Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Alternative Learning Strategies

Peace, one and all...
Here's another of my PGCE assignments. Insha Allah, I intend to expand some of them into more connected essays/narratives when I have some free time. But, for now, enjoy!
Alternative Learning Strategies: Problem-Based Learning: Commentary & Evaluation

The aim of this paper is to offer a reflective commentary on my ET07 group presentation on Problem-Based Learning (henceforth referred to as PBL). In particular, I aim to explore PBL theory and how my group utilised it in designing an alternative learning strategy. I will also examine the dynamics of my group and the actual structure of our strategy, before turning to an evaluation of our performance and that of my peers.

In a recent journal, I examined PBL and some its wider educational implications. In this commentary, I hope to take this exploration further by reflecting on my practical experiences.

Presentation Subject & Group Structure
Before we look more closely at PBL, it is important to understand both the subject of our presentation and the make up of our group.

My group consisted of myself and XXXXXXX (name omitted). We are both currently working in Higher Education institutions. XXXXXXX (name omitted) is involved in Environmental Science, whilst I work in the field of Religious Studies. Given such subject differences, we were keen to find areas that we could both use effectively. Moreover, we wanted to find a topic that would include two areas:

Applicability in different teaching environments
A strong focus on skills development

Furthermore, we were keen to link our work on alternative learning strategies with our ET08 curriculum project. We wanted to take a holistic approach to the development of curricula and the teaching strategies to be used within them. Given these requirements, we decided to develop learning strategies specifically related to access for people with disabilities. This topic met our requirements and also our interests: we are both interested in and involved with Disability related issues. As such, our project focused on staff training regarding recent disability legislation (DDA 1995; SENDA 2001) and was entitled: ‘Equality of Access: A Problem-based Learning Approach’.

Our learning strategy was designed as part of a half day staff awareness/development course, in which a wide range of Higher Education staff (both academic and non-academic) were introduced to the new legislation. However, we were very keen to avoid merely giving the group an unwieldy mass of information (which would soon be forgotten). Moreover, we were particularly eager to focus on attitudinal change. That is, we wanted to change staff attitudes towards disabled access and especially staff perceptions of related issues.

Understanding Problem-Based Learning
Before we can look at application of PBL, we must first clearly understand what it is. Thus, in this section, we will briefly examine the theory, philosophy and history of Problem-Based Learning.

Learning through the solving of problems has a very long history. Socrates set his students problems to solve by asking them questions, whilst Aristotle believed that a philosopher should start by looking for contradictions within explanations (Savin-Baden, 2000, 3; see also Engels, 1997, 18).

Despite this longer tradition, modern PBL arose in the American medical profession during the 1970s and 1980s (Boud & Feletti, 1997, 2-4; Engel, ibid). The search for new teaching methods came about as medical trainers found themselves under increasing financial pressure. Also, there were concerns that doctors were graduating without key skills:
‘What emerges are physicians without enquiring minds, physicians who bring to the bedside not curiosity and a desire to understand, but a set of reflexes that allows them to earn a handsome living’
(Bishop, 1983, quoted in Engel, 1997, 18).
PBL thus aimed to address these twin issues of limited resources and lack of skills development.

How, then, does PBL work? Although it seems an obvious comment, the essence of PBL is clearly apparent. That is, it aims to help people learn more effectively through the setting of problems. Instead of focusing upon lesson content, students are given minimal information and are then set a problem to solve. Within such approaches, the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator. The teacher provides students with assistance and support, as well as with a clear idea of the tasks limits/rules. The PBL model therefore requires that teachers spend a lot of time preparing tasks (rather than subject content). PBL theory holds that by getting students to utilise their learning practically, greater and faster access to higher order thinking skills can be gained (Savin-Baden, 2000, 68-84; Hegarty, 2000a, 9-11).

For example, undergraduates at Manchester University were asked to produce presentations addressing the difficulties of faith-based schools, as a means of getting inside Religious Studies (Hegarty, 2000a, 40-43; 2000b, passim). The aim here was to provide access to key debates through experience, rather than to initiate students into an otherwise arcane field of knowledge.

PBL should be clearly distinguished from problem-solving techniques, in which students are asked to prepare from a set text and then asked questions. As Savin-Baden makes clear, the focus of PBL is ‘in organizing the curricular content around problem scenarios rather than subjects or disciplines’ (Savin-Baden, 2000, 3).

As such, PBL seeks to develop the student’s competence and confidence. It addresses competence by helping the student to utilise their learning in a practical context. It inspires confidence in students because it shows them that their learning can be used and as we have seen, it is particularly good at drawing out all-important higher order thinking skills.

