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Higher Education Research &
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‘There’s a lot of learning going on
but NOT much teaching!’: student
perceptions of Problem‐Based Learning
in science
Coral Pepper

a

a

Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences , University of
Western Australia , Crawley, Australia
Published online: 05 Nov 2010.

To cite this article: Coral Pepper (2010) ‘There’s a lot of learning going on but NOT much
teaching!’: student perceptions of Problem‐Based Learning in science, Higher Education Research &
Development, 29:6, 693-707, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2010.501073
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sgm Higher 10. to implement Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Australia (Received 12 November 2009.au ISSN 0729-4360 print/ISSN 1469-8366 online © 2010 HERDSA DOI: 10. University of Western Australia. Crawley.1080/07294360. a recognised teaching and learning strategy popularised during the 1960s (Barrows & Tamblyn. December 2010. Student feedback offers insight about their reaction to the introduction of PBL and their level of engagement with the strategy.501073 0729-4360 Original Taylor 602010 29 Dr c.edu. Problem-Based Learning. 2003. The data I present outlines the scope of the implementation at six entry-level units for the years 2007 to 2009 and is followed by a qualitative analysis of student responses. Following a brief overview of PBL. Student responses are clustered into eight themes for discussion. No. student feedback Introduction In this paper I describe an initiative begun in 2007. Keywords: continuum. According to SavinBaden (2001) PBL is ‘an approach to learning that is characterised by flexibility and *Email: c.au 000002010 CoralPepper & Education Article Francis (print)/1469-8366 Research &(online) Development In this paper I report on 625 student responses and analyse student perceptions of Problem-Based Learning during their first semester at university. Data presented describe the perceptions of 625 students of the implementation of PBL across six entry-level Faculty units and build on earlier accounts of the implementation.2010.pepper@ecu. 29. 693–707 ‘There’s a lot of learning going on but NOT much teaching!’: student perceptions of Problem-Based Learning in science Coral Pepper* Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.com . Why introduce PBL into the Faculty? Problem-Based Learning.501073 http://www. Despite some tension. into a research intensive Science Faculty at a Western Australian university.1080/07294360.informaworld.pepper@ecu. Eight themes are conceptualised as stretching along a continuum with one end point representing an instrumentalist and superficial response and the opposite end representing a professional and more thoughtful response. final version received 31 May 2010) Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Taylor and Francis CHER_A_501073. is used to engage students in deep rather than surface learning.Higher Education Research & Development Vol. this implementation of Problem-Based Learning into the Science Faculty was. 6. time-consuming and rewarding for the majority of students. The approach is also regarded as a successful strategy to align university courses with the real-life professional work students are expected to undertake on graduation (Biggs.2010. in the main.edu. I outline the scope of the implementation for the years 2007 to 2009. Biggs & Tang. challenging. 2007). 1980). Two implications for science education evident as a result of this study are that the general student response to change is more positive if they are informed and supported when a different teaching and learning strategy is introduced and that many students require training and support to become self-directed learners.

