Project-based learning (PBL) and case-based learning (CBL) are great in theory as they create an inclusive environment and challenge students to take an active role in gaining knowledge and skills. And while in my 20 years as a student I have seen some very successful implementations of PBL and CBL, I have also seen notable failed attempts. As I reflect on the differences between the success stories and the flops, three main barriers to successfully implementing PBL and CBL come to mind: 1) establishing base knowledge, 2) managing expectations, and 3) providing effective feedback.
I appreciated the post on First Sine of Madness last week calling for a balance of traditional lectures and case-based learning. I completely agree that lectures can be beneficial. While a little bit of the painful learning-by-doing that PBL and CBL encourage is good, if students are at a complete loss or do not have a sufficient amount of base knowledge to succeed, learning-by-doing can be totally overwhelming and ineffective. I think that it is the job of the instructor to act as a facilitator. As a facilitator, the instructor has experience and expertise with the topic and should help bring students of various backgrounds up to speed. Additionally, I think it is important for the instructor to aid in the reflection process to help students connect the project or case to the big picture. As an example, students should begin a case knowing most of the vocabulary and they should end a case seeing how the specific example can be generalized. I think that instructor-led lecture and discussion could successfully improve both of these aspects, pre and post, of establishing base knowledge.
Next is managing expectations, which builds upon the ideas of establishing base knowledge. As a student when I hear that a class will include PBL and CBL, I automatically think, “Great, more homework”. And while this is often true and necessary to challenge the students to take learning into their own hands, I have seen some instructors more effectively set up students for success by managing expectations. From the instructor point of view, I think it is very important to know the audience. For example, if undergraduate students are given 2 days to read 4 research papers so that they can participate in class discussion, I imagine the discussion will be pretty quiet. Now maybe that would be more reasonable to expect from graduate students. Alternatively, the instructor could better manage expectations by instructing students to at minimum read the abstracts and look at the figures for the 4 papers. I’m borrowing this idea from one my current professors, who asks us each class to give him at least 7-minutes of preparation using his tried and true skimming method. Students also need to be able to manage expectations and know that a class with PBL or CBL will come with a fair share of struggles and the path to success may not be linear. I think it is helpful for an instructor to acknowledge this fact at the beginning of the class or course.
Finally, a successful implementation of PBL or CBL needs effective feedback between students and instructors. Students should be able to provide the instructor feedback on what does and does not work about the process. Often PBL and CBL are open-ended and may be uniquely shaped by the class. Students should also provide feedback to one another. Particularly for group-based work, peer review and evaluations provide valuable insights. Lastly, the instructor must provide students with timely and critical feedback. While there may not be one right solution for PBL and CBL problems, it is important for students to see the strengths and weaknesses in their thought processes. As we have been trained, students are eager, although nervous, to be graded and be assessed. While assessment is more difficult when there is not a single correct answer, it is important for an instructor to be able to differentiate well-thought-out work from haphazard, after-thought work. If all students, no matter their amount of effort, receive the same grades, there will be no incentive for students to try and apply themselves more wholeheartedly. I acknowledge this is not an easy task for the instructors and graders, but I think it is an important piece to the PBL/CBL puzzle.
Overall I think that PBL and CBL can be effective if base knowledge, expectations, and feedback are considered. Lectures are not the enemy and can be useful. Expectations need to be managed by both students and instructors. PBL and CBL should not be used as a crutch to solely offload work from the classroom to the home. Time in class should be thoughtfully managed by an instructor facilitator. And no matter the subject, feedback must be given and received.