Applicability: Why Use PBL Here?
We had a number of considerations when deciding which alternative learning strategy to use. We wanted a strategy which met the following needs:

Strong focus upon skills development
Emphasis upon swift development of higher order thinking and valuing skills
Ability to work within limited financial and time constraints
Clear student-centred focus
Alternative to current teaching methods
Ability to address difficulties related to teaching to knowledge

As seen above, the PBL model was designed to meet similar objectives within the medical profession. As such, we felt that it was an eminently suitable method for our project, particularly as both group members face similar challenges in their own teaching.

Our Project: Aims, Objectives & Design
We wanted our course to have a number of aims:

• To increase awareness among Higher Education staff of the recent changes to Disability legislation and their impact in the education sector
• To develop a broad range of empathetic skills among staff and to encourage critical reflection on the implications of discriminatory practices
• To promote understanding of Disability & Access-related issues in a cost-effective manner
• To promote equality of opportunity for all

To meet these aims (within the context of a 30 minute presentation), we designed two different PBL tasks, of increasing complexity. There were a number of factors within this decision. Firstly, we wanted to stimulate engagement as quickly as possible. Secondly, we were keen to develop the students’ skill and confidence through a gradual approach; we hoped to show them in a steady, measured fashion that they could deal with these challenges.

Task One
In this initial task, we wanted to focus on the problem of disability access in as concrete and practical a manner as possible. We were especially concerned to show the group (through a PBL approach) that inability to access buildings properly, quickly and easily had a dramatic impact on ability and willingness to learn, as well as on responses to learning.

For this task, the class was split into three groups. Each group was given a map of a fictional Higher Education building. The map gave details about the physical nature of the building layout, with emphasis upon defects. Each group was asked to navigate to a specified room (in order to attend a fictional lecture). Each group was asked to cope with a different disability (Visual Impairment, Wheelchair Use and Dyslexia). During the task, the group were asked to consider the following questions:

How does the journey to the lecture room impact on your readiness to learn?
What things have made your efforts harder?
What things have made your efforts easier?
What would you change?
What would you leave as it is?

After the task, we drew out the key points in a short question and answer session.

Task Two
In this task, we aimed to extend the group’s learning by looking at the structural factors behind improving access. In this task, we wanted to get the group thinking about the problem of access from an institutional standpoint (the course being aimed at staff development).

As previously, the class was split into three groups. Each group was asked to look at a different aspect of the problem:

• Group 1: Adapting the Built Environment
• Group 2: Adapting Roles
• Group 3: Understanding Need

As part of the exercise, each group were given a limited amount of resources. We deliberately underestimated the resources available, because we felt that, as in the real world, some problems do not have ultimate, tidy solutions.

Evaluating Our Performance: Strengths & Weaknesses
On the whole, I was very pleased with our performance. I felt happy with the level of our project planning and felt that we had tackled the main issues. We had correctly identified a topic which would work well with a PBL approach.

I was especially pleased with our performance in relation to attitudinal change. Our strategy drew out a wide range of interesting and useful responses, some of which we had not anticipated. I felt that this showed two key successes. Firstly, we made use of a very suitable alternative learning strategy. PBL is very good at quickly shifting to higher order skills – and in drawing out the concomitant confidence which accompanies success. Secondly, by using a PBL approach we created a lot of student engagement. From previous experience, how well the group engages with the material is a good way of measuring a learning strategy’s effectiveness. In this case, I was pleased with the level of response and attention.

It is also important to realise that this was a first attempt; it was certainly the first time I had used PBL. As such, I feel we made good progress. In subsequent teaching, there are a number of areas in which we could improve our teaching. These include:

Greater experience: by gaining more experience with PBL, we will be able to understand its subtleties and strengths more clearly
Planning: as an approach, PBL requires a high degree of problem planning. In future, improvements could be made in the design and structure of PBL sessions.
Appropriateness: by understanding where we can use PBL effectively and where we cannot, vast improvements could be made.
Materials/Resources: with further experience, greater use could be made of a wider range of learning resources.
Time Planning: a more fully developed understanding of PBL will enable us to utilise time more effectively

There were also a number of areas in which our project was less well developed. As indicated above, I feel that these were largely the result of experience. For both members of my group, PBL is a very new and very alternative strategy. Consequently, this meant that we were not fully aware of PBL’s limitations and potential. Moreover, a more experienced PBL practitioner would have been able to plan this strategy more effectively (which, I suppose, would have meant that it was not as ‘alternative’)!

