Problem-Based Learning: A Case Study of Sustainability Education

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by: Sophie Bessant, Patrick Bailey, Zoe Robinson, C. Bland Tomkinson, Rosemary Tomkinson, R. Mark Ormerod, Rob Boast


Surely one of the best ways of starting to understand the complexity of sustainability is to actually tackle a genuine problem, and to tease out the various factors and issues that are associated with potential 'answers'? Of course, one of the first lessons to be learnt is that only rarely is there a single 'right' answer, and 'solutions' almost always come with strings attached. These complex scenarios with no 'right' answer are often called 'wicked problems', and the process of learning about the issues through studying the scenario and trying to answer key questions about it is called 'problem-based learning' (PBL). This toolkit is designed to provide some helpful advice, scenarios and observations about using PBL to teach students about sustainability, with a particular emphasis on how to scale up PBL without it becoming prohibitively expensive. It has been compiled by colleagues from Keele, Manchester and Staffordshire Universities, who have been jointly running a three year HEA-funded project to explore how to increase the numbers of students studying a module in sustainability, at levels ranging from 1st year at University through to postgraduates. Ensuring that our all of our graduates have an awareness of issues concerning the environment and sustainability is a crucial remit for our universities. The time available to us to make these solutions work is not limitless. If we can't equip this generation of young people of young people with the skills, then we may well pay a very heavy price. But if we can, the benefits will be enormous.

Jonathon Porritt MBE

Founder of Forum for the Future

Chancellor of Keele University

Background and Introduction to the Project and Toolkit

This toolkit is one outcome of a three-year project entitled: ‘Hybrid problem-based learning: a scalable approach to sustainability education?’, funded by the Higher Education Academy's National Teaching Fellowship Scheme and is a collaboration between Keele University, the University of Manchester and Staffordshire University. The project aimed to explore effective ways of adapting traditional problem-based learning approaches for the delivery of transformative sustainability education to large student numbers.

Sustainability is a major and expanding issue for higher education and many institutions are attempting, in different ways, to embed the principles and practice of sustainability within their operations. It is highly desirable that as many graduates and postgraduates as possible should be ‘sustainability literate’ when they leave higher education, having had the opportunity whilst at university to explore sustainability issues within their own lives, their chosen disciplines and their future professions. One way of enabling this is having greater numbers of students undertaking sustainability-focussed modules and projects.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approaches are highly effective at enabling deep and transformative student learning and have been considered an ideal approach for tackling the complex, multidisciplinary, ‘wicked’ problems of sustainability, and for providing genuine opportunities for students to tackle real-life sustainability issues within their immediate environment. Traditional problem-based learning approaches are however very resource and time intensive, and usually require one facilitator (a member of staff) for every group of 8 - 12 students. Embedding and extending sustainability literacy within curricula through PBL thus presents considerable practical challenges, particularly at a time of competing pressures on staff time and resource.

Through this project we have adapted traditional PBL methods to enable a mode of PBL that is suitable for the delivery of sustainability education, that is less resource intensive and having the potential to be scaled-up to large cohorts of students. The three universities involved, developed different sustainabilityfocused modules aimed at different academic levels. Students were involved in the development of our pedagogical approaches during the project via detailed evaluation and feedback, which informed the planning of the modules year-onyear. The different approaches taken at the three universities allowed us to assess the influence of: student year of study; multidisciplinary and multicultural teams; group size; level and method of group facilitation; and also (crucially) the feasibility of scaling up the hybrid PBL approach to much larger numbers of students.

This toolkit provides illustrative examples of the key aspects of three years work in three universities and is aimed at educators wishing to learn more about any one of the following areas: 1) traditional and hybrid problem-based learning; 2) delivering PBL in a less resource intensive manner; 3) the use of online learning technologies and social media in group-based teaching and learning; 4) education for sustainable development; and 5) managing student group working dynamics.

The accompanying bibliography provides relevant information sources under specific topic headings and the appendix has useful pedagogical examples drawn from the project.

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