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'Mutant algal Blooms Wreak havoc on the South Coast' - A PBL exercise for marine pollution students

Contact details

Paul Wright
School of Maritime and Coastal Studies
Southampton Institute
East Park Terrace
Tel: 023 80319743
Fax: 023 80319739

Classification Category


What does the teacher do?

Defining a good problem was the first step! It was decided to stick to what the tutor was knowledgeable about, and used postdoctoral experience looking at eutrophication in the local estuary as a good context in which to set the problem. The ecosystem response here was contrasted with that of another local estuary, which whilst nutrient levels are lower, has a greater problem with macro algal growth. The problem itself was written along the guidelines given by Duch (2001), firstly by identifying learning outcomes, then working through a problem and looking at resources, and finally by writing a 'trigger' piece to stimulate discussion. This was in the form of a fake newspaper article, of which the headline forms the title of this case study.

A PBL briefing document was written, which introduced the concept of PBL and used the Kolb Learning Cycle (1984) to help explain to the students the learning process it was hoped that they would attempt to go through, and to reflect in their assessment. The assessment was done by a Learning Journal (e.g. Park, 2003), and it was hoped that students would not just identify and analyse the content of material, but reflect on their learning and identify the following week's learning objectives, so focussing in on material they did not understand. Formative feedback on these journals was offered throughout the period of the PBL (4 weeks x 2hours). This degree of support was necessary as both tutor and students were new to the technique!

Before the sessions started the students were prepared by holding group negotiating exercises, and a tutorial on Mind Mapping (Buzan, 2002), in order to help them organise their ideas

In class, the students were broken down into groups of four, and asked to discuss the problems they saw arising from the newspaper article, and define their learning objectives for the week. Subsequent weeks were spent checking what learning had been done, how students felt it had progressed, and what they felt was important for following weeks. Interaction between the tutor and groups was paramount throughout these four weeks. This in no way, it was felt, detracted from the independence of the students learning, but it did help refocus some minds into areas they might have shied away from due to the complexity of the material.

Assessment by Learning Journal required the students to give a week-by-week diary of the content they had read, but also to reflect upon this material, identify gaps, and set new learning objectives. As this was a new technique to all involved, second marking was rather difficult. However, a detailed marking rubric was developed to identify the sorts of standards required in each of the assessment criteria. Summative feedback was offered on a one-to-one basis, but some of the generic issues (see below) were discussed in a class tutorial.

Feedback from the students was given during the classes, however two formal questionnaires were handed out to the students. One of these was given out after the briefing. This was partly to see if the briefing contained everything the students needed to know, and also to identify if the students needed further reassurance. As both tutor and students were new to the method, and as these were level three students, it was felt that this was necessary to assuage uncertainties perhaps caused by issues of 'experimentation'. Fortunately, feedback was positive, although a number of students felt rather daunted by the prospect of the research needed, and the assessment required. A second, final session questionnaire was used to evaluate student opinion about the method.

Hot tips and things to look out for

Make sure you push them on the points of week by week learning and keeping their Journal 'live and current' (I didn't, and I suspect some people just wrote it all at the last minute).

Push the need for reflection at each stage - perhaps build into the assessment criteria?

Keep an eye on what the students are actually reading.

Try some 'key skills' training before the session starts.

Know your stuff, and the wider implications of the problem. Students can end up looking at the strangest things. Remember this isn't an exercise in problem solving, so they are allowed to study what they like, as long as it links to the previous week's learning!

Does it work?

YES! Student feedback at the last session was excellent. There were a few negative comments about the style of writing the assessment, and the time allowed, but, by and large, everything was positive.

The assessment marks, however, were distinctly polarised. I think that this served as a clarion call to some students that they need to start to stretch themselves a bit more before they can claim to really 'understand' something. This has a knock on effect to their approach to their independent project.

It also allowed the course team to identify other issues about student learning. It showed that there is a reticence to engage with library material, with the students much preferring the Internet. It also showed that even the best students do not manage their time and learning very well. Here there was a sense of working very hard in week one, only to 'chunk' the material into three sections come their reports.

Finally, there was definite evidence that a reflective approach to learning was very rarely adopted by the students. The students had a false sense of their own learning, which culminated into poorer attainment for some, as they had not been sufficiently self critical to follow a problem through enough.

There is now a suggestion that PBL be implemented at lower levels of the course.

What problems/issues have arisen?

Student development:

Staff Development:

Details of support material/course work/assessment methods

Click here for more details of the problem based learning exercise on Eutrophication (rtf)

[ If you would like the above word document in a different format please contact Mike Sanders ]

Relevant references

Buzan, T. (2002) How To MindMap. Thorsons. London

Duch, B.J. (2001) Writing Problems for Deeper Understanding. In 'The Power of Problem Based Learning' Eds. Duch, B.J., Groh, S.E., and Allen, D.A. Stylus. Virginia.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall. New Jersey.

Park, C. (2003) Learning Journals: Accessed 13/2/03.

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