Teaching Stories

When Problems Create Solutions: A Problem-Based Approach to Teaching

Problem based learning (PBL) is an approach to teaching that supports creative and complex problem-solving. It seeks to address open-ended problems and real-world scenarios that researchers and industry encounter in professional practice. The higher education sector has employed PBL in a range of subjects. In fact, PBL can be adapted to work in virtually any discipline. Often, the best use of PBL is when it is adapted to work on “grand challenges” like climate change, migration, equality and diversity, and any other area that requires multi-faceted approaches and the applied use of disciplinary-specific techniques and theory. PBL is also an excellent vehicle for encountering interdisciplinarity and creativity. 

For the instructor, PBL can invite innovation in their teaching practice. Typically, PBL places the instructor as a facilitator in teaching sessions. It switches the dynamic to student-action, rather than traditional didactic teaching approaches. Students often encounter peer-to-peer evaluation and personal self-reflection of this type of teaching practice. Through its applied approach, PBL also enhances students’ ability to understand the relevance of their degree when they become graduates. Rather than just learning-by-heart, students learn by doing, by failing, by innovating and by being critical. As a result, students become better learners. For the instructor, PBL is an excellent route to demonstrate alignment with intended learning outcomes and a means to articulate how learning connects to professional skills. 

Students respond well to the use of PBL. Evidence supports the success of PBL, for example, it enhances long-term knowledge retention and application (Dolmans et al. 2015; Yew & Goh 2016). The real-life applicability of PBL enhances students’ appreciation for the relevance of their subject, their learning and their intrinsic motivation. There is a greater sense of authenticity and a better understanding of the practice of their subject through PBL. Students become active learners and engage with their subject at a deeper level in PBL learning environments. The nature of PBL, typically working in groups collaboratively, ensures that students become better communicators and team-players, alongside developing core research skills. 

Instructors can also collaborate with alumni and external industry experts to deliver PBL-style teaching. Light-touch engagement can include guest lectures and interactive Q&A sessions. More in-depth collaboration can take the form of problems sourced from industry and industry partners becoming part of the assessment process. Likewise, interdisciplinarity can be enhanced by working with these external stakeholders and with internal academic colleagues in other subjects. 

The best way to start thinking about PBL is to consider open-ended problems in your discipline, problems that can’t be answered with a quick internet search. PBL also succeeds when it is taught in flexible scenarios where discussion, groupwork and feedback are iterative. Students move through problem-solving to research and reflection multiple times during the PBL process. Approaches that incorporate a sense of trial-and-error can ensure that students develop skills and attitudes that foster resilience in both their learning and their approach to real-life problems. Outputs from PBL can be in virtually any format, from presentations, to conference posters and infographics, annotated diagrams, workbooks and portfolios, videos, blogs, consultancy documents and formal reports. 

Practically, flat-bed teaching spaces with wifi and suitable seating arrangements support PBL best. Students succeed best when they have easy access to group-working tools and dedicated, frequent timeslots for collaboration. Part of the teaching should also focus on team-working, communication and delegation skills. To ensure students commit to the PBL process, they also need to be confident that the ways they are marked, in particular group work marks, are perceived as fair. Formative peer-review marking can support this. Marks can be awarded for subject knowledge, presentation, and skills such as record keeping, range of appropriate methods employed, teamwork and communication.  

PBL doesn’t need to be constrained to later years of degree programmes. Indeed, elements of PBL can be introduced early in a degree programme and developed year-on-year to invite a sense of programme cohesion for students who grow through greater levels of PBL complexity as their degree progresses. PBL also succeeds when it is delivered in learning intensive situations, such as one-week “bootcamps”. 

Once PBL becomes a comfortable model for teaching and learning, instructors can also invite students to co-create the curriculum where they suggest or dictate the content. Our research community can also be a source of PBL ideas, which supports the University’s aim for research-led teaching.  

