Students' Experiences of Problem–Based Learning

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Students' Experiences of Problem–Based Learning

The Heart of PBL: Students' Learning
Problems: Do They Frustrate or Empower?
Collaborative Learning: Does It Work?
Problem Solving: Does It Lead to Learning?
Self-directed Learning: Is It Productive?
Coaching Process: Does It Facilitate?

The Heart of PBL: Students' Learning

I had observed in my research on how lecturers designed curricula that little attention was given to the needs of learners and to what learners would be empowered to do (Tan, 1994). Using the models of Oliva (1992) and Diamond (1989) on considerations (hence time invested in planning) given to (1) the learner, (2) the society, and (3) the subject matter, I found in my survey of academic staff that only 27 per cent of them gave high ratings for considering the learner as the most important focus. In contrast, 65.4 per cent rated highly consideration given to the subject matter. In other words, staff tended to be preoccupied with what they taught and would invest a large part of their energies, deliberations and concern on issues of content knowledge. These findings are consistent with Ramsden's (1998) view that the needs of learners and how they would learn have not been given sufficient attention. In PBL, however, the students as active learners and problem solvers form the heart of the PBL experience.

In this chapter, I will share gleanings from case vignettes of students. What are students saying about PBL? I think the very people who are the focus of PBL can help us gain insights into how PBL empowers them or perhaps creates helplessness. Are students finding more meaning or clearer direction with PBL or are they perhaps more lost? Does PBL meet students' needs? What are their perceptions and experiences of PBL? The students in these vignettes were from different populations: postgraduate, university and polytechnic students who experienced PBL for the first time. We shall look at their experiences in terms of their interaction with problems, collaborative learning, problem solving, self-directed learning and the coaching process.

Problems: Do They Frustrate or Empower?

Student A1

I really received a culture shock. PBL was definitely not my style of learning. I was really frustrated that no teachers would give out notes or provide information in a well-structured and systematic manner. It seemed to lack proper direction and structure and I was lost. At the end no “model” answers were provided.

Student A2

Doing PBL is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. It is frustrating because we were not given any big picture, not even the scope, at the beginning. The problem is like giving us a few jigsaw pieces and asking us to find the rest of the pieces. The worst thing is that at the end of everything I still don't get an overall picture.

Student A3

There are too many learning issues. We don't have the foundation knowledge. There are just too many things left for us to find out on our own and we just can't cope. We don't even know where to begin. My group lost interest because of PBL. There were times when the tutor sent us on a wild goose chase.

Student A4

I think the problems were very helpful because they kept us focused on thinking about the learning issues and the solutions. Even when we were not using the library or checking the Net, we continued to think about them.

Student A5

In the course, we were given real-world problems and we really wanted to work on them because we knew they are the kinds of things we would face in the future. For example, we had this problem where we were told about a tank made of a certain material that was part of a system in an industrial plant. When the tank was used with concentrated nitric acid, everything worked fine. But one day someone used that same tank with a more diluted form of nitric acid. After some time the tank began to leak. Why did reducing the acid concentration seem to lead to leakage? We were told it was a real case and we were very curious to find out why. There were many learning issues about the properties of the kinds of metal and materials used for making tanks. This problem really required a lot of knowledge on materials. We also learnt a great deal about acids used in industry. I can say that although this problem was done many months ago I can remember most of what I had learnt.

Student A6

At the debrief, we had already submitted our solutions, but everybody, even the worst students, turned up. We had a guy who was probably one of the least committed and laziest students. Even he came. That's because all of us had spent a tremendous amount of time on the problem and we were really curious about the solution by this time. The lecturer revealed to us the various solution scenarios and emphasized that, although in this case there appeared to be an optimal or best solution, alternative solutions were possible.

In any PBL implementation, we will come across people like student A1, who finds that PBL is contrary to his or her learning style and continues to hope for spoon-feeding at some point in time. That is why we emphasize mindset change. Students A2 and A3 seem to have problem coping owing to their need for closer guidance and lack of foundation knowledge.

