What works: Research-based handy tips and tricks for the curious professor – Part 5

Series Part 5: The role of the teacher

When using the PBL method, the role of a teacher changes from being a lecturer to facilitating the learning process. Producing learning is not dependent on teachers’ ability to transfer knowledge to students. Rather, it depends on their ability to actively participate in their own learning process.

Series Part 5: The role of the teacher

When using the PBL method, the role of a teacher changes from being a lecturer to facilitating the learning process. Producing learning is not dependent on teachers’ ability to transfer knowledge to students. Rather, it depends on their ability to actively participate in their own learning process.

This kind of teaching presents several challenges for the teacher:

  • Teachers’ content knowledge
  • Students’ lack of experience in this new approach and their preference for a traditionally-structured approach
  • Their preference for a learning environment which requires less effort from them
  • Problems arising from time stress

In this challenging environment, in which the students must increase their tolerance for ambiguity, they must feel support from the teaching staff. To overcome the challenges of using the PBL method, the teacher can offer:

  • Practical help
  • Positive examples
  • Providing the safe environment as was mentioned above. In such a learning environment, the instructor functions more as a consultant rather than as the conventional teacher.
  • Support through presence, by making the right questions and encouraging the students to continue the searching and creating process. Otherwise the students feel overburdened.
  • Workshop-supported homework, as an example of a learning opportunity in which the students cooperate in teams and instructors facilitate the process instead of merely showing the answers. This way the teacher does not focus on the correct answer, but rather on the learning process.
  • Fostering communication to and among the students, ensuring that they understand why this approach to learning has been chosen, emphasizing the importance of learning-by-doing and prototyping, and setting clear goals. Additionally, it is important to make clear that one of the objectives of the course is for the students to learn to tolerate ambiguity.
  • Aside from multidisciplinary co-work challenges, language and cultural differences can also challenge the depth of communication in a group. For this reason it is important for students to have access to effective e-communication or other project management This can help overcome frequent group work-related problems such as scheduling.
  • Experimentation, for example through prototyping, which can be used to explore ideas and stimulate thinking, as well as to reflect on, and evaluate said ideas. It can also be a useful tool for multicultural classrooms, as it provides a common language and provides enjoyment.
  • Promoting the active participation of learning with interactive lectures and non-conventional tools such as drama, video, posters, model making and other similar means. This “generates creativity, ingenuity, and inspiration” (Kähkönen, 2011), which are very valuable in the process of turning students into experts.


Interactive lectures

Learners should become participants in their own education via learning tools which promote learning and include verbal, digital, visual or emotional tools, which are used to increase personal and group commitments. Students should therefore learn in an environment that favors activity and experience and fosters immediate engagement. This will ultimately decide the fate of the learning process and learning is expected to be better when knowledge is constructed by the students rather when they receive knowledge via formal instruction. This is difficult to achieve in in the traditional instruction and classroom setting. Students learn better when they are provided with the opportunity to discover concepts rather than being formally instructed.

In contrast with traditional lectures, in which the student learns passively, an interactive lecture consists on students working together on a few selected problems developing the theory as they go along. The final results are shared and evaluated by the peers.

This results in interesting questions that can be further discussed in the following lectures or researched independently as homework. Presenting the results with a whiteboard also lends itself to interaction and discussion in class, and laptops can be used as a research tool to obtain the latest information.


The value of non-conventional tools

The freedom to deviate from traditional presentation methods frees the students to work more creatively and learn more. Furthermore, humor is a great aide for remembering new knowledge. A combination of simultaneous use of several tools can activate multidirectional learning. However, if a topic is too large and/or technical for a single presentation, it might be good to give the students some initial background information to complement the lecture. It is also important to take in consideration the pace and timing of the presentation.

Different tools and materials can be used for building and visualizing. Examples include drawings and posters, working with legos, modeling clay, knitting machines, videos, movies, welding, electronics, music, drama, oral presentations, questionnaires, etc. The following are lessons learned from working with non-conventional tools at ADF according to students’ experiences:

  • Drama:
    • Getting a deeper understanding of the topic
    • Easier to remember
    • Well in line with the topics covered by the lectures
    • Even when there is a lot of detail it is possible to formulate a general view of the topic, and to retain this learning
  • Posters and drawings:
    • Makes topics more understandable
    • Helped to learn and acquire new understanding on a previously unknown subject
    • Better comprehension of complex problems
    • Helped to understand the connection between different facts
    • Helped retain new information in memory
  • Video:
    • An excellent way of repeating what had been presented, which results in deeper learning
    • Helped correct previous misunderstandings
    • Is a great way to give an overview of a topic
  • Oral presentation:
    • Helped retain new information in memory
    • Promotes interaction between students
  • Questionnaire:
    • Eliciting knowledge from the students is a great way to activate the learning process, making them explicitly realize what they know (or correct misconceptions) about a topic. It piques interest and grabs attention. Ending the presentation with another questionnaire helps realize how much they have learned.
    • Helped retain new information in memory
  • Physical prototypes and demonstrations:
    • Can help visualize complex structures
    • Helps to better understand a process
    • Creates a shared and interactive learning experience that helps retain new information to memory


Continuous development of DBL

Implementing Design-Based Learning is not enough though. There are shortcomings encountered in class, in the experience of teachers and students. For this reason continuous experimentation to improve the model is tantamount to the process. The input of the experiences of teachers and students after testing this method in different disciplines, and the results of their experiments, is invaluable for DBL researchers.


In short:

The experiential ADF teaching mentality is collaborative, interdisciplinary, problem-based, hands-on, student-oriented, multi-method, experimental, and linking theory to practice.

The activities are informal, curiosity-promoting, fun, energetic, practical, creative, activating, and motivating.

Devise teaching methods that have these characteristics, experiment, and communicate!


Series Part 1: Introduction to ADF ways of working

Series Part 2: The environment

Series Part 3: Group work

Series Part 4: PBL activities

Series Part 6: Prototyping, Failing and Learning

Series Part 7: The successful student and the role of university education

Series Part 8: Working in intercultural groups

Series part 9: Facilitated feedback sessions

Marcela AcostaWhat works: Research-based handy tips and tricks for the curious professor – Part 5
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