A New Application of Problem and Project-Based Learning

At the end of last summer, I wrote about an experimental approach to my 200-level undergraduate class, Systems Thinking, that used problem- and project-based learning (PPBL) techniques in the classroom.  As a lower-division course, I focused on more interactive approaches rather than real-world opportunities and outcomes.  I had student discussion leaders kick off each class by discussing a few key questions from the readings of the day.  I then had a Think-Pair-Share session where students spent a few minutes making notes to themselves in response to a question that I posed them.  They then partnered with a neighbor to discuss this for a few minutes.  Finally, the groups of two or three students then shared their discussion with the rest of the class for an extended group session.  The class ended with rapporteurs summarizing the day’s topics.

In general, this worked very well.  For those interested in trying a similar approach in your own class or training sessions, I would highly recommend it.  I’d also be happy to discuss in more detail.  The key is in crafting appropriate questions for the audience.  I do plan on changing a few aspects of this in the future.  First, the discussion leads often wandered away from the questions and into overviews or summaries of the readings.  This often took too long, led to misunderstandings or went in directions different from those that I had intended.  Second, the Think-Pair-Share sessions only work with some material and should be used with discretion.  Third, the reports from the rapporteurs took up time without adding a great deal.  However, the rapporteurs’ notes were invaluable.  I was able to post these to the course website.  Because they were being graded, they were generally quite thorough.  Also, there were always at least 2 student rapporteurs, so they tended to reinforce each other.  The main benefit was that they allowed the rest of the class to focus on the discussion without worrying about taking detailed notes.  It improved the performance (learning outcomes) of the entire class.

This semester I am teaching a 300-level environmental policy class.  I intend to use a similar format, except that I plan to augment it with a bit more lecture given that most class sessions have some more technical aspects that I want to cover myself.  I also intend to link this with the PPBL work that I’ve used in past versions of this course.  I link student project teams with local NGOs, municipal governments, or State agencies to help provide solutions to real-world challenges.  The students use what they learn in the course to help address problems that others face – the exact type of work that many of the students hope to engage with in their future careers.  They listen to the stakeholders present the issues.  Then working in teams, they present their findings in written reports and in presentations to the stakeholders themselves.  As a result, the students receive direct feedback on their work beyond the grades in a class.  They see the tangible contributions that they can make to society through what they’ve learned in class.

The semester starts next Monday.  We’ll see how it goes.

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