The power of a real-world problem is obvious from vignettes A4 and A5. I observe, however, that the power of problems has not been optimized in many PBL courses. The experience of student A5 indicates that students can appreciate the value of real-world problems from industry.

Collaborative Learning: Does It Work?

Student B1

Through the PBL process, I realized that I had always treated with disdain the various attempts to inculcate problem-solving skills (from secondary school to university). I never felt that these skills would benefit me in any way. However, in this course, I discovered the importance of being innovative and how, through PBL, creative thinking could be fostered. I realized that I needed to change my mindset, thus the whole experience was really a paradigm shift for me. I was thoroughly motivated by the fact that I no longer gathered information and solutions merely from textbooks or from my tutors. It was through the sessions of collaborative learning that I discovered this.

Student B2

Carrying out discussions and solving the various problem scenarios as a group improved my own learning process. This collaborative learning approach has helped me learn with and from others.

Student B3

My classmates came out with summaries of various chapters of the textbook and provided a brief overview for those who had not read those chapters. I found this quite effective and convenient.

Student B4

I am just a very average student and I find that I am sometimes very slow in understanding lecture-type courses. Once I can't follow, I get more and more lost. In PBL, however, I can learn at my own pace. I can tell my group members that I don't get it and they will explain it to me. Sometimes I really try hard to read, but I still cannot get it. The other members know my difficulty and will take time to explain to me.

Student B5

I think I receive a lot of benefit from PBL. There was this lecturer in a non-PBL subject; we really didn't know what he was teaching. But for the PBL subject, I really enjoy it because we read up and then share with each other. We speak in our own language. It's very different when we start talking to each other and check things out together, whereas by myself I sometimes cannot understand the stuff.

Student B6

I learn best on my own. I prefer a course where we are told what to study and I will spend my time working on it. I don't think PBL is better than the lecture method. If I read on my own, I can go into much more depth. Most of the sharing in PBL is superficial. It's not my style of learning.

Student B7

PBL requires us to work in groups and to find things out for ourselves, identify the learning issues and then teach each other. I have to say that I do not find the group learning helpful at all. All of us have very little knowledge of the subject. We don't have enough basic knowledge and we don't understand what we read. How much time do we really have to read up? I'd rather have the lecturer explain things to us, instead of leaving us to struggle and learn nothing much even after the whole PBL unit is completed.

Student B8

Working in a group made me more aware of the constant dynamics a group faces. Through our discussions, I could see that at times there were instances of majority influence. There were some ideas that we did not all agree upon; but as long as three of us agreed on something, we tended to ignore the person who did not follow us.

Student B9

Even if there was only one person who did not play his or her part well, the whole group would suffer as we would not be well informed in that particular topic. As a result, we might have to spend additional time reading and researching on it. It would also be unfair as that person would just be benefiting from others' hard work.

Generally, most students find the collaborative approaches in PBL valuable, as indicated by vignettes B1 to B5. It appears to me, however, that more mature students (e.g. postgraduate students) tend to view collaborative learning in PBL more positively. This is not surprising since PBL approaches are often congruent with the principles of adult learning, where learners take responsibility for learning, share with others, set their learning goals and so on (Knowles, 1980). There are, however, students who resist the use of collaborative approaches. Other problems of group work include the issue of “majority” opinion, which may not always be right, and uncooperative group members.

I know of many schools and institutions that incorporated sessions on group dynamics and teamwork before they implement PBL, which may be a wise thing to do. Woods (2000) emphasized the importance of developing group-work skills and teamwork as prerequisites for students to really gain from the PBL experience. It is also important to build into assessment measures rewards for collaborative work. The use of peer assessment can also help deal with the problem of poor team learners. Most importantly, PBL tutors should be alert to the participation of students—this is why the class size in PBL should not be too large.

Problem Solving: Does It Lead to Learning?