Mennin and Webb (2001) report students feeling discouraged during PBL tasks and finding the group work required problematic. PBL was implemented in the four Schools of the Science Faculty. Such use of a single problem over several weeks is also reported as effective by Hans (2001). 2005) and has been introduced into all of the health sciences. Biology laboratory sessions involved group and individual exercises with students submitting an individual laboratory report weekly. Problems are designed to represent authentic. The Economics unit is a core component of several applied science degrees and annual enrolment numbers range between 60 and 80 students. De Grave. Problem-Based Learning is ‘problem first learning’ (Spencer & Jordan. business. 2003. To emphasise fundamental sciences training in the context of real-world problems in undergraduate degrees. for example. 2009). The Biology unit is a core component of all courses taught across the Faculty. real-world situations. To complete this research I sought answers to the following questions: (1) What did Level 1 students enjoy and not enjoy about PBL? (2) How did Level 1 students engage in deep learning to complete PBL tasks? (3) How did implementing PBL into these units enhance Level 1 students’ perceptions of the learning experience? How was PBL introduced into the Level 1 units? To study the student perception of PBL all Level 1 units that included PBL tasks during 2007. All units involved in the PBL implementation have equal value towards an undergraduate degree. The Geography and Geology units are core components for all Earth and Environmental . Wolfhagen and van der Vleuten (2005) and Schwartz. 2008 and Semester 1. Problem-Based Learning represents a major and widespread change in educational practice within higher education (Dolmans et al. Prior to implementing PBL. Some researchers. 1991). science and education (Boud & Feletti.. 2006). According to researchers (Biggs. Kolmos. Six contact hours are timetabled for students weekly.. with no attempt to redefine the entire curriculum. engineering. with in excess of 300 students enrolled annually. 2007. with both ‘pure’ and ‘hybrid’ models and a variety of forms in between regarded as successful (Dahlgren & Oberg. 2008) there is a greater likelihood of deep learning rather than surface learning due to the alignment of teaching and learning activities. 4).Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 694 C. Approaches to PBL are varied within tertiary institutions. curriculum objectives and assessment tasks when students engage with PBL. Biggs & Tang. Three contact hours are timetabled weekly for these students. Earlier accounts of staff and student perceptions of the PBL implementation are reported in Pepper (2008. Dolmans. were examined. Problem-Based Learning was used as a teaching and learning strategy for part of the curriculum. students taking responsibility for the learning that occurs within their group while instructors monitor and facilitate student learning and students engaging with the learning experience more fully. Pepper diversity in the sense that it can be implemented in a variety of ways in different subjects and disciplines in diverse contexts’ (p. 1999) because it is the problem that defines the learning. Further benefits attributed to PBL include: students deciding on the information and skills they need to investigate issues while building on their current knowledge to synthesise then integrate new information. 2001. which small groups of students work to resolve. Pawson et al. 2009.

one-hour tutorial session followed by a half-day field trip. three-hour laboratory sessions over three weeks. student groups of 6 or 7. one hour tutorial sessions over two weeks. the tasks in 2007 extended over two or more weeks and students were assessed as a group. three triggers (new sets of information) progressively disclosed. I co-coordinated the Ecology unit. of tutors Student training No. Session style Tutor training No. of students No. these unit coordinators elected to refine the PBL task introduced in 2007 and dispense with obtaining PBL feedback in 2008. one problem was presented. These students attend two one-hour lectures and one three-hour laboratory weekly. Students in two units completed more than one PBL task and students in one unit did not receive information about PBL. The uptake of PBL facilitation training differed across the units with two unit coordinators preferring to train the majority of their tutors and students themselves. While PBL was introduced into the Ecology unit in 2007. assessment: group oral presentation Geography Tutorial Yes 6 (proxy**) No 200 93 • three. student groups of 4 or 5. Again. In this unit. To raise the profile and strengthen the implementation of PBL. Due to restructuring and staff changes within the Faculty. student groups of 4 or 6. one-hour tutorials over four weeks. I co-coordinated the Ecology and Terrestrial Ecology units in 2008 (Table 2). **Proxy – 1 or 2 tutors attended training then provided information to others and students. students completed two PBL tasks and were assessed as a group for each task. . Typically. assessment: group poster presentation Geology Tutorial Yes 8 (proxy) No 200 74 • one. All tutors received PBL facilitation training. assessment: group oral presentation Notes: *students completed group feedback. three triggers progressively disclosed. Due to the logistics of managing increasingly large enrolments in Geography and Geology. Student numbers in the Terrestrial Ecology unit range from 45 to 60 as this unit is a core component of several applied science degrees in the Faculty.Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Higher Education Research & Development 695 Science students across the Faculty with enrolment numbers between 150 and 200 annually. All tutors received PBL facilitation training. Table 1. students in groups of 4 or 6. Students in one unit did not receive information about PBL. Unit (Generic) Introduction of PBL into Level 1 ‘units’ in 2007. student groups of 4 to 6. feedback Biology Laboratory Yes 12 No 300 13* • three. one problem presented. assessment: group oral presentation Terrestrial Ecology Tutorial Yes 3 Yes 50 19 • two. In 2008 the tasks extended over two or more weeks with all students assessed as a group and some others also assessed individually. assessment: group oral presentation Economics Tutorial Yes 2 Yes 75 35 • four. Table 1 summarises the design of PBL sessions to the students in the five units during 2007. student responses were not available from the unit coordinator. PBL was discontinued in the Economics unit and the Biology unit coordinator was confident to continue without assistance. one-hour tutorial sessions followed by a full day field trip. Table 3 summarises the presentation of PBL sessions to students in Semester 1 during 2009.

