September 2, 2014

How problem-based learning can help develop innovation skills

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© CTLT, UBC, 2013

© PBL Math, CTLT, UBC, 2013

Hoidn, S. and Kärkkäinen, K. (2014) Promoting Skills for Innovation in Higher Education A Literature Review on the Effectiveness of Problem-based Learning and of Teaching Behaviours Paris: OECD Education Working Papers, No. 100, OECD Publishing.

In a previous post, I discussed a report from the OECD that showed in a broad way the relationship between different pedagogies and the kinds of thinking associated with innovation. In particular it suggested that:

the emphasis of programmes on practical knowledge, on student-led projects and on problem-based learning are reflected in the level of creative skills, of oral communication skills and of teamwork and leadership skills of students.

Here I look at a second paper that explores in more detail the relationship between problem-based learning and skills found among innovators. In particular:

This report … reviews the current evidence on the effectiveness of problem-based learning compared with more traditional approaches in higher education teaching [and] explores the extent to which problem-based learning can be an effective way to develop different discipline-specific and transferable skills for innovation. 

Main results

  • Research, primarily from the field of medicine, shows that problem-based learning appears to be beneficial in fostering certain aspects of skills for innovation.
  • [In particular] …problem-based learning appears to be beneficial in fostering long-term retention and knowledge application, developing thinking and creativity skills, as well as social and behavioural skills (e.g. problem-solving, critical thinking, motivation, self confidence, team work).
  • By contrast, no clear difference between problem-based learning and traditional lecture-based teaching emerges as to performance in tests.
  • The benefits of PBL over traditional approaches seem to become more visible when examining higher education students’ long-term retention of knowledge. While PBL students may be slightly inferior to traditional students in overall knowledge and competence, they appear to be superior in long-term recall and retention.
  • Students in PBL appear to employ more productive approaches to study, have better interpersonal skills and appear to be more motivated than students in more traditional higher education programmes.
  • Despite the promising evidence linking problem-based learning and effective teaching in higher education to certain aspects of skills for innovation, more work is needed in this area. In reality there is no dichotomy between problem-based learning and “traditional” teaching and learning approaches  - policymakers and practitioners would benefit from a better understanding about which specific practices are effective for fostering different skill sets.
  • Faculty plays a pivotal role in enhancing student learning. Instructors can be trained to apply certain instructional behaviours that have been shown to be effective or to use student-centred forms of teaching and learning such as PBL and other methods that facilitate deep approaches to learning. Faculty can learn to give clear explanations and prompt feedback, present well-organised materials, ask students challenging questions, encourage student participation in the classroom and show concern and respect for students and student learning.

Implications for online learning

Although this paper does not discuss online learning or technology-based approaches to PBL, online learning can provide more flexibility and opportunities for problem-based learning, although to date, where problem-based learning and online learning have been combined, it is usually in a hybrid model. A common design is for students to gather in class for the definition of the problem, and instruction on the key steps to be taken, then to work collaboratively in small groups online on problem solution, returning to class for presentation and discussion of each group’s conclusions. However, there are also examples of fully online courses using a problem-based or inquiry-based learning approach.

In either hybrid or online learning modes, though, it is critical to give clear guidelines and structured steps to be taken to solving problems, especially for students who are new to this teaching approach. It is also important to ensure that assessment actually measures skills in problem-solving and critical thinking, and is not just a test of comprehension. Once again, it is not so much the mode of learning that matters as the quality of the teaching methods and assessment within that mode.

Comment

The study provides a pretty good overview of new developments in teaching in higher education, and where some of them are taking place. Indeed the paper recognizes that PBL started at MacMaster University in Canada in the 1960s. As the report notes:

[At that time] medical students lacked clinical reasoning, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. There was concern that medical schools put a too heavy emphasis on memorisation of potentially irrelevant or soon-to-be-outdated facts instead of skills necessary to practice medicine. At the same time, medical students themselves seemed to be disenchanted and bored with their education because they had to absorb vast amounts of information of which much was perceived to have little relevance to medical practice.

The paper is worth reading, not so much for its conclusions, which are not startling, but because it provides an excellent summary on the research on how students learn at a higher education level, and the implications for the training of faculty. In essence, problem-based learning is valuable but depends on the learner having sufficient ‘foundational’ knowledge to enable them to tackle problems. This foundational learning may benefit from more traditional or formal approaches to teaching. The main value though of the paper is that it provides evidence-based guidelines for effective teaching.

 

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