Student C1

I am not sure if the problem I have identified is indeed the crux, or if it is merely peripheral. Worse still, what if I were dealing with the “wrong” problem, so to speak? In this sense, I still think the lecturer needs to feature prominently in the PBL approach.

Student C2

I think that the problem identification part is vital because it will determine if the learner sets off on the right footing or not. I guess one can treat this as part of the learning process, but I also worry about the possibility that I might be working on a “wrong” problem without realizing it until much later.

Student C3

Although I still have strong attachment to the drill-and-practice method, I must confess that PBL completely revolutionizes the way I think and solve problems. In fact, it enables me to look at a problem from different angles and come up with various solutions to it. Through PBL, I realized that there are many ways to solve a particular problem, as opposed to the traditional narrow view of having only a single solution to a given question or problem.

Student C4

Throughout the entire process, I realized that I was constantly thinking about the problem and reflecting on the solutions. Even though some of the problems seemed so trivial and simple on the surface, there were actually a much deeper explanation and a much more complicated process involved. The constant questioning and evaluation that went through my mind kept me thinking more deeply into the issues of the case study.

Student C5

I was pleasantly surprised. The amount and diversity of insights from my group mates, and the different arguments we had, made the discussion very stimulating. New viewpoints were generated when we put ourselves into the shoes of the characters in the problem scenarios. The realism of the issues made the process of problem solving more engaging and invigorating.

Student C6

To solve a problem was now not as simple as just finding a solution and leaving it at that, but coming up with different problem statements, generating learning issues and hypotheses, and thinking up questions. All these made the problem scenarios, in a sense, a little more three-dimensional. Some of the problem scenarios were quite long, so it helped me, personally, to divide the problems into smaller sections to make them easier to comprehend and solve.

Case vignettes C1 and C2 show a common experience of students: their uncertainty of the direction they are heading, particularly their identification of the problem and the learning issues. This points to the need for sufficient mediation by the tutor. As seen from vignettes C3 to C6, students are usually positive about the problem-solving experience in PBL. They are able to appreciate the value of the PBL cycle and experience, which enable them to gain diverse perspectives, apply different ways of thinking, and use reflection and metacognition.

Self-directed Learning: Is It Productive?

Student D1

I must say that PBL really helps me. I was on industrial attachment. The working environment is really different. You have to work with people you do not know. My trainer left me alone right from the first day. I was asked to do a number of things on my own without guidance, and I really felt very insecure because I had to operate the machine all by myself. I was forced to find things out. I think from the PBL experience I learnt to find things out, especially how to ask for information.

Student D2

I have learnt how to use the Net and the library to get information. Our tutors did not even give us any hints about key words. I found that key words are very important. If a key word doesn't work, we think of associated terms and so on. You have to think and make connections. This is a new skill I have learnt.

Student D3

We found that the Internet was very useful. We were fortunate in the sense that we had Internet connections in our homes, so most of our communication was done through the Internet. Sharing of findings could be done immediately as all we had to do was to forward to each other the interesting sites we found. The PowerPoint presentation was prepared mostly through e-mail, with the final touches done in school. We found it better to agree on formats and so on before meeting up in school to finish up the presentation.

Student D4

I tried to source for reading material from the library. There were so many books—which ones to choose? I had tried spending two afternoons going through the shelves to find suitable and interesting reading material. After reading two to three books, I was still unable to find my answers. Also, the books were rather technical, so I gave up.

Student D5

Internet search was unproductive for me. Much time was wasted clicking here and there. Although I did use some Internet information for our presentation, it was more copying and pasting information that I could understand. Heavy, technical stuff was not picked and analysed or used.

Student D6

For me to read and research, the material available (through any sources) has to be readable, that is, not too technical and is presented in an interesting manner. “Schematic” information helps—teachers could perhaps provide us this, especially for technical subjects.

Student D7

I think the biggest problem in PBL is that it requires a lot of time. We spent about a month discussing the same few problem scenarios. In order to go into details, we had to spend enough time so that we covered every aspect that we wanted to cover.

