics of the subjects. This will close the loop of learning.

At the end of the six weeks, in addition to the written legal opinion and feedback appraisal, students have to submit a portfolio of writeups and notes as evidence of the progress and development of their learning from week 1 to week 6.

Design Course

Design courses provide many opportunities and scope for infusing PBL. Giving students real-world design problems is an excellent way to trigger learning. Consider the following problem for an interior design course, where one of the modules is on materials.

A 50-year-old hotel near a beach has been newly renovated. The floor was previously covered with vinyl, but following the renovation carpets were laid on every level of the building. A few months after the renovation, the hotel owner observed discoloration of the carpet. The situation was worse in the basement. Thinking that it could be due to the inferiority of the carpets, he decided to change to a more expensive range. After spending more money, he discovered to his horror that the problem persisted. He could not understand why this happened when

Table 7.13 PBL cycle for an interior design module
PBL stagePurpose and activities
PBL introductionTo ensure all members participate actively and to encourage open discussions, set the climate of learning and roles. Brief on process and procedures of the groups. Explain desired learning outcomes: acquisition of problem-solving skills, teamwork skills and new knowledge.
Problem identificationStudents deliberate on problem and identify key issues, such as:
  • Why did the carpets discolour after only a few months?
  • Why was the problem particularly bad at the basement?
  • Why did changing the carpets to a more expensive range fail to solve the problem?
  • Why has that problem not occur at another hotel some distance away?
Brainstorming and idea generationAnalyse the problems identified and give possible explanations, such as:
  • Not all carpets are the same.
Table 7.13 PBL cycle for an interior design module
  • The location of the hotel (next to the beach) exposes it to moisture with a high salt content, which may have created the problem.
  • Basements are more difficult to maintain than other levels.
  • Carpets may need to be specially installed in wetness-prone areas.
  • Price has little relevance to the appropriateness of carpet types.
Learning issuesIdentify the learning issues from the hypothesis, such as:
  • To understand the properties of carpets
  • To understand how carpets are classified
  • To understand how the quality of carpet is determined
  • To understand how carpets are installed (particularly in wetness-prone areas such as basements)
  • To understand problems related to the use of carpets
  • To understand the use of carpets in relation to environmental conditions
Self-directed learningStudents select the learning issues that interest them most or in which they lack the knowledge. Strategies of learning include:
  • finding relevant information from journals, textbooks or online databases
  • talking to experts, such as carpet suppliers and contractors
  • interviewing carpet users
Peer teaching and “expert roles”Having gathered the information, students assume the role of “expert” for the topic they explored and present their findings.
Synthesis and applicationGroups summarize, integrate and evaluate information for validity and relevance. They also review the credibility and appropriateness of the resources.
The knowledge gained is applied and the solution developed.
Reflection and feedbackThe final stage is to review and evaluate what has been learnt: principles, concepts and applications. Students also reflect on the problem-solving process, the best ways of learning and the professional knowledge gained.

another hotel located further down the road has been using carpets as floor coverings for the last few years without any problem.

The problem in this case is used over four to five tutorial sessions with a PBL cycle as shown in Table 7.13.

Although the problem stimulus in this case may be a simple scenario, the cycle can take longer depending on the emphasis of the PBL goals. Assessment can be based on journal reports, management of research, teamwork, peer evaluation, presentation skills and the final presentation of recommendations and solutions.

Service Skills

PBL is also used in many cases to acquire valuable learning skills where the curriculum goals may not include very well-defined disciplinary knowledge. Suppose a high school or secondary school is interested in teaching their student leaders planning skills related to service provision or general project management. The following problem scenario may suffice as a trigger:

Mr Lee Dushi, a teacher at a secondary school in Singapore, is organizing an overseas trip for 40 students. The purpose of the trip is to give students greater exposure to life outside their “comfort zone” and to prepare them for service and challenges in an increasingly global world. An international foundation has agreed to sponsor the trip and proposed that they go to a village in Giay in the vicinity of Hanoi. They are to help with the finishing touches (painting, fixing of doors, etc.) of a small school building that is near completion. They will be there for two full weeks. Dushi has never organized an overseas trip before. You and a few others who are going on the trip have been tasked to help with the preparations for the trip.

The goals of this PBL exercise may include helping students learn:

  • the logistics of planning for an overseas trip
  • research and information-mining techniques
  • problem-solving skills
  • teamwork skills
  • presentation skills

The PBL programme and the time frame may be organized as follows:

  • Meet the problem and analysis of the problem
  • Self-directed learning
  • Sharing and synthesis
  • Presentation of solution
  • Feedback and evaluation
2 hours
4 hours
4 hours
2 hours
1 hour

A KND template may be suggested and students are told to prepare a presentation of their proposals for helping to organize the trip. They may be required to write a report to announce the trip with a description of the place they are going and highlighting the service to be rendered.

In the first session, students would read the problem and seek to understand what is involved and try to use the template. They are expected to draw up the lists of issues related to this problem, as in Table 7.14.

For self-directed learning, sharing and synthesis, students will do research or seek information based on the “to do” list.

The final presentation will be on each group's plan on how to make the trip successful. Students may be assessed on their teamwork and the quality of the presentation.

Table 7.14 Example of a KND template for the service problem scenario
What we knowWhat we need to knowTo do
  • Objectives of the trip: exposure to life overseas outside our comfort zone; to be prepared for service
  • Task: to help painting and simple carpentry work
  • Who is going and how many: 40 students
  • Destination: Giay near Hanoi
  • Duration of stay: two weeks
  • Sponsor: an international foundation
  • Teacher in charge: Lee Dushi (no experience)
  • Geography and climate of Giay
  • Culture of Vietnamese
  • Involvement of tour agent and transportation arrangements
  • Accommodation arrangements
  • Contact person in Giay
  • Programme for the task/project
  • Plans of the school building
  • Facilities available in Giay
  • Equipment we may need
  • Budget/Costs
  • Any need to raise funds and from where
  • Manpower: other teachers
  • Visa/Passport matters
  • Guidelines for students on overseas trip
  • Issues of parental consent
  • Insurance issues
  • Health and safety issues
  • Form committees for various tasks (logistics, programme, etc.)
  • Draw up a work plan
  • Draw up the budget
  • Learn about geography of the place
  • Learn about the culture
  • Learn some basic Vietnamese language
  • Draw up a schedule of pre-trip tasks
  • Hold a training workshop on painting and carpentry
  • Learn about community service
  • Prepare the two-week programme and itinerary

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Curriculum Development in Problem–Based Learning

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Curriculum Development in Problem–Based Learning