Employability and problem-based learning

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”  

Benjamin Franklin

I recently came across an article of interest in the Academy of Management Learning & Education discussing the benefits of problem-based learning as a useful approach to equip students with the necessary skills need for successful career entry. The article interested me as I have long been involved in innovative approaches to student learning and, based in the Business School, developing the management competencies of our undergraduate students at various levels. Such an approach has its roots in medical education for almost 50 years with demonstrated effectiveness and I wonder to what extent it is used across the university. Perhaps something readers would like to share at CEL Steering Group meetings?

The article suggests a number of studies have consistently identified key skills needed by graduates including, effective written and oral communications, critical and creative thinking, leading, problem solving, personal continuous learning skills, information literacy, and ethical problem solving.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a pedagogy specifically created for the integration of content knowledge and skill development. Although varied, the article suggests most definitions of PBL share the common characteristics where students begin with a problem to guide the learning, are learner centered, view the tutor as a facilitator, utilize collaborative small groups, and employ self-directed learning and reflection to acquire new knowledge in a process exemplified in Figure 1 – Example of the Problem-Based Learning Process (Barrows 1996) The link to the article is provided below for your reference.

The essential defining characteristic of PBL is learning structured around an ambiguous and complex problem where tutors become facilitators sup- porting and guiding students in their attempt to solve a real-world problem. The PBL process develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills, problem synthesis skills, imagination and creativity, information search and evaluation skills, ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, oral and written communication skills, and collaboration skills.

There are however a number of challenges to such an approach:

  • Research suggests, many tutors adopting such an approach have never had any formal training in PBL and any expertise tends to be developed through learning by trial and error
  • Students may feel unprepared as PBL looks hectic, chaotic and disorganised compared to more traditional pedagogic approaches. This may result in students being distracted by unnecessary anxiety and the perception they are not learning anything
  • Selecting an appropriate problem (or scenario) is often a challenge. It needs to develop and draw out the expertise associated with a particular programme and needs to appear relevant to gain student buy-in.
  • Evaluating and grading student performance in PBL often requires a different approach to traditional pedagogies as it is ‘messier’ and skill development is ‘a more slippery outcome to measure than knowledge capture’ (Ungaretti et al. 2015:181)
  • Evaluating the unit itself poses a challenge as most evaluation surveys (MUSE for example) measure student perceptions based on traditional pedagogic approaches. The basis of PBL is ambiguity, uncertainty and limited information through simulated tasks designed to develop the very skills employers require of the graduates they employ.

Despite these and other potential challenges, what is clear from the article is PBL is a great tool to enhance student learning and engagement. It provides another dimension to effective pedagogy whilst also providing a basis for skill development through interaction with real problems that have no pre-established answers. Perhaps a wider use of PBL could be an effective approach to providing a competitive advantage to institutions that care about the full development of their students. If you would like to read the article in more depth the reference is provided below.

What are your thoughts and would you like to share examples of similar approaches adopted within your faculty?

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