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Problem Based Learning in the Educational System of Cyprus

Dr Philippos Pouyioutas
Vice Rector
Mr Emilios Solomou
Campus Director
Dr Christina Ioannou

University of Nicosia/Intercollege

EUCLIDES – Enhancing the Use of Cooperative Learning to Increase Development of Science studies
Grant Agreement 2007-3434/001-001
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use
which may be made of the information contained therein.
“The amount of knowledge (in every field) is increasing and the rate at which it is
increasing is accelerating. Students cannot learn all the material, but they can learn
how to learn the material. This is an important step in helping students become self-
directed learners. In problem-based learning students learn to be self-directed,
independent and interdependent learners motivated to solve a problem”
(Kiley, Mullins, Peterson and Rogers, 2000).

This paper describes the findings of the research on problem-based learning in the
Educational System of Cyprus. The research was conducted for all levels of the
Educational System and was carried out through: (a) Literature review from hard-
copy and on-line resources (through the Internet) (b) Study of the educational
curriculum of the programmes of study of the Primary and Pre-primary Education of
the 5 Universities in Cyprus offering these programmes (c) Interviews with selected
teachers of primary and secondary education of state and private schools in Cyprus
(d) Interviews with selected professors of the Education Department of the University
of Nicosia (e) Interviews with selected professors of various disciplines of the
University of Nicosia (f) The completion of questionnaires, which were sent to a
number of schools in Cyprus. Based on the findings of this research various
recommendations are made.
1. Introduction

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a total approach to education that challenges students to
learn through an active engagement in real life problems. It was first used as a pedagogical
approach in the 1960’s at McMaster University Medical School (Ontario, Canada), in an
attempt to restructure medical school education and enable students to apply their scientific
knowledge to clinical problems. Today, PBL is used extensively in elementary, secondary and
tertiary education institutions worldwide, and has also been adopted in various fields of
professional training, such as nursing, engineering and architecture, among many others.

The key characteristics of PBL are that it involves team work and communication skills, a
problem-solving capacity, critical, analytical and creative, as well as individual research.
According to Wood, “group learning thinking facilitates not only the acquisition of knowledge
but also several other desirable attributes, such as communication skills, teamwork,
problem solving, independent responsibility for learning, sharing information, and respect
for others. PBL can therefore be thought of as a small, group- teaching method that
combines the acquisition of knowledge with the development of generic skills and attitudes”
(Wood, 2003).

Regardless of the discipline, PBL is a method that basically challenges students to think; it
triggers their curiosity and their interest and engages them in a process of problem-solving
that involves experiential learning, through the utilization of genuine experiences. Students
then become “engaged problem solvers” (Torp and Sage, 2002). They are able to identify
the root of the problem and the conditions that are needed in order to find a good solution
to it, thus becoming self-directed learners. Meanwhile, teachers / instructors become
problem-solving colleagues or cognitive coaches, who build a learning environment that is
receiving of open inquiry, and also provide enthusiasm for the students (Torp and Sage,
2002). “Throughout the process the tutor acts as a facilitator rather than a teacher. Instead
of providing answers the tutor encourages useful lines of questioning and, where necessary,
provides some problem solving structure” (Kiley, Mullins, Peterson and Rogers, 2000).

It ought to be emphasized that PBL is based upon resolving problems that are encountered
in everyday life. As Merrill explains, in the PBL process, guidance is provided by the
instructor at the early stages, and later, as learners gain expertise and become more
confident, this guidance is gradually faded (Merrill, 2002). PBL can be more effective if
students are first introduced to simple problems, and are then gradually given more
complex problems, where elements are added to make them more realistic (Merrill, 2002,
2007). Sweller described this as the “guidance-fading effect” (Sweller, 2006). He proposed
cognitive load theory in an attempt to explain how a learner reacts to problem solving at the
early stages of learning, and suggested that at these early stages worked examples should
be offered; gradually, as learners gained experience and expertise, actual problems should
be given to them to solve (Sweller, 1988).

The rest of this paper is organized as follows. In Section 2 we introduce the constructive
perspective to problem-based learning. In Section we present a practical approach to
problem-based learning. In Section 4 we present a short analysis of the advantages and
disadvantages of problem-based learning. In section 5 we present the result of our research
with regards to the use of problem-based learning in the Educational System of Cyprus.
Finally in Conclusion we present a list of recommendations for the use of this technique.

2. The Constructivist Perspective to Problem-Based Learning: The ‘Construction’ of

From the constructivist philosophical perspective, PBL is very important, as it is advocated
that knowledge is something that is gradually constructed. “Constructivism assumes that
‘knowledge’ is not an absolute, but is ‘constructed’ by the learner based on previous
knowledge and overall views of the world. Thus, the opportunity to find knowledge for
oneself, contrast one’s understanding of that knowledge with others’ understanding, and
refine or restructure knowledge as more relevant experience is gained, (all of which are
done by students in PBL curricula), seems to harness the reality of learning” (Camp, 1996).