Ash Tierney

References and supportive reading 

Dart, J. 2014 “Learning and Teaching Guides: Problem Based Learning in Sport, Leisure and Social Sciences” https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/learning-and-teaching-guides-problem-based-learning-sport-leisure-and-social-sciences 

Dolmans, D. J. H. M., Loyens, S. M. M., Marcq, H. & Gijbels, D. 2015 “Deep and surface learning in problem-based learning: a review of the literature”, Advances in Health Sciences Education 21(5) pp:1087–1112 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10459-015-9645-6 

Garner, P. & Padley, S. 2017. ‘Utilizing problem and scenario based learning to develop transformational leadership qualities and employability attributes in students through undergraduate teaching’. [PowerPoint Presentation] HEA Annual Conference 2017. 

https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/utilising-problem-and-scenario-based-learning-develop-transformational-leadership (Accessed on: April 18, 2019)  

Heitzmann, N., Fischer, F. & Fischer, M.R. 2018. “Worked examples with errors: when self-explanation prompts hinder learning of teachers diagnostic competences on problem-based learning” Instructional Science 46(2) pp.245-271 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11251-017-9432-2 

Savin-Baden, M. 2000 “Problem-Based Learning In Higher Education: Untold Stories: Untold Stories” (McGraw-Hill Education). 

Walker, A.E., Leary, H., Hmelo-Silver, C.E. &  Ertmer, P.A. (Eds) 2015 “Essential readings in problem-based learning” (Purdue University Press) 

Yew, E. H. J. & Goh, K. 2016 “Problem-Based Learning: An Overview of its Process and Impact on Learning”, Health Professions Education 2(2) pp: 75-79, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2016.01.004 



500 Words, News

Is There Any Link Between Design Thinking and Essays?

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering. 

It’s strange how a number of unconnected events can form an idea in your mind.

This weekend I stayed with my sister and we watched the film ‘Blood Diamond’, a harrowing film made in the early noughties about the illegal diamond trade. We started discussing the role of the press and, at a more meta level, the film industry, who were indirectly profiting from the same trade through film profits. It reminded me of a magazine I read a few years back called ‘Colors Magazine’. Each issue focused on a specific concept and the one that came to mind was Issue #86, which is all about making the news. In it there is a page on war photography, which included a harrowing photo seen in many newspapers. The magazine presented it by covering most of the photo and leaving just the part of the image widely presented in the press visible. Turn the page and you see the whole photo; it is a different story. Gathered around the incident are dozens of journalists and photographers capturing the moment. It is a shocking moment.

Fast forward a couple of days and I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Padley. Ann is a teaching fellow who works on the new innovation programmes and specialises in design thinking. As a designer of buildings and a teacher of people who design buildings, I would like to think I know a thing or two about design thinking. But it turns out there is a lot more for me to learn. Over a rushed lunch we discussed problem solving, problem definition and redefinition. We discussed narrative as well as more empirical ways to come to design decisions. We talked about the importance of active listening in problem definition. And we talked about something I have been struggling with, how do we differentiate between outcome and process? Is it possible for a student to successfully go through a design process but come up with a less successful solution and probably more commonly a successful solution without going through a successful design process (or at least unable to articulate the design process- something I have struggled with as an engineer across my professional career because it is actually really hard to do and requires a lot of practice)? Ann described the methods they use to set and assess design problems which don’t just focus on outcome but focus on the successful implementation of design processes.

Later that same day I spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Zoe Backhouse, one of the BILT student fellows. Our conversation was wide-ranging but covered different forms of assessment. We discussed the essays that she had written, and it started to occur to me that what is presented in an essay, much like the photos in the newspaper I mentioned at the beginning, is the story that we choose to tell. But what happened to all the other stories? How do we know that we have presented the right one?

These thoughts linked me back to my conversation with Ann. I realised that design thinking is not just important for designers but for anyone who is given a problem (or title) and then has to deconstruct the problem and find what the real problem is before deciding on the solution (when there are many possible solutions). Maybe not just engineers, but all of us would benefit both from learning to articulate not just the solution, but how we got there. The narrative around the solution. The options we considered and discarded. And maybe not only would we benefit from articulating this but also from discussing it with our friends and tutors. To receive feedback (or more precisely feedforward) not just on the output but on the processes through which we have gone to arrive at the solution (or essay).

Ann Padley is a Teaching Fellow in Design Thinking 3 days a week and is an independent consultant on design thinking for her other work days.

Zoe Backhouse is a final year student on the four year masters degree in Liberal Arts, she is a BILT student fellow and a fledgling zine maker. Zoe would welcome any musings, poems, doodles or cartoons from students & staff about your experiences of assessment at Bristol Uni. If you’re a student, you’ll get a £25 Amazon voucher for whatever you contribute! Email zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk for more details.

Colors Magazine Issue #86 ‘Making the News’ published April 2013.