Many students, like D1, find that learning to seek information is a lifelong learning asset. Others like D2 and D3 also appreciate the importance of information mining and using the Internet. Vignettes D4 to D7 point out some of the common frustrations in independent learning. Firstly, students feel overwhelmed easily when left to seek for information without some guidelines. That is why when discussing curriculum development I included a resource guide as an essential item (see the example of an educational psychology course in Chapter 7). Secondly, where the subject involves numerous technical definitions and concepts, students may need to be given the necessary foundation knowledge. For example, without the knowledge of calculus, it is unreasonable to expect students to understand the application of calculus in solving engineering problems. I am thus of the view that PBL should be used appropriately, especially with younger students.

Coaching Process: Does It Facilitate?

Student E1

I really enjoy PBL because we have a very understanding and caring tutor. She does not give us the answers, but she really listens and tries to understand where we are. I don't know about other groups, but our tutor really guides us in addressing the important issues. She is very good at probing and persuading us to want to find out more about the things important for solving the problems. Through her probing, she helps us see the many gaps, which cause us to reflect and think.

Student E2

In PBL, we really learn to think. We always use brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas. We also learn to distinguish facts from ideas. Through the tutor's prompting and questioning, we learn to ask good questions and to prioritize what is important after we have come up with possible ideas and issues. The tutor also taught us to use various thinking tools.

Student E3

I think through PBL we really have become better at problem solving. We learn to clarify our assumptions and concepts. We also ask more why-questions and apply logical, critical and creative thinking at various stages. I learn that one has to be flexible rather than become fixed with a particular mindset. Yes, I think the tutor plays an important role in helping us develop problem-solving skills in PBL.

Student E4

I think the tutors were told that they were not allowed to give us any hints or solutions, and this tutor really could not guide us. His famous statement was “So what do you think?” All that he could say was “What do you think?” Even when we were not asking for solutions or hints but some pointers to resources, his answer was “So what do you think?”!

Student E5

We were allowed to e-mail lecturers but mainly for appointments. Some staff allowed us to call them on the phone—even their handphone. However, each of us had timecards. The timecard allowed us to have 30 minutes of consultation or information feeding outside of the usual tutorial hours. We combined our timecard allotments to get a two-hour session. In that session, we tried to close all the gaps to our solutions.

Student E6

The PBL tutorial process doesn't work. We don't really like the tutor. She is very businesslike and assumes that we have all the time to work on the problem. We know that she is against spoon-feeding and that she has a good knowledge herself, but we hope she could understand what we are going through. She can give us more encouragement and guidance. Sometimes in our group discussion when we reach a critical point, all we need is just a little hint or something, or someone to tell us if we are going in the right direction; but we can only consult the tutor at specific times, and even then there seems to be a lot of things that we are not supposed to ask!

Student E7

I think it is OK if tutors don't want to give us answers straightaway, but I feel that the tutor should be prepared and be able to offer guidance when we need it. When we ask things about the problem, the tutor always says, “I don't know—you are supposed to find out” or “I don't know, what do you think?” In the first few tutorials, we thought he wanted to make us think, but after so many sessions we have come to the conclusion that the tutor really doesn't know. I think tutors should prepare and experience the problems themselves.

Student E8

Looking back, I think PBL could have worked better if the tutors had prepared us for it. We were very lost most of the time in the early stage, never knowing what to expect.

Student E9

For some of us, the groups did not work well because the tutor assumed that we would be able to start working with each other once we were assigned to the groups. The good tutors helped students get to know each other and took care to organize many activities that helped to develop class and group spirit.

These vignettes illustrate the experience, or at least the perceptions, of students in the PBL tutorial process and the quality of their interactions with tutors in PBL classrooms. In our experience, the lecturer as a coach is a major factor determining the effectiveness of PBL courses. The vignettes seem to raise some questions: What really is the role of the tutor? What are the characteristics of effective facilitators or coaches? What skills do tutors need to have to ensure that students benefit from the PBL process? How well are academic staff coaching and empowering students in the process?

