Problem effectiveness in a course using problem-based learning
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Background. Problem-based learning (PBL) emphasizes active generation of learning issues by students. Both students and reachers, however, tend to worry that not all important knowledge will be acquired. To explore this question, problem effectiveness (i.e., for each problem, the degree of correspondence between student-generated learning issues and preset faculty objectives) was examined in three interdependent studies. Method. The three studies used the same participants: about 120 second-year students and 12 faculty tutors in a six-week course on normal pregnancy, delivery, and child development at the medical school of the University of Limburg in The Netherlands, 1990-91. The participants were randomly assigned to 12 tutorial groups that were each given the same 12 problems; the problems were based on 51 faculty objectives; the tutors were asked to record all learning issues generated by their groups. Study 1 addressed this question: To what degree are faculty objectives reflected by student-generated learning issues? Study 2: To what extent do students miss certain objectives, and are these objectives classifiable? Study 3: Do students generate learning issues not expected by the faculty, and are these issues relevant to course content, and finally, why do students generate these issues? To help answer these questions, the studies employed expert raters and a teacher familiar with the course content. Results. Study 1: For the set of 12 problems, the average overlap between learning issues and faculty objectives was 64.2%, with the percentages for individual problems ranging from 27.7% to 100%. Study 2: Of the 51 objectives, 30 were not identified by at least one tutorial group; these objectives were grouped into three categories; on average, each group failed to identify 7.4 objectives (15%). Study 3: Of 520 learning issues, 32 (6%) were unexpected; 15 of these were judged to be at least fairly relevant to course content; they were grouped into four categories. Conclusions. The students' learning activities covered an average of 64% of the intended course content; in addition, the students generated learning issues not expected by the faculty, and half of these issues were judged relevant to the course content. Thus, PBL seems to permit students to adapt learning activities to their own needs and interests.