Case Study: Introducing problem-based learning

Origin

Department of Electrical & Electronic Engineering
Faculty of Engineering
University of Bristol

Tools used

Contact

Hanrahan Highland, Han.Highland@bristol.ac.uk

Objectives

  • Promote active learning and deeper understanding of the taught material
  • Develop desirable transferable skills in students, including
    • Problem solving
    • Team working
    • Time management
    • Communication and negotiation

Background

The department wanted to give their students greater opportunity to develop transferable skills and more practical experience of real-world engineering problems, in order to better prepare them for employment post-graduation. They were also keen to discourage the “learn for the exam” approach, fostering instead a deeper understanding of the subject.

What was done

In conjunction with the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and alongside two other E&EE departments (in University College London and the University of Manchester), PBL was introduced as part of one second-year unit, and then an entire third-year unit was converted to PBL. This required writing problems to cover the relevant learning outcomes, and arranging group facilitation sessions for the students. The changes were initially introduced without altering the assessment method (a single terminal exam) for each unit; later, the fully PBL unit introduced an element of continuous assessment of the problems, incorporating peer- and self-assessment.

Outcomes

Bristol’s internal evaluations, as well as an independent evaluation report by the University of Glasgow, showed that the students benefited from engaging in a deep and reflective learning process, which had a positive effect on their assessment results. Furthermore, they developed valuable transferable skills, which they saw as enhancing their employment prospects – a view that was reinforced by feedback from employers. However, their unfamiliarity with the PBL approach, combined with its use in only two units, meant that they were initially somewhat insecure about the learning process.