C.K.Y. Chan

University of Hong Kong (HONG KONG)
Problem-based learning (PBL) is a learning process driven by challenging, authentic open-ended problems that encourages cooperative and student centred learning. In the past few decades, educational researchers (Alavi, 1995; LLoyd, 1999; Barrows et al, 1980; Boud and Feletti, 1991; Hmelo-Silver et al, 2007) have established PBL as “the” pedagogical instructional strategy for professional disciplines such as Medicine, Dentistry and Engineering. They believe that PBL is the answer to deep motivated learning and at the same time, provides students the opportunity to broadening skills such as critical thinking, creativity, life long learning, leadership, collaborative skills and others. Given that soft skills are now considered to be the ‘x-factors’ by employers (Chan, 2008), even beyond having excellent academic discipline knowledge, educators are now trying to identify appropriate teaching approaches which can align the learning outcomes of both discipline knowledge and soft skills. And PBL seems to be a welcoming tool.
However, the effectiveness of PBL from educational researchers has generated two puzzling and debatable questions. If this small group, self-directed PBL is so great for learning, why isn't every educational practitioner doing it (Kirschner, 2006; Fenwick and Parsons, 1998)? But consequently there must be something compellingly effective about problem-based learning, given the level of faculty interest in it all through higher education (Margetson, 1991; Schmidt et al, 2007; Hmelo-Silver et al, 2007).
In this study, we provide ten case evidences on problem-based learning in various professional disciplines namely Medicine, Engineering, Dentistry and Science from educational researchers and educational practitioners in Ireland and in Hong Kong. These evidences will demonstrate if culture, discipline and unguided instruction approach experience of educational practitioners actually affect the effectiveness of PBL. The paper discusses the pre-college learning culture in Ireland and in Hong Kong in order to fully understand these evidences. The evidences were generated by qualitative in-depth interviews with educational practitioners in both countries. And the data were analysed case by case to determine the effectiveness of the PBL in terms of the three elements - culture, discipline and unguided instruction approach experience. The perception and reflection of individual practitioners were also analysed as it was important to find out the practitioners’ beliefs, knowledge and experience on PBL. Out of the ten educational practitioners interviewed, four of them were also educational researchers who have received formal training on learning and teaching in Higher Education as well as the respective professional disciplines. Thus the results were rather compelling.
Finally, the author correlates the learning theories of problem-based learning to the theories of cognitive load (Sweller, 1998) and expert competence (Bransford et al, 2000; Mayer, 2003; Weiman et al, 2005) with evidences from literature reviews in order to further explore the effectiveness of problem-based learning as a deep learning approach.