one-hour tutorials over six weeks. five triggers were progressively disclosed. Because students are frequently requested to provide feedback on their perceptions of teaching and unit coordination. . two-hour tutorial sessions over two weeks. feedback Ecology Tutorial Yes 3 Yes 45 71* • two. Unit (Generic) Introduction of PBL into Level 1 ‘units’ in Semester 1. two separate problems. No analysis of student responses to these questions was undertaken. Session style Tutor training No. The first two questions asked students: ‘What was the most important thing you learned in today’s session?’ and ‘What questions do you have from today’s session that remain unanswered?’ Student answers differed depending on the unit they were completing with the majority of responses related to content matter in the respective unit or the questions were left unanswered. feedback Biology Laboratory Yes 12 No 300 121* • four. Students in three randomly selected laboratory classes were also invited to provide individual feedback in 2008 and all others invited to provide group feedback. student groups of 4 or 5. except those in the Biology unit. group poster Notes: * students completed 46 group and 75 individual feedback. individual modelling task. I sought group feedback from three randomly selected laboratory classes in 2007. assessment: two group oral presentations Economics Tutorial Yes 2 Yes 75 40 • six. Due to the large number of Biology students. lab notebook Ecology Tutorial Yes 3 Yes 45 71** • two. assessment: group oral presentation Terrestrial Ecology Tutorial Yes 3 Yes 50 68** • two. student groups of 6 or 7. 2009. five triggers progressively disclosed. two-hour tutorial sessions over four weeks. two-hour tutorial sessions over four weeks. three-hour laboratory sessions over four weeks. Pepper Table 2. assessment: two group oral presentations Note: *students completed more than one task and feedback sheet. student groups of 4 or 5. Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Unit (Generic) Introduction of PBL into Level 1 ‘units’ in 2008. 2-page individual summary. brief and completed in the final 15 minutes of the PBL task. **students completed more than one task and feedback sheet. assessment: group oral presentation. of students No. the questions were few.696 C. assessment: group executive summary. of students No. Question 3 asked students: ‘What are two aspects you enjoyed about the PBL process?’ and the final question asked: ‘What are two aspects you didn’t enjoy about the PBL process?’ While the majority of students participated in only one or two of Table 3. Data collection and analysis of results Students were encouraged to reflect on their learning during the PBL tasks and feedback was sought after the completion of each task. student groups of 4 or 5. were invited to participate and answer four open-ended questions. two separate problems. of tutors Student training No. students in groups of 4 or 5. Session style Tutor training No. All students. two separate problems. of tutors Student training No.

Student responses varied from full paragraphs. 1993). 2001). On my second ‘sweep’ through the data I searched for repetitions of words. I then began open coding to identify emerging themes (Glaser & Strauss. a small number completed several of the units simultaneously so responded in several units. Some of these categories included group work. Across these Level 1 units. & Beaty. 2003).2 280 353 75 708 42. I underlined key phrases in the responses from each unit set then transferred these onto different coloured ‘post-it notes’ which I placed on butchers’ paper. No of responses Q 2007 254 2008 300 2009 71 Total 625 3 4 3 4 3 4 Ecology Biology 129 97 118 75 419 Terrestrial Ecology Econs Geography Geology Total 13 17 146 126 34 36 113 78 61 41 67 52 127 92 140 94 302 261 221 219 234 375 280 455 353 118 75 1656 the units. Guba.7 38. I allocated tentative names to the 11 categories identified according to the phenomena they represented. I began the data analysis process by proofreading and re-reading the data in unit groups. To do this. With the assistance of a colleague. 1967. Analysing text requires several steps such as identifying themes and sub-themes.7 43. Marton. Year Q3 responses % Q4 responses % Total 2007 2008 2009 Total 375 455 118 948 57. 1967). topics and ideas. 2002) I considered each data item individually to ensure ‘each voice’ was heard clearly. After organising then synthesising data. In keeping with accepted practice (Patton. Dall’Alba. content and Table 5. culling themes to a manageable few and linking these into theoretical models (Ryan & Bernard.9 42. Total number (and %) of responses to PBL feedback Questions 3 and 4.8 655 808 193 1656 .3 56. Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Year 697 Unit number of responses to PBL feedback Questions 3 and 4. The breakdown of the number of feedback responses for Question 3 and Question 4 for each unit is listed in Table 4. flexibility. in addition to similarities and differences across the data before regrouping them into categories (Glaser & Strauss. with a total of 1656 data items received.1 57. 625 responses were received after implementing PBL tasks into 10 units over 3 years. 1978.Higher Education Research & Development Table 4. Across each year the number of responses indicating something liked about the PBL task are greater than those indicating something not liked about PBL. This is followed by Table 5.3 61. which illustrates the total number (and percentages) of feedback responses for Questions 3 and 4. meeting people. qualitative researchers locate patterns and identify critical themes emerging from the data before deciding what will be reported to others (Malterud. sentences and dot points through to fragments of phrases.