The deduction drawn from this cluster of vignettes is that, whilst PBL is learner-centred, the role of the lecturer as facilitator is by no means passive. PBL does not just happen given a good problem, a well-designed schedule, relevant resources and the necessary opportunities for small group learning. The experiences of the students in this cluster support my view that staff development is necessary to equip tutors with PBL facilitation skills. Woods (2000) noted that one of the most challenging tasks in PBL is the development of process skills. He argued that both research and experience point to the fact that many process skills, such as change management, teamwork, conflict resolution and problem solving, do not just happen because students work in small groups. This calls for staff to be equipped with process skills (e.g. handling group dynamics, questioning, facilitating metacognition) and to be able to identify, articulate and assess these skills.


The case vignettes give us a better picture of what our students might be going through in PBL courses. They stress the need to prepare students, to design good problems and to develop PBL curricula carefully. Insights from these vignettes point to several important considerations, which are:

  • to assess students' readiness in terms of foundation knowledge, maturity, needs and motivations
  • to prepare students in terms of mindset change and skills for group work, reading, time management and information mining
  • to plan for scaffolding processes in the PBL cycle
  • to provide appropriate levels of resource guidance
  • to design good and motivating problems
  • to ensure that there is a closure process

I would like to point out that often not enough attention is given to ensure a good closure. Owing to the emphasis given to process, in most cases closure focuses on students sharing their reflections of how they perform as problem solvers and evaluation of their participation as team members. A neglected area is that of addressing how we look at the knowledge we have been dealing with in the PBL process (Berkson, 1993). As indicated in one of the vignettes, when students have been immersed in the problem for some time, they want to know how the story ends and hear the lecturer's synthesis. The observant tutor should take note of the convergence and divergence processes that students have experienced and should not only comment on the quality of review and synthesis but also provide his or her synthesis in the light of what students have done. As Schwartz and colleagues (2001) noted, it is important to demonstrate how divergent thinking and convergent thinking interact to produce an integrated solution. A good closure and debrief help provide confidence and affirmation of the particular heuristics that could be employed.

Whilst PBL appears promising in addressing individual differences in learning—the variety of learning styles and preferred modes of learning—we need to empathize with those whose learning styles and habits are less attuned to the PBL ways of learning. At the end of the PBL course, students generally feel more empowered in areas pertaining to independent learning, particularly the ability to retrieve information and to learn how to learn. Students' experiences also support PBL as a good approach for learning interdependence and socialization.

There appears to be a case for considering where and when it is best to implement PBL. Here I think there is a chasm between advocates of so-called “pure” or “authentic” PBL and the reality of students' experience. There are those who claim that PBL need not activate prior knowledge and that we could start with a problem at the outset in a domain totally unfamiliar to students. It appears that in practice there are many instances where this assumption is questionable. There are disciplines and subjects where foundation knowledge is best disseminated first. Effective PBL entails the activation of prior knowledge. Examples of such prior knowledge would be basic principles of physics and mathematical tools. The axioms, language and tools of certain domains are examples of essential prior knowledge. Apart from foundation knowledge, it is important to determine the extent to which problem scenarios should build on and activate prior knowledge (Woods, 2000). There is no contradiction in teaching these things first—PBL is not an all-encompassing approach to learning. Hence, PBL problem design must address these two questions: (1) Are there sufficient prior knowledge and experience for PBL development to occur? (2) Do the learners have the minimum foundation knowledge, basic tools and language skills as baselines for PBL to have the best leverage?

Students' experiences point to the need to prepare learners' mindsets and to ensure good design of problems and of the PBL curriculum. The right level of PBL challenge is important. PBL is successful when we develop students' confidence in independent learning and bring students' learning closer to the real world .

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Students' Experiences of Problem–Based Learning

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