Lecture-based teaching has become the norm across universities. A professor at the front of the class, a PowerPoint presentation, and hundreds of students. Most of my classes have run in this fashion, and for the most part, the students have learned and done well. However, classes that require more practical, hands-on work, and which involve applying theoretical knowledge, need to adopt a different formula to support students’ academic success.
A first-year physics class at the University of Waterloo, PHYS 111, recently started experimenting with another style of teaching, problem-based learning. This method revolves around students’ ability to process and apply information, and it relies on worksheets, interactive clicker questions, and group work sessions to help students further comprehend theoretical information. This allows students to apply what they have learned, ask questions, and discuss their thoughts with other students, which gives them the opportunity to find strengths and weaknesses in their understanding of lectures and course content.
I was a student in this class, which was taught by Dr. Rob Hill. I found that, compared to my experiences in high school physics classes, I was able to understand the material and apply my knowledge more effectively. My final mark was higher, and I enjoyed the classroom environment much more; I found that my peers were more successful as well. The opportunity for questions and discussions helped me identify areas where my knowledge and understanding could be improved. As a result, by the end of the semester, I had a strong foundation and felt well-prepared to understand, visualize, and answer the questions on my exam.
This project is being operated as part of the Dean of Science, Undergraduate Teaching Institute at the University of Waterloo, with Dr. Hill and Dr. Joe Sanderson at the forefront of the initiative. I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Hill about how the notion of evidence-based teaching led him to using problem-based learning in his classroom. He said that the idea behind evidence-based teaching is to, “determine how students learn, try different techniques, and measure the effectiveness”. He also recognized the importance of finding the instructor’s strengths and weaknesses, and talked about how vital it is to gather data and evidence to make this teaching style more effective and successful. Dr. Hill also encouraged lecturers to seek help in implementing this teaching style by approaching their campus’s equivalent of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence.
However, while problem-based learning is promising, more data is needed for the teaching style to reach its full potential. A Midwestern University study found that students who participated in problem-based learning gained twice as much knowledge compared to when they were in the traditional lecture sessions. This study stressed, however, that there is not enough empirical data on student learning outcomes, which makes it difficult to understand how students learn best and what strategies need to be implemented. This study supports Dr. Hill’s comment that we need to collect more data to measure the effectiveness of this teaching style. Dr. Hill also mentioned that it is not easy to measure learning, and that this is not an area where numbers and data can be easily compared.
We cannot undervalue the importance of understanding how students learn and the best method for teaching them, and there needs to be more focus on measuring the effectiveness of various teaching techniques. Traditional lectures need to be adjusted to ensure that students can apply their knowledge in the classroom and retain information effectively. What’s clear is that future leaders need the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge in the classroom so they can be ready to meet the challenges they will face in the workplace.
 Aman Yadav, Dipendra Subedi, Mary A. Lundeberg and Charles F. Bunting. 2013. Problem-based Learning: Influence on Students’ learning in an Electrical Engineering Course. Journal of Engineering Education 100, 2 (Jan. 2013), 253-280. DOI: 10.1002/j.2168-9830.2011.tb00013.x