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The Problem With PBL

"The problem in Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is the problems: But do they motivate students?" -- Maufette, Kandlbinder & Soucisse

(Extracted from a paper by Yusra L Visser, Effects of Problem-Based and Lecture-Based Instructional Strategies on Problem Solving Performance and Learner Attitudes....)

"LEARNING SPECIALISTS generally agree that problem solving, together with several other core competencies (e.g., comprehending and composing, critical and creative thinking, and metacognition) is among the most important dimensions of thinking and learning (Jonassen, 1994). Nickerson (1994) has pointed to several of the reasons why the ability to engage in effective and purposeful problem solving is critical to the development of individuals and their communities.

"... Despite the acknowledgement of the importance of developing problem solving skills, relatively little research has been conducted on this theme in the field of instructional design (Jonassen, 1994). Moreover, within the existing research base, even fewer contributions have been made to the development of instructional design approaches for ill-structured or complex problem instruction. The majority of the instructional design literature in the area of problem solving instruction points to the use of particular instructional strategies to support the acquisition of problem solving skills (e.g., cognitive apprenticeships and microworlds). However, these strategies have rarely been researched with sufficient rigor to ascertain their effectiveness in achieving the desired outcomes."


"If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?" -- Albert Einstein

THE PAST TWO, THREE WEEKS had been rather anxious ones because a once-promising thesis seemed in danger of becoming an impractical one. Perhaps this thesis is ahead of its time right now.

The idea came from an interesting discussion with a professor. What would motivate students to want to solve a problem? The initial answers seemed straightforward enough. Something that Maish Nichani mentioned at a Knowledge Management seminar months ago came to mind: a story problem needs 'PHAT' -- 'P' for Passion, 'H' for Hero, 'A' for Antagonism and 'T' for Transformation. In other words, Identification (PHAT) and Tension (PHAT) factors. A great thesis can written based on this, the professor had said.

With mounting pressure from my pre-dissertation module instructors, for lack of a better idea, I was intrepid enough to try to tackle this for my Masters thesis. I saw that I would need plenty of problems to conduct the study. So, my ideal subject was: two classes in a Republic Polytechnic (RP) since they solve a problem a day -- that would give me 14-16 problems a semester!

Was told that I had excellent research questions: (1) How to write engaging story problems that polytechnic students can identify with and want to solve with all their hearts and minds? (2) What types/levels of engagement are desirable? (3) What types/levels of Identification (PHAT) would engage polytechnic students appropriately? (4) What types/levels of Tension (PHAT) would engage polytechnic students appropriately? (5) Do the students' problem-solving performances improves with greater engagement?

Spent lots of time over the past month: reading up papers (such as Bangert-Drowns & Pike's taxonomy of engagement modes, Ahmad Ibrahim Etheris' Computer-supported collaborative problem solving and anchored instruction...), contacting the RP CED director, discussing with my research partners, observing a PBL class in progress, mulling over appropriate research methodologies, and so on. Finally realized what a mammoth task this is. Yes, this can be a lifetime's work, as the professor had added then. But I didn't register that then.

A problem with this PBL thesis is: How does one define the Tension and Identification factors, now that most problems written in RP are not really story/scenario problems (and i thus cannot simply use "PHAT")? Another problem: The existing process logs, such as reflection journals, self and peer evaluations (often known to be a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" kind of thing), facilitator's assessment and observations, seem too sketchy and unreliable for drawing conclusions.

So, how does one track the students' problem solving processes in enough detail to gauge the levels of engagement among some 20-odd learners for 14-16 problems over a semester in a polytechnic where i don't work? Interviews and observations would not be enough.

Video recording? We would need to aim four cameras at four groups of students over 14-16 days in a term since they tackle one problem a day. If we have two classess, the resources would need to be multiplied by two! Knowledge forums? Why would the students discuss online when (1) they can simply talk to one another at once, (2) they need to move from one stage to the next within one or two hours, and (3) these are not very motivated learners in the first place? Concept mapping? "Maybe, but only one pre-test and one post-test are feasible," my research partner asserted. "We don't want our students to get 'research fatigue'." We are still looking at the outcomes and not the processes.

Furthermore, RP is simply not ready to start using new IT tools at the moment. They have one major new tool to introduce the next semester, Axon Idea Processor. And it is complicated.

i could almost see all my annual leave evaporate in the midst of frequent visits to RP.

While racking my mind for a new angle to the thesis or even an alternative one, i was suddenly struck by the fact that right here under my nose (in this polytechnic where i work), is a groupware experiment that i had conducted with a lecturer recently and it has been progressing quite smoothly!

Talk about opportunities in a crisis (危機)! Now i have a better and more stable thesis to work on! No need to take leave. And finally, there's a technology component!


by tree#138680 on Mon Mar 07 05 1:07 pm | profile

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