rather work on my own’ were clustered as ‘working in groups’. ‘not having to do everything myself’. there is minimal qualitative data available in science studies and an absence of material describing the Western Australian setting. while those responses clustered into ‘being self-directed learners’ I positioned at the professional end point. phrases such as: ‘met new friends’ and ‘working with mates. ‘working at our own pace’. Student responses that were clustered into ‘missing the point’ I positioned at the instrumentalist end point. I identified eight themes. where surface learning is recognised by student intentions to complete the task quickly with minimum thinking and effort and in deep learning there is a willingness to engage in a task meaningfully and appropriately (Biggs. Some similarity also exists with earlier research that identified six qualitatively different conceptions of learning among students studying at the Open University in Britain (Marton et al. I clustered data with similar or opposite meaning and with a positive or negative orientation. While clearly documenting an audit trail.. For example. Much of the early analysis occurred during a collegiate writers’ retreat. 2003. In this instance I exercised judgement to identify those themes most significant to my research and acknowledge my interest in student comments about their learning (Mischler. Such a conceptualisation has strong links with the descriptions of surface and deep learning. 1986). After further unpicking the themed responses I allocated the themes in order of increasing learning depth along the continuum as illustrated in Figure 1. ‘relying on our own knowledge’ and ‘caused us to learn well and required understanding’ were clustered as ‘being self-directed learners’. ‘different ideas from different people’. Similarly. . with one end point representing an instrumentalist and superficial response and the opposite end representing a professional and more thoughtful response. By repeating this process and sorting then re-sorting the data into groups of attributes that appeared to fit together. I identified phrases describing student perceptions of task assessment (oral presentation. While copious research about PBL exists. nervousness) as ‘assessing the task’. posters. ‘three weeks off labs’ and ‘having to work on the weekend’ were clustered as ‘missing the point’. 1993). ‘working on contemporary highly debated topic’ and ‘completing feedback sheets’ were clustered as ‘completing the task’ and phrases such as ‘self-learning’. To identify the eight themes. To place the eight themes in perspective I conceptualised them as stretching along a continuum. During each stage of the process I also consulted with a colleague assisting on the project. 2007). ‘exchanging different views of thinking’ and ‘others unwilling to accept as much of my input as I’d have liked’ were clustered as ‘sharing ideas’ and ‘the wet weather’.Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 698 C. ‘people not finishing on time’ and ‘sharing the task’ were clustered together as ‘splitting the workload’. where I described and discussed the process with other academics. Pepper self-directed learning. How did the students perceive Problem-Based Learning? To answer the first research question: ‘What did Level 1 students like and dislike about PBL?’ the responses to Questions 3 and 4 are presented separately. public speaking. It is important to acknowledge that the student feedback was obtained from three separate student cohorts over the years 2007 to 2009. Figure 1. Problem-based learning continuum. 1993). phrases such as ‘researching new information’. I remain aware that there is no single set of correct themes as the data may be viewed in numerous ways (Dey. ‘how to find resources’ and ‘new materials’ were grouped as ‘learning new information’. Biggs & Tang.