Savery and Duffy identify three primary constructivist principles (Savery and Duffy, 1995):
(i) Understanding comes from our interactions with our environment
(ii) Cognitive conflict stimulates learning
(iii) Knowledge evolves through social negotiation and evaluation of the viability of
individual understandings.

The constructivist view is in line with the idea that the instructor’s role should be to provide
guidance, rather than provide knowledge. Therefore, the continuous process of interaction
and discussion that is embedded in PBL is consistent with constructivism.
3. The Problem-Based Learning Tutorial Process: A Practical Approach

There are numerous ways in which PBL tutorials can be conducted. A very popular one is
the Maastricht “seven jump” process, which consists of seven steps. The Maastricht “seven
jump” process is clearly described by Wood (2003), as follows:
PBL Tutorial Process

Step 1 – Identify and clarify unfamiliar terms presented in the scenario; scribe
lists those that remain unexplained after discussion
Step 2 – Define the problem or problems to be discussed; students may have
different views on the issues, but all should be considered; scribe records a list
of agreed problems
Step 3 – “Brainstorming” session to discuss the problem(s), suggesting possible
explanations on basis of prior knowledge; students draw on each other’s
knowledge and identify areas of incomplete knowledge; scribe records all
Step 4 – Review steps 2 and 3 and arrange explanations into tentative solutions;
scribe organises the explanations and restructures if necessary
Step 5 – Formulate learning objectives; group reaches consensus on the learning
objectives; tutor ensures learning objectives are focused, achievable,
comprehensive, and appropriate
Step 6 – Private Study (all students gather information related to each learning
Step 7 – Group shares results of private study (students identify their learning
resources and share their results); tutor checks learning and may assess the

Another way of using PBL is suggested by Mills (2008). This consists of a five-stage process,
as follows:
o Appoint chairperson and notetaker. Discuss first reactions to trigger provided
by tutor.
o What sense does the group make of the trigger?
o What possible research problems lead from the trigger? List them.
STAGE 2: ANALYSIS (30 mins)
o ‘Brainstorm’ these possible research problems.
o What explanations or interpretations are there in the group about these
o Which explanation/interpretations seem most useful and why?
o Formulate the key research problem /hypothesis for investigation
o What further knowledge does the group need to explore this problem?
o Define three specific research tasks to be completed. Divide up tasks.
o Agree on how the group will work together during the week - e.g. email
STAGE 4: RESEARCH (Set a limit to time for independent work, e.g. three hours)
o Acquire knowledge in relation to research questions
o Group or individual research over the week, limited to 3 hours
o Complete task e.g. preparation of an annotated bibliography of material
related to the problem for the other groups.
STAGE 5: SYNTHESIS (In a second session, usually 1-2 hours long)
o Review the newly acquired knowledge within the group.
o Pool findings - do they help an understanding of the research problem?
o Final group response to the trigger.
o Reflections on the learning process

4. Advantages and Disadvantages of Problem-Based Learning: An Analysis

One of the disadvantages that has been reported in relation to the PBL process is that it is a
very different teaching process to the one that students have already received and, as a
result, it can be stressful and disorientating (Mills, 2008). The fact that students are no
longer given the answers can require a change in their attitude and mind-set, and so it is
better if it is introduced in a student’s first year on a course (Mills, 2008).

The PBL approach, however, has numerous advantages. First of all, it promotes the
development of life-long learning skills. These include, among others, communication and
interaction skills, research skills, as well as the ability to handle problems and work in
groups. The fact that PBL challenges students to learn through active engagement in real
life problems makes students retain the knowledge they gain for much longer. The process
of experiential learning that students engage in, also allows them to reflect on their very
own thinking process, and this makes them understand the problem better since they are
more dynamically involved in the problem-solving procedure. All of these aforementioned
effects of PBL contribute towards raising the motivation of students and gaining more
interest in their subject matter.

Overall, the PBL process can be a very useful pedagogical approach, with many beneficial
effects for the students. As already outlined, one of its additional benefits is that it is an
interdisciplinary method of learning. As a result, the deviation from the more traditional
system of learning and the departure from the traditional didactic mentalities that PBL
provides in all fields, make individuals become better practitioners of their professions.

