Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Teaching and Learning Innovation Scheme 2005

Dr. Michael Parkinson - development of a flexible learning strategy using problem-based learning

Principal Applicant

Dr. Michael Parkinson

School or Unit

School of Biotechnology

Additional Applicants

Dr. Brid Quilty, School of Biotechnology, brid.quilty@DCU.ie

Dr. Eilish McLoughlin, School of Physics, eilish.mcloughlin@DCU.ie

Dr. Odilla Findlayson, School of Chemical Sciences, Odilla.Findlayson@DCU.ie

Amount requested



This project will use cross-faculty coordinated development of problem based learning (PBL) in modules in physics/engineering, biology and chemistry to develop a range of generic materials and resources for supporting the development, dissemination and evaluation of PBL, and will integrate the expertise and experience within the Faculty of Science and Health in PBL and student facilitation of learning. Anticipated outcomes are: development of an integrated team in the Faculty of Science with representation from the Schools of Physics, Chemistry and Biotechnology which can act as a support group for development of PBL; a generic learning manual on how to implement PBL in a module; a generic training course in facilitation of PBL; a centralised Faculty facility for evaluation of quality of learning; conversion of one module to PBL in each of the three participating schools.

Project URL


Will the project facilitate flexible access (in the context of lifelong learning or otherwise) or facilitation of longer-term provision for special needs


Is the project related to the development of DCU's six academic themes


Strategic Context

Flexible learning is very important for the implementation of a truly modular system, and for the facilitation of life-long learning for 'non-traditional' students who may not fit easily into a rigidly timetabled programme. The provision of resources through Moodle has shown itself to be an effective means for flexibly supporting student learning (http://webpages.DCU.ie/~parkinsm/teaching.htm). PBL in small groups also retains a very high degree of flexibility in group timetabling and organisation and has the potential to improve the quality of student learning (http://odtl.DCU.ie/tlf/2001-2002/small-project-00-awards/ref7/application.html http://odtl.DCU.ie/tlf/2000-2001/small-project-00-awards/ref11/application.html) especially if groupwork is facilitated (http://odtl.DCU.ie/tlf/1999-2000/ref10/). Integration of facilitated groupwork in PBL with resource delivery through Moodle for inter and intra-group discussions, provision of resources, sharing of resources, and feedback should

provide a highly flexible and interactive environment for learning and would integrate the very best pedagogy for student learning into a highly flexible framework.

Implementation Plan

Under the supervision of a supervisory team (MP/BQ/EMcL/OF) a student will be taken on in each school between 01/06/05 to 2/12/05 to work as a team to develop relevant problems and to convert an existing module in each school to PBL. Modules are BE208, "Pollution and the Biosphere" (15 students), PS127 "Waves and optics" (100 students) and CS301 "Chemistry Topics" (65 students). Students will detail the development of their modules and this will be used as a basis for construction of a learning manual for implementation of PBL. No problems are envisaged.

<>The Behaviourist view of learning (typified by lectures) leads to teaching methodologies which are very much instructor centred and result in students being passive rather than active learners. Problem solving and communication skills, much prized by employers, are difficult to develop in a traditional lecture-based module, no matter how well it is taught and need to be explicitly developed. A constructivist approach (Piaget, 1970) using PBL has a long track record in improving student learning. PBL has been shown to be highly effective in the Schools of Physics (http://odtl.DCU.ie/tlf/2001-2002/small-project-00-awards/ref7/application.html) and Chemistry (http://odtl.DCU.ie/tlf/2000-2001/small-project-00-awards/ref11/application.html) in DCU, and this expertise will be used extensively. Facilitation of PBL, which is critical for its success (Greening, 1998), will be managed in small groups using the skills and expertise developed from peer assisted learning (http://odtl.DCU.ie/tlf/1999-2000/ref10/), in facilitating and directing learning, rather than taking a didactic approach.