2) 375 – 154 (33.7) 100 . Theme identified in responses 2007 n (%) 2008 n (%) 2009 n (%) Missing the point Working in groups Splitting the workload Completing the task Assessing the task Learning new information Sharing ideas Being self-directed learners Total – 119 (31.2%). This theme is ranked first across the three cohorts (with 31.4) (7. Although the majority of students listed two aspects they enjoyed about PBL several listed one or none.7) (8. In 2007. 22.5) 16 (4.7) 49 (10.8) 85 (22. Working in groups to get to know new people. Thematic responses to PBL feedback Question 3 (2007–2009).2) (5.8) 44 (37.6% of student respondents identified elements of the theme completing the task as enjoyable.6) 13 (3.6) 43 (9.2) 4 (3. students in 2009 identified sharing ideas (21.8) (33.7) 30 (6. 33. 699 Problem-based learning continuum.7) 29 (7.7.3) 71 (18. followed equally by learning new information and assessing the task (11%). respectively).4) 110 (24. Students in 2008 identified elements of the sharing ideas theme as enjoyable (24.9) 42 (11. In their feedback across the three years students consistently report they enjoyed working in groups to complete PBL tasks.2%). followed by completing the task (10. Similarly.2) 34 (7. What aspects did students enjoy about the PBL process? Student responses varied and are summarised in Table 6.7%).Higher Education Research & Development Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Figure 1. Typical student responses grouped into this theme include: Great group enjoyed PBL without any concerns.2% reported across the years 2007–2009.4) 10 (8.9) 118 Total n (%) (0. Loved working in a group.6) (21. Table 6.5) 455 1(0.9 and 37.9%) and being self-directed learners (11.2) (15. Working in a group to achieve goals.9) 35 (7.2) 7 (5. followed by sharing ideas (18.4) 13 (11) 13 (11) 25 (21.9) (7.2%) as an enjoyable element of completing PBL tasks.

5) (20.700 C.7%). 2003).3) 37 (13.1) (2.3% reported across the years 2007. completing the task (15. 2008 and 2009. The themes identified appear in Table 7. In 2007. respectively).3) 45 (12. the ranking is slightly altered. Across the units the theme that students commonly identify they did not enjoy is being self-directed learners to complete the PBL tasks (41.3) 16 (21.7) 11 (3.3%). Theme identified in responses Missing the point Working in groups Splitting the workload Completing the task Assessing the task Learning new information Sharing ideas Being self-directed learners Total 2007 n (%) 11 (4) 45 (16) 9 (3. Thematic responses to PBL feedback Question 4 (2007–2009). Being self-directed learners is ranked fourth in 2007 and fifth in both 2008 and 2009. 27. Data obtained from 2009 feedback indicates student Table 7.2 and 21.7) 2 (2.2%) and being self-directed learners (8.3) 1 (1. being self-directed learners (32. Across the three cohorts.3) 25 (33. necessitated the theme missing the point though this theme was largely absent in later years.8) (1.4. 19.3) 1 (1.2) 8 (2. completing the task (22.9) (5.7%). Too much time is wasted trying to interpret the question with not enough left to develop the content. Comments unrelated to the PBL tasks. these responses were diverse and were also categorised into themes (Ryan & Bernard.8) – 116 (41.3) 26 (7.7) 13 (17.3) 75 Total n (%) (1. Students in 2008. for example referring to the weather and weekend field trips. Useless if you have no idea in the first place. Typical student responses grouped into this theme include: If you ask a vague question.1) 96 (27. identified elements they did not enjoy in the themes working in groups (24. followed by working in groups (16%) and assessing the task (13.3%) and assessing the task (12. Nevertheless.4) 79 (22.7) (32. Across the cohorts.3% of students identified elements of the theme completing the task as aspects they did not enjoy.2%) is ranked first of the themes identified among the themes of aspects of PBL that the students did not enjoy.2) (20. Pepper Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Sharing ideas was ranked third in 2007 and second in both 2008 and 2009. with working in groups followed by sharing ideas (21.4) 280 2008 n (%) 2009 n (%) – 86 (24.2) 54 (19.6) (15.2%). Not knowing if what I was doing was right. expect vague answers.7%) What aspects did students not enjoy about the PBL process? Many students did not answer this question and several who responded did not offer two aspects.2) 100 .1) 11 (3.2) 353 – 17 (22.