5. Problem Based Learning in the Educational System of Cyprus – The National

As mentioned at the beginning of this report, the research for the integration of problem-
based learning into the educational curriculum of Cyprus was conducted at all levels of the
Educational System of Cyprus through various means such as literature review, interviews
and questionnaires. The main finding of this research is that although problem-based
learning is used in teaching and learning at all levels, this is done in a non formal ad-hoc
way, at the discretion and after the initiative of the teacher/professor. More particularly, the
research findings are summarized below:

1. The Literature review carried out through the consultation of hard-copy and on-line
resources (through the Internet) resulted in NO results. No articles, no case studies,
no reports were found on the use of problem-based learning in teaching and learning
at any level of the Educational System of Cyprus.
2. The study of the educational curriculum of the programmes of study of the Primary
and Pre-primary Education of the 5 Universities in Cyprus offering these programmes
revealed that there is no course in the curriculum dedicated solely to problem-based
learning. However problem-based solving is covered in a course on Modern
Techniques in Teaching and Learning. Thus teachers of primary and pre-primary
education are introduced to the topic during their studies.
3. We interviewed both primary and secondary education teachers. The findings are
given below:
a. The interviews with selected teachers of primary education (primary and pre-
primary education) confirmed the above finding, that is that the students of
the primary and pre-primary education programmes (who subsequently
became teachers) are/were taught the topic of problem-based learning not
through a specific course but through a general course on modern
techniques/methods on teaching and learning. As teachers now, they do
teach the topic through a similar course, and use it in a non-formal ad-hoc
way throughout all their courses. At some point in time the teachers of state
school received some information/seminar on the topic from the Ministry of
Education and Culture.
b. The interviews with selected teachers of secondary education (in various
fields such as History, Geography, Maths, etc.) revealed that although they
were not taught this topic during their university studies, they were taught in
various courses using problem-based learning. They themselves (mainly the
Science teachers) now use this method in an ad-hoc informal way.
4. The interviews with selected professors of the Education Department of the
University of Nicosia confirmed all the above findings (1-3). More specifically, the
professors confirmed that there is no research in Cyprus regarding problem-based
learning and thus no case studies and papers written. They also confirmed that the
primary education and pre-primary education curriculum at the University of Nicosia
and indeed in all other Universities in Cyprus offering these programmes does not
include a dedicated course on problem-based learning. Instead this
method/technique is covered as part of a course on modern teaching/learning
techniques. They themselves use this technique in an ad-hoc informal way in
teaching various courses.
5. The interviews with selected University of Nicosia professors of various other than
education disciplines revealed that problem-based solving is used as well in an ad-
hoc informal way in teaching and learning, mainly in science subjects. Computer
Science, Mathematics, Physics, Biology and Chemistry professors are the ones who
use this method the most. Various Science professors further pointed out that they
use open book exams and tests in many courses in order to test the capability of
students to solve problems rather than testing the memory of students in
reproducing knowledge. This is also a practice in the Law Department.
6. The following experts in Problem-based Learning were interviewed:
• Dr Christos Theophilides, Professor, Department of Education, University of
Nicosia, ex-director of the Educational Commission of Cyprus
• Dr Michalinos Zembylas, Assistant Professor, Department of Education, Open
University of Cyprus
• Mr Emilios Solomou, Campus Director, University of Nicosia, ex-head-master
of the English School, Nicosia Cyprus
The Interviews also confirmed our research findings.
7. The final part of the research was the gathering of information through written
questionnaires/reports from schools. The questionnaire was constructed based on
the one prepared by the project co-ordinator. The questionnaires were sent to 3
private schools of secondary education, namely The American Academy Nicosia, The
G C School of Careers Nicosia and Highgate School, Nicosia. The returned answers
from the 3 school principals basically re-confirmed all the aforementioned findings.

6. Conclusions and Suggestions

Summarizing all the above we could say that Problem-based learning has many advantages
such as: Helps children learn how to learn, Cultivates critical thinking, Creates research-oriented
skills, Makes children think and apply processes, Broadens children’s learning horizons.
However, it is a time consuming process in terms of preparation and teaching, may not easily fit
into the curriculum, may require resources (Equipment/ Material) that are not available and it
may delay the delivery of content.

Problem-based learning has not been introduced and integrated formally and systematically into
the Educational System of Cyprus. It is used however at all levels of Education (from primary to
secondary and to higher education) but mainly by science teachers/professors. There is a
misconception amongst non-science teachers/professors that this method cannot be applied to
their discipline. However, when they were confronted during the interviews they admitted that
they could/should use this method/technique in their courses.

Based on the research and main conclusions we suggest the following:
1. Problem-Based Learning be integrated into the curriculum of primary and pre-primary
education University programmes by introducing a dedicated course on this
2. All teachers of state and private schools of primary and secondary education be trained
annually on problem-based learning.
3. Professors at the universities also be trained on problem-based learning
4. Teachers/professors report annually the teaching/learning activities in which they used
problem-based learning.
5. Teachers/professors be annually “checked” and “inspected” for the use of problem-based
learning in their classes, by the institutional/government quality assurance bodies.
6. Comparison analysis studies be carried out to report on the differences of using and not
using problem-based learning.
7. The Ministry of Education and Culture to encourage and/or to commission experts to
produce material on problem-based learning. This could be subsequently made available
to educators at all levels and cover the theoretical framework but also specific subject

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Dr Christina Ioannou
Lecturer, University of Nicosia