Problem–Based Learning: A Case Study in Assessment and Evaluation in the University of Manchester

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by: Bland Tomkinson and Rosemary Tomkinson

Introduction This paper looks at the issues of appropriate assessment and evaluation for innovative programmes of study, in particular examining the circumstances of units using problem-based learning (PBL). A number of inter-related course units have been run at the University of Manchester over the last ten years. Their linking theme has been that of global societal responsibility and they have all featured a significant element of PBL. The initial under-graduate unit was Interdisciplinary Sustainable Development and a recent Masters’ unit was in Managing Humanitarian Aid Projects. Another link between these units has been the nature of the learning outcomes – spanning personal skills as well as factual knowledge. The prompt for these course units was a talk given by Professor Charles Engel in 2002.

The Ultimate Challenge (Engel et al 2004; Brundtland 1987) The future of the world faces a number of significant challenges:

• Economic burden of large national debts;

• Reduction of biodiversity;

• Pollution of air, soil and water, with detrimental influences on the environment;

• Growth of the world’s population, accompanied by increasing poverty in the developing world;

• Competition for limited water supplies, resulting in threats of armed conflict;

• The threats and consequences of climate change. These developments stimulate extremism, terrorism and migration that affect social stability

Governments and Businesses have too short a time horizon, therefore the professions need to take responsibility for:

• Expert, non-partisan support to governments;

• Underpinning research as well as ameliorative interventions;

• Collaborating on exploring the causes and consequences of major global problems;

• Working in outward-looking, collaborative, proactive, inter-professional and inter-sectoral ways.

In support of this, Universities need to provide scholars, researchers and graduates who can meet these requirements and Higher Education needs to promote:

• Active learning, inter-disciplinary thinking and creative problem-solving;

• Teachers as enablers of learning rather than as knowledge-givers;

• Learning in context; not isolated from the real world.

So, what educational approaches are most relevant to providing scholars with these attributes? A Delphi study in 2008 (Tomkinson R et al, 2008) suggested that student-centred learning methods, in particular role play and case studies, were most appropriate to embedding sustainable development in the engineering curriculum but in order to achieve all of the requirements mentioned above it was felt that problem-based learning would be the most appropriate student-centred approach.

Problem-based learning (PBL) operates with groups of students researching a complex problem. The particular way that it operates can vary from unit to unit, but usually the learning starts with a complex problem scenario. Each group is facilitated by a post-doctoral researcher or PhD student who is trained to help students to maximise their learning but not to ‘teach’. Sometimes facilitators may also take part in assessment.

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