7% for Question 4 so. 21.8% responses. Across the cohorts. there was a shift in Question 3 responses towards sharing ideas and away from this theme among the Question 4 responses. students enjoyed sharing ideas. . Of the total responses. How did Level 1 students engage in deep learning to complete PBL tasks? To answer the second research question and obtain student perceptions of their engagement in deep learning I focused on student responses within the themes towards the professional/deep learning end of the continuum (being independent learners. the percentage of students who reported they enjoyed being self-directed learners decreased over the three years. student independence and deeper learning as elements they enjoyed. Some people took the opportunity not to work. sharing ideas. accordingly. the majority of students did not identify being selfdirected learners as enjoyable. in the main. 8. Instead. Also interesting is the low incidence of feedback on sharing ideas across the three cohorts (1. This is interesting because working in groups was rated most frequently as enjoyable by the students when answering Question 3 and yet across the three years many students did not enjoy working in groups or commented negatively on group issues when answering Question 4.3%).6%).9%) is followed by completing the task (20. Student responses categorised into the learning new information theme differed between Question 3 and Question 4 with 7. Can be innovative and find own way which is rewarding. learning new information). Time wasted because some team members didn’t initially take the task seriously. with a lack of direction and the progressive disclosure of triggers elements they did not appreciate. For example. often more than I was supposed to.7% were categorised in the theme sharing ideas in response to Question 3 and 1. Of the total responses.3%) followed by working in groups (22.7% were categorised in the theme being self-directed learners in response to Question 3 and 32. working in groups (20. Clearly. the ranking is slightly different and after being self-directed learners.7%) given that this theme was reported the second highest in response to Question 3. Student responses categorised into being self-directed learners generally identified a sense of achievement. Typical student responses include: Achievement: Learnt lots while researching. as did the percentage of students who did not enjoy being self-directed learners. We felt a great sense of achievement when finding solutions to some more difficult genetic problems. Interestingly. student responses to Question 4 categorised as working in groups include: Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Some members made little effort to meet agreed to deadlines.Higher Education Research & Development 701 dissatisfaction with elements of the theme assessing the task (33.7%) and being self-directed learners (21.2% for Question 4.6% and 2.

You get a chance to learn everything in a different way. prefer all up front. Being given different aspects at different times.702 C. Sharing information is easier to understand than reading off government reports. with disagreements and repetition as the elements which were not appreciated. Generating your own learning. . and valuing others’ perceptions as elements they enjoyed. Enjoyed not just being told what to do but working it out for ourselves. Pepper Independence: We had to come up with a way of doing it without having to follow precise instructions. with little outside help. Typical student responses include: Collaboration: Group discussions being able to voice opinions and talk out problems. It allows you to develop a deep personal understanding of the topic. Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Deeper learning: Sharing information meant we could go to greater depth for greater understanding. Delayed triggers. Student responses categorised into sharing ideas generally identified collaboration. The group discussions were very good at getting us to work together. Satisfaction of working things out for myself. Too wishy-washy with no real aim or goal. Groups could solve problems independently. Lack of direction: Lack of direction at the beginning. There’s a lot of learning going on but NOT much teaching! Progressive disclosure of triggers: Not knowing direction of assignments and receiving information bit by bit. Having to think so much for myself.

Different views on an issue expressed through discussion. when answering Question 4. See issue from other peoples’ perspective. while group work is beneficial to students in their first semester at university. such opportunities are not exclusive to PBL. Clash of ideas.9%).2%) than the percentage who responded they disliked completing the task (20.Higher Education Research & Development 703 Valuing others’ perceptions: Seeing everyone’s interpretation approach to the problem. Student feedback indicates that a smaller percentage of respondents liked completing the task (15. Clearly students enjoy sharing perspectives.2%) indicate their dislike of this approach. opinions and learning the views of their peers. How did implementing PBL into these units enhance Level 1 students’ perceptions of the learning experience? To answer the third research question and to obtain student perceptions of their (enhanced) learning experience I focused on the four highest ranked total student responses presented in Table 6 and Table 7. presumably different students report their dislike of working in groups (20.7% of respondents) offered feedback categorised as sharing ideas in answer to Question 3 compared with 12 students (1. Bringing together different opinions and answers to a problem. Students are less enamoured with being self-directed learners. in the main.4%) when answering Question 3. However. although the number of student responses for each was similar. 228 students (32. In this category. As commented previously. students consistently report they enjoyed working in groups (33. Of course. Student responses in sharing ideas and being independent learners are of particular interest.4%) who responded in this category in answer to Question 4. student semester results were similar to the results achieved in cohorts prior to implementing PBL.6%). Some group members unwilling to accept as much of my input as I’d like. Thus. anecdotally. while 83 (8. Discussion All students were encouraged to reflect on their learning throughout the PBL process and most were aware that their feedback would be sought on completion of the task. It is important to note that. Disagreement/repetition: Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Information disagreeing with each other. More than 200 students (21. . students enjoy the social activity of working in groups and sharing ideas but they do not perceive their learning experience enhanced when being self-directed learners. Repetition of discussion.7%) offer feedback indicating their liking for being self-directed learners.