Experience was also a factor in a second area of weakness. The first session overran and because it had produced good results, we were reluctant to step in. Within such a limited framework we were unable therefore to really get to grips with task two. Indeed, we were only able to outline our ideas. Trying to do too much in too short a space of time is a feature of my teaching and one of which I am aware. As I have indicated elsewhere, this springs from experience and planning – especially so given the alternative nature of the strategy.

Evaluating My Peers
In what remains of this paper I would like to evaluate the performance of my peers. In particular, I would like to discuss the ways in which different groups did or did not use suitable strategies. Before I begin, it is important to note that, given the constraints of space, I will not attempt a group by group analysis. Rather, I would like to focus on a number of key themes. These themes have been drawn from literature provided by the tutors and include the following:

How ‘alternative’ did it feel?
Promoting Learner Autonomy
Promoting Participation
Could I Use It?
Theoretical Base
Develop Group & Communication Skills

How ‘alternative’ did it feel?
In general, I think that all of the group presentations were ‘alternative’. That is, on the whole, they offered a wide range of alternative learning strategies – or, at least, strategies that I was myself unfamiliar with. It was clear that a lot of thought and effort had gone into each presentation. However, with some groups, I was not really convinced that the strategies employed were alternative to them. In other words, I felt that some groups were probably utilising these strategies in their everyday work – which left me wondering how ‘alternative’ they really were. Despite this, there were two that really caught my attention. One group employed role play. Although this is a fairly mainstream approach, they made use of blindfolds and other props to drive home a direct, physical message. This had applicability for our own situation and worked well. Another group used story telling. I had not previously considered such an approach and felt it looked at the topic in a very fresh and engaging manner.

Most strategies were appropriate to their particular context. A lot of careful thought had obviously gone into producing these sessions and in making them relevant. I thought the first group, who had the class build egg-protecting machines, had designed a very appropriate session. It aimed to tackle team building skills and it did so very well. The story telling was also useful – it was a very appropriate method for helping students to construct their own knowledge. By contrast, I felt that the session dealing with grammar could have been structured more clearly.

Promoting Learner Autonomy, Participation & Skills Development
All of the strategies employed promoted learner participation and autonomy, to greater and lesser degrees. On the whole, the groups were successful. Having said that, I felt that those groups who had greater teaching experience were more successful in this regard. This is because developing autonomy is also a function of teaching style. That said, those sessions which used group work (particularly the session involving hair) had great success – the ability to work in smaller groups promotes active learning. Each session focused upon developing skills, which worked generally well. However, those sessions which required further planning could have been more effective in this regard.

Could I Use It?
I feel confident that I could make effective use of all of the strategies on offer here. They could all, with appropriate adjustment, form part of a well-balanced teaching strategy (success in this area being as much about delivery and personal performance as strategy). However, the health professions presentation was particularly relevant and could have been of immediate use in my own project.

The groups had all thought clearly and well about their use of resources and this generally showed through. A couple of sessions were practically based and hence resources were a major feature. Where this was the case, the results were successful. One group used cards to illustrate grammar. Although I feel that it could have been planned more effectively, I did feel that it utilised resources well. The session which attempted to build egg machines also used physical resources well. Other sessions (including my own) made heavier use of ICT.

Theoretical Base
Offering a full evaluation of each theory is well beyond our ability here. Instead, I will concentrate upon some key areas. In general, each group had clearly thought through the major implications of its chosen learning strategy. It is indeed difficult to strictly adhere to unfamiliar methods and models (as I found myself) and, on the whole, the groups managed it well. I was particularly impressed by the story telling method. The group using this approach had thought through their project clearly and had emerged with a valuable alternative strategy. Discovery Learning and other student-centred approaches were used well: especially in the health care session. Although it was not entitled PBL, I felt that the hairdressing approach was very close in terms of theory to our own project. As such, it was interesting to see another take on a similar method.

Using alternative learning strategies takes effort, understanding and time. Such demands are compounded when working as part of a group. Given these points, I enjoyed this project and feel that I have learnt from it.


Engels, C.E. (1997), ‘Not Just a Method But a Way of Learning’, in Boud, D. & Feletti, G. (eds.,
1997, 2nd Edition), The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning, London: Kogan Page,

Fry, H. et al. (2003, 2nd Edition), A Handbook for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education,
London: Routledge Falmer.

Hegarty, J.M. (2000a), Problem Based Learning Core Course Component, unpublished
Manchester University Course Materials.

Hegarty, J.M. (2000b), Problem Based Learning Core Course Component Final Report,
unpublished Manchester University Course Materials.

Savin-Baden, M. (2000), Problem-based Learning in Higher Education: Untold Stories,
Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.


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