12 Principles for Problem-based Learning for Engineers

Over the last 9 months at Think Up I’ve been invovled with an engineering education project that has had a really deep philsophical impact on me. The project is called Enginite, an EruasmusPlus-funded programme of graduate training and placements that aims to give graduating engineers extra skills and experience that will make them more employable.

My role has been to collaborate with Prof Søren Willert, of the University of Aalborg, to train project partners in how to design courses using a problem-based learning methodology. PBL flips traditional learning on itself, and holds as its fundamental principle that learning is more effective – in terms of retention, recall and motivation – if students drive the learning process themselves. It is one of those statements that we know to be true from experience, but goes directly against how most education is delivered in engineering education. PBL addresses that dissonance by creating a framework for giving students ownership of the problem.

When you get into it, PBL is a fundamental philosophical shift in the role of the instructor, and it is that realisation that has had such a personal impact. It has forced me to re-evaluate all the teaching I deliver and ask, is this really learner-centred, or is this just what I want to teach. It has also increased my sensitivity to power relationships in learning, and in wider collaboration. In traditional, more transmissive, education the power relationship is clear: the knowlege-holder has power over the learner, dictating the content and the manor of learning. When you strip away that relationship and put the learner in cotrol, that power dynamic is completely revised. Some teachers I have worked with can find that loss of power un-nerving: it is dizzying to be standing in front of a class and not know the answer (there is a hint here – maybe standing in front of the class is not necessary?); others find it a release, realising they no-longer need to be the font of truth, but rather an investiagtive partner and informed guide for learners.

Reflective learning is at the heart of PBL, for students and for instructors, and it is the process of instructor reflection which has been the most fascinating for me. Working with project partners to understand where PBL presents challenges for them, and seeing how they have overcoem them has given me the opportunity to learn a lot about what motivates people, what they find hard, and how they can find their own path to knowledge.

One of the main outputs from the Enginite project is a handbook of Enginite PBL, a set of 12 principles to guide partners in the Enginite programme on how to apply PBL in the context of this project. PBL is necessarily context-speciifc, but hopefully the spirit of these principles is transferable to other learning contexts.

The twelve principles are:

  1. A pre-requisite to learning is that students experience ownership of their learning
  2. Be flexible in defining learning outcomes
  3. Aim for exemplarity
  4. Learners will arrive at learning outcomes through different routes
  5. Learning through reflection
  6. Let the students be the guide to what they do and don’t understand
  7. Be a facilitator, not a teacher
  8. Move facilitation style from ‘follow me’ to ‘joint experimentation’
  9. Learning through social processes
  10. Create the physical learning environment for problem-based learning
  11. Students define their own assessment
  12. Develop learner skills for problem-based learning

When the project team assembled in Crete to review the PBL modules we had developed, Søren and I took the opportunity to make 12 short films describing the Engininte PBL principles. Take a look and let me know what you think.

Related posts