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Applying PBL in Computing Potential and Challenge
Ranald Macdonald
Head of Academic Development
Learning and Teaching Institute
Sheffield Hallam University
“If students are to learn desired outcomes in a
reasonably effective manner, then the teacher’s
fundamental task is to get students to engage in
learning activities that are likely to result in their
achieving those outcomes . . .
It is helpful to remember that what the student
does is actually more important in determining
what is learned than what the teacher does”
(Thomas J. Shuell 1986)
“Constructive alignment”
- aligning objectives, teaching and assessment
- intention of a deep approach to learning.
(Biggs 1999)
“Problem-based learning is thus an approach
to learning that is characterised by flexibility
and diversity in the sense that it can be
implemented in a variety of ways in and across
different disciplines in diverse contexts … what
will be familiar will be the focus of learning
around problem scenarios rather than discrete
(Savin-Baden, 2000)
Key characteristics of PBL
• Learning starts with a problem, question, or
scenario to be investigated
• Self-directed learning in small teams or
• Promotes team work and social skills
• Knowledge/information is acquired to apply to
the solution of problems
• Relates to the ‘real’ world and professional
practice with consequent complexity
• Teachers are facilitators, coaches or guides
What is a problem?
• Understanding a puzzling phenomenon is a
• How to find a better way to do something is a
• The best way to design or build something is
a problem
• How to create an artistic work is a problem
A problem can best be thought of as a goal
where the correct path to its solution is not
Southern Illinois University
School of Medicine
Stages in PBL
Encounter and define the problem
– What do I already know?
– What do I need to know?
– What resources can I make use of?
Access, evaluate and utilise information
Synthesize, report and evaluate
Approaches to curriculum
design for PBL
Full integration across a whole programme
Cross disciplinary
Within a single subject
Single modules/units
Individual class sessions or activities
Mixed approaches
Hybrid systems
Examples of PBL
Medical schools (Hawaii, McMaster, Linköping,
Professions allied to medicine (nursing,
physiotherapy, radiography)
Business and Management (Ohio, Maastricht,
Breda, Plymouth)
Architecture (Melbourne, East London)
Engineering (Monash, Coventry, Stanford,
Law (Sydney, Maastricht)
English (Manchester)
Creating the ill-structured
There is missing information
Each problem is unique – no fixed formula
Choose a relevant scenario
The situation is ‘messy’
With more information the problem changes
There is no single ‘right’ answer – students
make decisions and provide solutions to realworld problems
• Problems need to be engaging, difficult and
On being a coach/facilitator
(D Woods 1996)
In PBL the coach/facilitator brings out the best
from the group by:
• asking leading and open-ended questions
• helping students reflect on the experiences
they are having
• monitoring progress
• challenging their thinking
• raising issues that need to be considered
• stimulating, encouraging and creating and
maintaining a warm, safe atmosphere
The essential feature of a teaching system
designed to emulate professional practice is
that the crucial assessments should be
performance-based, holistic, allowing plenty of
scope for students to input their own decisions
and solutions.
(Kingsland 1995)
What can go wrong!
• Tutors will not give up control and ‘power’
• Students perceive PBL as ‘hard work’ rather
than ‘better learning’
• Clear learning objectives are not agreed by
tutors and problems are poorly thought out
• Assessment still encourages memorisation
and ‘the correct answer’
• No time for independent study or
development of appropriate student skills
• A transmission model of teaching is not
replaced by a learning facilitation one