Pawson et al. an equivalent number of students both enjoyed and did not enjoy completing the tasks across the study. perhaps including the degree of prior information disclosed to the student classes. Numerous student comments from this group reflected negatively on a perceived lack of direction in addition to a sense of bewilderment and uncertainly while completing tasks. While most unit coordinators welcomed training for themselves and their tutors. particularly while on field trips and in tutorials.Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 704 C. 2003. On the one hand. 2003). frustration and even anger as they adapt (King. or any other change. Tensions are evident in the student responses within the themes completing the task and assessing the task. such as confusion. workshops. Such tensions may be explained due to a number of factors. 2006. At first glance it appears that more students indicate that they did not enjoy completing the task. it is not unusual for participants to experience a range of emotions. They appreciated being able to work at a pace of their own choosing and with time for group pondering and discussion. one third of student responses to Question 4 indicate students did not enjoy being self-directed learners and less than 10% of student responses indicate they enjoyed being selfdirected learners in answering Question 3. In contrast. 2006.. According to these authors it is vital that students receive guidance about how and why they are expected to work in new ways. different students felt abandoned and resented the need to meet out of scheduled class time. On the other hand. field trips and laboratory sessions. more students directed their comments relating to what they did and did not enjoy about the tasks towards the instrumentalist end point of the PBL learning continuum. across this study. individuals question teaching practice. However. Shelton & Smith.. Nevertheless. As a result the majority of students in 2007 did not receive explicit PBL information and instead received ‘snippets’ of information or no information at all from their tutors before their first PBL task. is evident across student perceptions of PBL in Science. This approach is in keeping with the view that it is vital that students receive guidance about how and why they are expected to work in new ways and prior reassurance that completing PBL tasks may find them working initially on unstructured and challenging tasks (Biggs. Generally. Disappointingly. curricular materials and collegial ways of working (Biggs. all students in three of the four classes introduced to PBL in 2008 and all students in 2009 received explicit information about the purpose. such feedback is dispiriting and worthy of further investigation. In the early stages of implementing PBL. Typically. This may partly explain the high percentage of student responses indicating they did not enjoy the PBL . All student responses were collected immediately after student presentations. 2006). which included tutorials. both within and between students. the strategy and the possibility of their mixed reactions prior to their first encounter with PBL tasks. some students enjoyed the freedom and flexibility offered by PBL. Tension. some were unwilling to allow their students this same opportunity. the level of commitment to the implementation demonstrated by each unit coordinator and the quality of group facilitation that occurred in each setting. Given that PBL was implemented as a teaching and learning strategy to engage students in deep learning. Several suggestions that the PBL tasks distracted students from other assignments and required more effort than students believed necessary were noted. Pawson et al. it is still likely that introducing PBL tasks to this group of students caused some angst among those who lacked confidence in decision making. prior to students receiving teacher feedback and formal assessment. Pepper Differences in the implementation of PBL across the Faculty occurred due to the variety of class settings. 1998).

more positive comments were noted than in the feedback for tasks which involved large student numbers. Duch. Students frequently highlight their uncertainty about completing the task to an appropriate standard. as an effective means of delivering their conclusions and in developing their presentation skills. including workshops. Watson and White (n. They frequently voice their resentment of oral presentations to assess their work and their restricted experience of public speaking. where students were introduced to the dynamics of group processes and supported to complete group work. sharing new knowledge with others in their team. finding the tasks challenging and enjoyable simultaneously and moving from their comfort zone. Anecdotally. Conclusion Implementing PBL across a number of Level 1 units delivered by this Science Faculty was challenging. Within a variety of teaching settings. different tutor backgrounds and different levels of training resulted in some tutors being better prepared for PBL group facilitation than others. For example. students were exposed to a range of PBL tasks and their perceptions of PBL in Science were. roughly one fifth of students across the years. In contrast. time consuming and rewarding for the majority of students (and academics) involved. numerous tutors and field trips. By this the authors suggest that facilitators are skilled people able to create conditions within which other human beings can select and direct their own learning and development. in the main. unit coordinators indicate that while group assignment results were higher than usual. Further tensions are evident in the student responses. & Jensen. facilitation means ‘drawing out the wisdom already embedded and lying dormant in the psyche of the learner’ (Kolmos. p.d. Holgaard. Tension is perhaps more probable due to the varied interpretations of group work by the students and group facilitation by the teachers and their tutors.Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 Higher Education Research & Development 705 assessment. The power of working collaboratively fosters strong communication and interpersonal skills while harnessing the power of different thinking and learning styles according to Allen. numerous students acknowledge a sense of achievement in working out solutions independently of teachers. tutorials. in all unit data sets more than one third of students indicate enjoyment of working in groups. 10. there were instances in this implementation where training was avoided. In this study. student semester results were unaffected by the introduction of PBL tasks into these units. For example. While the value and significance of facilitation training was constantly emphasised in my discussions with unit coordinators. which I . Interestingly. field trips and laboratory classes. 2008). the professional end point. in the units with fewer student numbers. Consequently. At the instrumentalist end point of the continuum I placed themes such as working in groups and splitting the workload. other students express appreciation for the oral presentations. At the opposite end of the continuum. did not enjoy working in groups. the quality of facilitation skills differed among the unit coordinators and tutors. in place of written reports. positive. Individual preferences for alternative learning styles could account for these different responses from students. see also Kolmos. 2008. According to Danish researchers. Groh. in answer to Question 4. Feedback from some of the larger classes indicates student resentment that tutors did not offer encouragement or support to complete the tasks.). Student feedback was obtained on completion of each PBL task and categorised into one of eight themes perceived as existing along a PBL learning continuum. However. Du.