Impact and Evaluation

It is anticipated that the students will adopt a deeper learning strategy than in conventional teaching, that their group-work skills will improve, that they will be more highly motivated, that their oral and written communication skills will improve and the students will reflect much more deeply on the learning outcomes. Accordingly, for the developed modules and for equivalent, conventionally taught modules the PBL team will develop a suite of evaluation tools to assess the impact of these and other educational initiatives:

Deep and surface learning will be assessed using the "Approaches to Study" questionnaire.

Student motivation and study skills will be assessed by the LASSI test (http://www.hhpublishing.com/_assessments/LASSI/).

The students will be asked to assess the quality of their learning outcomes.

Students in programmes taking the modules, together with matched groups of students from other programmes, will be asked to assess their oral and written communication skills both before and after the semester.

Students will be asked after each stage of the module implementation to describe what worked, what didn't work, and what could usefully be implemented.

A structured discussion with the students (http://odtl.DCU.ie/projects/Structured_discussions/Structured_discussions.html) "we are interested in anything that affected the quality of your learning" will be used at the end of the modules to discuss issues that arose, and to agree an agenda for positive change. This will be integrated into the implementation protocols.

Student grades will be examined.

Results will be reported at national and international conferences and in international peer reviewed publications.

Dissemination and Sustainability

One of the key aims of the project is to produce a generic protocol for implementation of PBL. Accordingly, during development, the workings of each stage of the module implementation will be examined by the supervisory group, and a protocol developed detailing the "What?, Why? and How?" (see http://odtl.DCU.ie/projects/Structured_discussions/Structured_discussions.html for an example).

Half-day training workshops will be developed:

For tutors involved in PBL covering facilitation of learning.

On implementation of PBL

Schools will provide academics to coordinate the modules and the costs of running the modules will be borne by each school.

Detailed Budget

Employment of a student within each school.

€10/h * 35h/ week * 13 weeks = €4550. PRSI at 10.75% = €489.

Total €5039 per school.

Total for 3 schools = €15107

There is no budgetary allocation within the Faculty for the development of existing modules and the demands on staff time are such that module development on this scale will not occur unless students can be taken on to help develop the modules. The project integrates PBL and facilitated groupwork, both highly effective methods for improving student learning. These methods are widely transferable both between modules within a programme and between programmes. The establishment of a core working group with relevant expertise, and the development of generic working protocols for their implementation will facilitate the propagation of PBL within the Faculty, and later throughout DCU.

Support from Head of School/Unit

There is currently considerable interest within the school of Biotechnology in problem based learning and support of student learning. The development of expertise in these areas in our school and of a support network in the Faculty would be very important to support members of staff who wish to introduce elements of these into their teaching. I strongly support this initiative to develop expertise in these areas and assess their impact on student learning.

I share the teaching of the particular module "Pollution and the Biosphere" with Michael Parkinson and can confirm that student motivation and performance was dramatically improved for the small elements of problems that we were able to introduce into the module. I believe that the module is ideal for PBL, and can confirm that the school will financially support this pilot project in provision of student facilitation, and, given favourable outcomes, support the student facilitation on an on-going basis.

Michael has consistently striven to share the results of his research and development in teaching and learning, and the results of two previous initiatives on "structured discussions" and "peer assisted learning" have been successfully used in other schools within DCU.

Evaluation of the Application Process

The university, through the T&L fund, strives to support collaborative innovation in T&L, and considerable improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and promulgation can be achieved by collaborative ventures. However, the cap on funding at €15,000 effectively penalises staff for collaboration, as the same sum of money needs to be shared between the collaborating partners. A compromise could be to cap the T&L fund at a fixed amount per collaborator.

The development and evaluation of new teaching methodologies is ideally suited to a one year MSc studentship, and the money available from the T&L fund would support such initiatives. I believe that we should be supporting research into teaching, and that a student employed on a studentship would lead to a thorough implementation of the project initiative and its assessment. Unfortunately, at present the time-frame for spending the money does not allow students to be taken on. It also makes the development of initiatives in semester two more difficult.