Learning about PBL at Republic Polytechnic

This year I am on SSP, or special studies leave, which basically means that I have a year to work on my research with no teaching or admin. Luxury, I know.

The first 5 weeks or so I am spending at Republic Polytechnic, learning about the their approach to Problem Based Learning. RP is interesting as their whole curriculum is taught using a PBL approach – but what does this mean? Well, I guess that is what I am here to find out, but a short summary is that they use a student centred learning approach, where the idea is that if students are more actively involved in their learning, directing (with structure) what they need to learn in order to solve a problem, then they will be more engaged and will achieve deeper learning.

In the School of CS, we have recently restructured our first year curriculum around a related student centred learning technique, collaborative learning, which is also used in PBL. I have been integrating more and more opportunities for collaborative learning into my classes over the past few years, as I believe (and not just me) that when students help each other, and teach each other, that they learn more through the deeper application of their knowledge. Our experiences with collaborative learning over the past year, now that it is embedded in several courses, have brought up several questions for me that I am keen to research while I am on SSP – what are the activities that students naturally adopt as collaborative? what do they avoid? what are the best ways to assess collaborative activities? how do you integrate, to the best effect, the non-collaborative activities – how do they complement the learning? what skills do our teaching staff need to best facilitate collaborative learning?

So, in one sense, this is why I am at RP. They have considerable experience in answering these kinds of questions for PBL, and I am sure that I can learn a lot from their experience.

I also have some other questions that I am interested in exploring while I am on SSP, and I hope to be able to discuss these questions with the RP staff as they have also looked at similar areas. One is looking at student perceptions on learning strategies and learning preferences. There have been many studies looking at students perceptions of how they learn, using self-reporting surveys, aiming to identify any correlations with learning style and student success. Although these studies demonstrate mixed results – most identify low correlation, while some identify high – I am interested in observing student’s learning in collaborative sessions, to see how close the self-reported learning styles are to what the students exhibit, and to then see whether the accuracy of the self-reporting has a correlation with student success. In other words – if a student has a good understanding of their learning style, does that mean that they can best utilise it to achieve success. The obvious follow on from this, is whether, if we encourage students to reflect on their own learning styles, whether they are able to improve their understanding and also success. And then we have the question – are students who naturally have a good understanding of how they learn just more effective learners anyway…. so a lot to think about there.

At RP, some recent work looked at a similar area – i.e. whether the observed learning style better matched student success, and questioned whether the assessment tools that we generally use for students are useful for assessing the efficacy of the learning style. I.e. do they assess whether students are able to approach a problem in the right way, and whether they can solve a problem, or do they assess retention of knowledge. This is an interesting question, and that several others have already looked at – I’ll need to read more on this, and appropriate assessment during my SSP.

Hopefully while I am here I can complete the experimental plan for this study – reviewing appropriate survey types, conducting some initial interviews to help focus the research.

I met with the Director of the Centre for Educational Development at RP yesterday, where I will be based. The staff there are extremely welcoming and have offered me a multitude of opportunities to observe PBL classes, training workshops for staff, as well as they planning and organisational meetings. So I won’t make too many plans as yet, as I feel that I will have many new opportunities and ideas available to me as my time here progresses.


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