Education is an essential aspect in the modern world since it enables individuals to view the world from an abstract perspective (Lennox, 2003). From this point of view, it is easier for individuals to determine the problems that the world is facing and to come up with solutions that will enhance the conditions and standards of living. Education has evolved with time to meet the needs of the learners as well as to achieve the curriculum goals.
It is as a result of this fact that different teaching approaches have been developed. Traditionally, the teaching and learning philosophy was based on the lecture method. Despite the fact that this approach had desirable results, it was characterised with several short comings such as the fact that it was mainly teacher centred (Lennox, 2003).
Therefore, this teaching approach mainly focused on achieving the curricular goals over the learners needs. To overcome this obstacle, the problem based learning (PBL) approach was developed. This approach is considered to be a student centred approach hence meeting the needs of the learners in the process of learning.
From these considerations, this paper will focus on the origin and history of problem based learning, its distinctive features, the difference it has with traditional teaching approaches, its application in engineering and how this approach will facilitate me to achieve my learning goals and objectives in engineering.
Origin and History of PBL
The origin of PBL can be traced back in the 1960s in the McMaster University in the faculty of medicine in Canada. This program was developed to respond to the concerns of medical students who complained that during the first three years of their study, their course covered a wide range of theory. However, most of the information that they learned during this time had little or no application in their careers as medical practitioners (Lennox, 2003).
With the help of his colleagues, Howard Barrows developed the PBL curriculum to respond to these concerns and to ensure that the students are directly involved in the process of learning. Consequently, the PBL approach was developed to motivate the students to engage in the learning process through active participation on issues that directly applied to their careers.
In the process, the learners are expected to become responsible individuals who practice their profession following the rules and ethics that govern their careers (Lennox, 2003). This approach has been successful in meeting the needs of the learners in addition to the curriculum goals and objectives. As a result of the success that it enjoyed during its early days of incorporation, PBL was adopted by other medical programs within and outside McMaster University.
Given the fact that learning is a dynamic process the PBL approach has been modified through research and experience to meet the current learning needs of students. Currently, this approach is applicable not only in the field of medicine but also in other academic fields such as engineering, mathematics, health sciences, business and economics, law and so on. Consequently, this approach has also been incorporated in the K-12 education curriculum in the United States of America (Lennox, 2003).
Distinctive Features of PBL and its Difference with Traditional Teaching Approaches
The PBL approach has developed distinctive features that clearly differentiate it from traditional teaching approaches such as the exam based approach. For instance, the exam based approach is considered as a teacher centred teaching method. The assessment strategies that are used under this approach mainly focus on achieving the goals of the curriculum.
On the other hand, the PBL approach is mainly student centred. Therefore, the learning processes as well as the assessment procedures are geared towards meeting the learning needs of the students in addition to realising the goals and objectives of the curriculum.
Consequently, learning under the traditional approach usually involved a large number of students. In the United States, for instance, a K-12 class usually has an average of approximately 30 students. In a higher education context, the number of students in a given lecture might be over 100. In this context, learning is guided by teachers whose main role is to teach the theory that surrounds a specific topic.
In a PBL approach, the number of learners in a given group is greatly reduced to around 10 students. The small number of students ensures that the resources are utilised in an effective manner as well as enhancing the level of interaction between the tutor and the students and among the students themselves.
Under this approach, the process of learning is facilitated by tutors who use problems as the basis of learning whereby the students are expected to come up with solution to issues that can arise in real life situations. As a result, the students develop problem solving skills in their respective fields of expertise. According to Jenkins (2006), this concept plays a significant role in the cognitive development of the learners.
Application of PBL in Engineering
In Engineering, the PBL approach has developed to become an effective teaching method both in lower level courses as well as senior design classes. Under this approach, assignments are mainly used to achieve design, modelling, and simulation goals while the concept of culmination is used in the process of developing reports and presents for various projects and assignments that form the basis of assessment (Jenkins, 2006).
Most importantly, this approach uses real world problems as the basis of developing the context of learning. These problems can be complex, open ended, or ill-structured. From these considerations, learning engineering under the PBL approach ensured that students develop competent skills and expertise that will enable them to solve real life problems using the latest approaches and techniques.
Various learning processes can be applied under the PBL approach to facilitate learning in a PBL context. First, this teaching method advocates for a learner centred approach. Under this approach, the students have more responsibility in the process of learning since the curriculum has been designed in accordance to their needs. Therefore, their level of participation and interaction greatly enhanced.
The PBL approach also supports the constructivist approach whereby collaborative as well as self-directed learning concepts are used to achieve the learning goals and objectives. Under this approach, the main function of the tutor is to scaffold the students through the process of learning (Jenkins, 2006). Thus, learners are usually presented with a real life problem which they are expected to discuss the theory and possible solution as a group.
However, the students are expected to work individually to develop the findings from the group work which they are to present for further discussion within their group. From this description, it is evident that the learning process under the PBL approach is iterative through feedback and reflection strategies that enable learners to grasp the necessary skills and concepts that will meet the needs and requirements of their careers.
Advantages and Disadvantages of PBL
As compared to the traditional approaches of learning, it is evident that the PBL approach results in better:
- Understanding of the learning content and conceptual knowledge.
- Problem solving capabilities by the students.
- Cognitive development of the students which result in the attainment of a positive attitude towards their professions.
- Communication skills and working as a team in problem solving.
- Application of concepts and skills to solve real life problems
However, the main disadvantage of PBL is the fact that it cannot support learning of a large group of students especially given the fact that the demand of education has been rising with time. Furthermore, the materials and facilities that are required to support this learning approach are usually expensive hence cannot be made available to every student or education program.
Personal Career Goals
As an engineering student, my main goal is to solve the health problems that the world is facing. Through biomedical tactics, I hope to be involved in research that will result in the development of health practices that will enhance the overall health of the society. PBL will thus play a significant role in providing me with real life situation that will act as avenue of developing my skills and expertise.
Consequently, I will learn to work with other professionals as well as pushing my personal competence to the limit in the process of achieving various goals and objectives within my profession. This will ensure that the solutions that will be arrived at will be sustainable in the short run and in the long run.
It is critical for professionals to practice their careers in an effective and efficient manner. Professionals also need to be in a position of solving current problems that they might face in the course of their practice. The PBL approach this prepares students into being competent practitioners in their respective fields by giving them instruction that originate from real life problems and ensuring that the students play a significant role in the development of a solution.
Thus, the PBL approach has come up with a solution to the challenges that traditional teaching approaches were facing in ensuring that students develop the skills and techniques that they will require in order to become competent professionals in their respective practices.
Lennox, B 2003, ‘Teaching Engineering through Problem Based Learning: Case Study’, PBLE, vol. 2 no. 1, pp. 2-55
Jenkins, J 2006, ‘Current Practices on Teaching’, JSTOR, vol. 14 no. 1, pp. 151-187