. across the three years of the study and the six different units into which PBL was implemented more students identified elements they enjoyed about PBL than students who identified elements they did not enjoy.B. Implementing change is difficult and for this reason all students must receive guidance about how and why they are expected to work in new ways. Student perceptions of PBL in Science varied. 41(3). New York: Aldine. This response is disturbing given the major driver to implementing PBL was to deepen student learning and better engage students in their own learning. Hopefully with further PBL experiences student familiarity with the strategy will strengthen so they become more confident self-directed learners. & van der Vleuten.. C. & Tang. 263–282. H. E. (Eds. D. Qualitative data analysis: A user-friendly guide for social scientists.P. Teaching for quality learning at university. Berkshire. London: Routledge Kegan Paul. G. M. I.H.B.S.. enjoy the social activity of group work to share different perspectives and understandings but they do not perceive their learning enhanced when the learning is self-directed. feedback clearly indicates that many students are uncomfortable when uncertain about perceived changes to the traditional teaching and learning process. J. G. Duch. sharing ideas and completing the task. (1993). deeper responses. Higher Education. (1980).. Glaser. 732–741. & Tamblyn. D.Downloaded by [Universiti Sains Malaysia] at 03:06 28 February 2014 706 C.E. Dolmans. (2005). the largest number of student responses..cur. (2003). C.. student feedback indicates the learning experience was enhanced through working in groups (though this is not limited to PBL) and in sharing ideas. & Strauss. H. Teaching for quality learning at university. De Grave. Several lessons were learnt from this initiative and two significant improvements should be factored into future planning if the implementation is to become embedded within these Level 1 units. While numerous students enjoyed working in groups. . B. Secondly. Boud. Students. Biggs. Dahlgren. Dey.asp Barrrows.E.. A. Wolfhagen. 2007. Pepper considered representative of more thoughtful.. S. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. 39(7). R.. Groh. (2001). Biggs. Berkshire. UK: Open University Press. The challenge of problem-based learning.. were classified as being self-directed learners. Interestingly. D. (n.) Scaling up researchbased education for undergraduates: Problem-based learning. I placed the themes being self-directed learners and sharing ideas. implementing PBL requires a clear understanding of group processes and strong facilitation skills from teachers. it seems. Problembased learning: Future challenges for educational practice and research. New York: Springer. from http://www. & White.M. Retrieved 10 January. Watson. Reassuringly. (1991). Firstly. Questioning to learn and learning to question: Structure and function of problem-based learning scenarios in environmental science education. W. & Feletti.G. G. References Allen. UK: Open University Press. Such knowledge is empowering for tertiary students.J. & Oberg. (2007). (1967).. when asked what they did not enjoy about PBL. Some tension was evident in student responses. B.org/publications/aire_raire/delaware. The challenge for academics is clearly to find the right balance between facilitating self-directed learning among students while stepping aside from the instruction process. J. Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. London: Kogan Page.d.). Medical Education.H. On a more positive note.. many did not enjoy working in groups and completing the task.

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