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‘Cubic’ ELM Assessments 3: A Problem-Based Learning Course…

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Scattered cube

This post is the third in a series using “engagement and learning multiplier” (ELM) assessments to examine some common teaching and learning methods. If you’d like to (re)familiarize yourself with how these assessments work, you can refer to this post. If you’d like to compare this current post’s ELM assessment with others I’ve done, you can find the assessment of a laboratory course here, and you can find the rest of the “cubic” assessments in the sidebar (which may be at the bottom of this screen if you’re reading this on a mobile device).

For each of these assessments, I’ll set the learning scenario and then present analysis about why that approach has a given “cubic” shape and why it receives a particular ELM score. These posts are designed to provide useful examples and guidance as you evaluate your own learning approaches and as you make your own teaching and technology choices.

A problem-based learning course


This middle-school social studies course is organized around a single major concept: building a human colony on Mars. Learners work through three separate phases of this concept over the course of the year: 1) the initial planning and colonization — deciding what would be needed to establish a colony and who should be invited as initial settlers; 2) the running of the colony — deciding what system of laws and government should characterize the settled colony; and 3) the expansion of the colony — deciding how to attract new settlers from earth to come and expand the colony’s capabilities. While the teacher has determined this overall structure, the details of what learners plan, what they make to demonstrate their plan (to both peers and parents), and how they present their work are all entirely left up to the learners. The teacher begins the course by introducing learners to Scrum, the collaboration method originally developed to help software developers work more productively together (see this helpful post by Bea Leiderman about Scrum in school). All work in the course is developed by learners using this method, with the teacher serving as the “Product Owner.”

Learners form their own teams of three to five members whom they choose based on a “skills résumé” (accompanied by examples where appropriate) that each learner prepares and presents to the class: descriptions of drawing or artistic ability, experience making movies, writing or math skills, knowledge of particular software or apps, etc. These teams will stay together throughout the year — though learners are also encouraged to “cross-pollinate” by seeking help from other teams if they need something no one on their own team can provide. Cross-pollination works by means of barter: teams have to negotiate, with one team offering services the other team wants in exchange for the services the first one needs. Any team that finishes a project before the other teams is signified a “consulting group”: its members are expected to split up and serve the other groups by helping with whatever they need. If a team experiences any interpersonal difficulties, its members are responsible for working those difficulties out themselves (though the teacher offers guidance and resources if the team members request help). The role of Scrum Master rotates through all of the team’s members during the first unit, with every member serving as Scrum Master at least once. After that, team members are allowed to choose their own roles based on their abilities and their team’s collective sense of how they can serve best.

Every class day begins with a “Stand-Up,” during which learners show the products of their work to one another, deal with delays or impediments, and decide what their work for the day will involve. Following this initial meeting, the teacher might briefly present relevant materials, involve students in a mini-project, or ask one of the teams to present some of their recent discoveries or work. She also provides materials on the class blog with the understanding that learners will use these as a starting point for their own explorations and creations. As learners develop their projects, they conduct research, develop media, and share results, all facilitated by the tablet devices the school provides for each learner. Teams present the results of the first two project phases in December and March during evening assemblies open to the public. Each team posts its assembled materials on the course blog for “public review” one week prior to the assembly, and is expected to use feedback gathered from this review period and from the public forum to revise their work. Each group gives a 10-minute presentation followed by 10 minutes of public Q&A. At the end of each forum, the assembled audience votes on which group presented the most compelling plan, which produced the best presentation, and which demonstrated the best responses to the audience’s questions. Many former class members participate in these public reviews “just for fun,” though the top team from the previous year serves as a formal “review committee” — service they perform both for the honor of the position and for the pizza party they get during final reviews. The “review committee” provides specific observations about what each group has done well and what each group needs to improve. In late May, learners present the results of the final project phase to the entire school, and the assembled school votes on which settlement they’d most like to join — and why. These three public forums (and the materials prepared for them) take the place of course exams.

