Sabado, Pebrero 25, 2012

Problem‐based Learning (PBL)


There are two major pedagogical views with respect to student learning, which can be summarised as active/cooperative and passive learning (see, for instance, Colander, 2004; Keyser, 2000; Smith and Waller, 1997). As noticed by McManus (2001), in passive learning ‘students are assumed to enter the course with minds like empty vessels or sponges to be filled with knowledge’, whereas in active learning ‘students can learn to restructure the new information and their prior knowledge into new knowledge about the content and to practise using it’. Different types of active/cooperative learning exist, such as academic controversy, studentteamachievement divisions, teamsgamestournaments, group investigation, jigsaw, teamsassistedindividualisation, cooperative integrated reading and composition, or problembased learning (see, for instance, Johnson, Johnson and Stanne, 2000).

Many studies exist that highlight the advantages of active/cooperative learning methods againsttraditional approaches based on ‘chalk and talk’ in many different fields. Johnson, Johnson and Smith (1998) analyse 305 studies that compare the relative efficacy of cooperative, competitive and individualistic learning on individual achievement in college and adult settings. They find that cooperative learning promotes higher academic success, greater quality of relationships and is more
highly correlated with a wide variety of indices of psychological adjustment than the other methods.Johnson, Johnson and Stanne (2000) perform a metaanalysis with 158 articles studying eight cooperative learning methods at different educational levels and find that cooperative learning significantly increases student achievement when properly implemented. Maxwell et al. (2005)compare problembased learning (PBL) and traditional instructional approaches in building knowledge of macroeconomic concepts and principles in high school students. Their results suggest that problembased instruction can improve student learning if the instructors who implement it are well trained in both the PBL technique and economics.

 Forsythe (2002) summarises the existing research literature and notices that, relative to conventional lecturebased method, PBL fosters a deeper approach to learning, promotes more versatile studying methods, and develops greater knowledge retention and recall skills. Besides, PBL students tend to exhibit stronger knowledge application skills and from a teacher perspective PBL appears to be a very satisfying method of teaching. In spite of this evidence, many undergraduate courses in economics are still taught by using traditional passive learning methods (Becker and Watts, 2001a, 2001b; Benzing and Christ, 1997; Watts and Becker, 2008). Although many reasons exist for the predominance of ‘chalk and talk’ in the teaching of economics, the lack of suitable materials is likely to be one of them. This paper shows how instructors can use problembased learning to introduce producer theory and market structure in intermediate microeconomics courses.

 Active/cooperative learning is at the heart of the problembased learning method (see, for instance, Johnson, Johnson and Smith, 1991). In PBL students learn content, strategies and selfdirected learning skills by collaborating to solve problems, reflecting on their experiences and engaging in selfdirected inquiry (HmeloSilver, 2004; HmeloSilver, Duncan and Chinn, 2007). The instructors’ role is to provide both guidance to facilitate student learning and content knowledge on a justintime basis (HmeloSilver et al., 2007).Although several resources exist for instructors wishing to implement active/cooperative learning (see,for instance, Becker and Greene, 2005; Beckman, 2003; Brouhle et al., 2005; Cheung, 2005; Dixit, 2005;Elliott, Meisel and Richards, 1998; Gächter, Thoni and Tyran, 2006; Garratt, 2000; Hartley, 2001;Meister, 1999; Zahka, 1990), materials for applying PBL to specific parts of the economics curriculum do not abound (for some examples see Forsythe, 2002). This paper advocates using the PBL method to introduce producer theory and market structure in intermediate microeconomics courses by asking students to imagine that they are the managers of a firm who need to solve a problem in a particular business setting. The approach involves both concrete (such as solving simple numeric examples by using calculators or spreadsheets) and general tasks (such as formulating and solving abstract parameterised optimisation problems). Although the approach relies essentially on problem solving (and the presentation and discussion of results using posters), it includes a game to generate experiential data for the development of conceptual understanding.

 Problembased learning activities

To integrate PBL into the economics curriculum it is necessary to follow three steps (Forsythe, 2002): designing problems and/or tasks, assessing the response to the problem/tasks and designing the PBL environment. This paper ignores the last two steps (for an accurate exposition of the details involved (see Forsythe, 2002) and focuses on the design and presentation of specific problems included in intermediate microeconomics curricula to the students.

Designing problems/tasks for a PBL environment usually involves four steps (Forsythe, 2002):

The form of the PBL environment must be determined. The activities proposed in this article have been designed for a ‘partial’ PBL environment, where PBL coexists with traditional lectures. That is, after the proposed PBL activities instructors should then go through the traditional lecturebased approach (although it is also possible to skip the details completely and encourage students to use a
textbook to study the topics either on their own or in groups).

The instructor must focus on target learning outcomes. The problems proposed in this paper have four major goals. First, they intend to provide some context to the theory and models used for teaching producer theory and market structure and to make them more compelling to students. Second, they underscore the connection between the various market structures. The third goal is to
develop the students’ modelling and problemsolving skills. Last, the problems provide a natural setting for introducing strategic decisions and to develop naturally the concepts of Nash and subgame perfect Nash equilibrium.

Determining the learning activities associated to the PBL setting. This paper considers three different activities. The first activity assumes that only one firm exists in the market, so that the firm’s
managers only need to worry about consumers’ tastes and willingness to pay (summarised in the demand function) and their own costs. The second activity assumes that several firms exist in the
market, so that besides costs and consumers’ tastes, managers must take into account their beliefs
about the behaviour of their rivals. In the third activity the number of firms in the market is endogenised, so that entry can be considered.

Presenting the tasks to the students. The different tasks which compose each of the activities proposed in the article are detailed below. The exposition outlines how the different tasks should be
presented to the students, provides the answers to the proposed problems, and gives some advice for the instructors to guide the discussions. Notice that the activities have been designed for a class size of 15–30 students and groups of three students. (Bigger class sizes can be accommodated by either reducing the number of poster activities or by increasing the group sizes to 4–5 students. However, notice that in bigger groups individual responsibilities are likely to become diluted.) It is assumed that after the instructor has presented each task the students will discuss and solve the proposed problems in groups, then they will write their own answers on posters, and finally they will discuss their answers with the other groups and the instructor


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