A key part of problem-based learning is reflection. But how do you get people not interested in reflection to start thinking critically about the decisions they take over their learning. The answer could be to think about performance.

One of the aims of problem-based learning is to help the students develop effective learning strategies. In this learning paradigm, students are free to choose more or less what they want to study. What matters is that students learn something about problem-solving along the way. The way to access this meta-level learning is through asking reflective questions, like

  • What am I trying to do?
  • What are the barriers?
  • How can I overcome these barriers?
  • Which barrier am I going to address first?
  • Who will support me?
  • How will I know if I have been successful?
  • When will I review progress?

But what if the prospect of getting your students to do meaningful reflection is poor? Last week I delivered a training day for Engineers Without Borders UK for a group of academics involved in delivering the Engineering for People Design Challenge. I was asked this by an academic who said her students, aeronautical and chemical engineers, were motivated by machines how things work, and not more human aspects like how we think.

It was then that I was suddenly reminded of a conversation I had with Matthew Harrison about how he gets his students to think about performance. His cohort are aeronautical engineers, and they are focused on high-performing jet engines. Over tea one day he said to me he gets his students to think about what a high-performing learner would look like? What would be the indicators of high performance; what would be the diagnostics?

I related this anecdote to the academics at the training day, and this was a popular suggestion. Many could see how their students could relate much more to themselves as performing engineers rather than reflective learners.

The risk with a machine-paradigm for human thinking is that it ignores the more human, non-machine like things we can do, like having emotions and working with social norms. But if as a starting point a performance mind-set can get students to think metacognitively, perhaps from that platform, a mindful reflective practice can be introduced.

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