The top team (and next year’s “review committee”) is chosen by combining the results of the three public forums and an end-of-year, in-class vote determining which overall project was the best researched, best supported, and best presented — a process which the previous year’s “review committee” referees.


Content: Because learners are working throughout the course on a topic that is still hypothetical, they cannot merely repeat work developed by others and must adapt or create most of the materials they’ll need. Although there are strong research components in every project phase — focusing on areas including law, history, economics, psychology, and even marketing — learners have to extrapolate from these and apply them to the context of the Martian colony. While the teacher provides foundational materials, and while the course includes delivery, direction, and discovery, learners are expected to build on these resources in order to reflect their own developing visions. This emphasis on adapting and building significantly increases the scope of the content dimension. Since learners must create materials to use during the public forums — text, images, and videos, among other artifacts — and since learners are expected to refine these materials based on the responses they get from the online and public forums, creation and iteration are the dominant content activities. Overall content score: created (n4).

Community: This course could not be conducted without teamwork and collaboration. The Scrum methodology provides a scaffold for productive collaboration and ensures that all learners are participating effectively. By using this proven framework, the teacher can focus on other aspects of the course rather than having to invent and police a method for learners’ collaboration. Since learners choose their own teammates based on the “skills résumé” and work together throughout the year, they have time to establish clearly defined roles and provide distinctive benefits to their teams, and this yields a deeper form of collaboration than would be possible otherwise. Perhaps the most innovative and interesting feature of this course is its significant emphasis on engaging with outside audiences. The three forums, with their accompanying online components, generate connections well beyond the classroom, and these add meaning and impact to course activities. However, while some teams might become very close, learners are unlikely to move all the way to “consolidated” — in large part due to the artificiality of the context. The fact that the project is restricted to the course means that it is less likely to engage learners as fully as a project that impacted their everyday lives, so most will stay at the level of “collaboration.”  Overall community score: collaborative (m3).

Context: Context is perhaps the hardest dimension to assess for this course. While the “Mars colony” project is clearly artificial, the course is built on a number of public forums that give real-world exposure — and real-world consequences — to the the learners’ work. The drive to receive positive feedback and the social pressure of having to present in public would certainly drive most learners to a far deeper level of engagement than one might find in a more traditional class. However, as we have already noted, the project remains strictly confined to the course — it doesn’t connect with learners’ everyday lives nor does it give them the opportunity to continue developing after the course concludes. Although the project might trigger later research and exploration for some learners, and although it’s not unreasonable to imagine that Mars colonization will one day be a genuine project, the middle schoolers in this course would have little opportunity to participate in the real project’s design or implementation. It therefore remains an academic activity — one whose nature remains theoretical and limited. While the public forums might be considered a “controlled” context, the course-delimited nature of the overall project — and its lack of genuine outcomes —leaves this course at the “artificial” level. Overall context score: artificial (x2).

ELM PBL with Scrum

Originally developed by McMaster University Medical School in 1969 as a means for contextualizing information and improving learners’ experiences in medical education, problem-based learning (PBL) has been adapted to many different fields, disciplines, and educational levels. This method’s emphasis on constructivism and self-direction make it a powerful approach for teaching and learning. Its posing of an essential  problem that must be solved situates learning in a setting that requires learners to reach beyond themselves — which is why this course features such a strong emphasis on collaboration and creation. Because learners need to do more to address this course’s central problem, it demonstrates more dimensionality than the lecture or laboratory approaches we’ve previously assessed. Indeed, much of the power of problem-based learning comes from its reliance on what are known as “ill-structured problems”: problems that require exploration before one can fully understand them, that offer multiple solutions without one “right” answer, and that are “open-ended and complex enough to require collaboration and thinking beyond recall” (see this useful introduction from Stanford University or this introductory article from Educational Psychology Review). In other words, as we see in this example, the problems in all well-designed problem-based courses require learners to explore and make rather than merely to absorb and repeat.

However, a central challenge with problem-based learning — and a factor that influenced our assessment of this course — is the potential distance that can exist between learners and the problem they’re working to solve. While the original goal of PBL was to provide a way for medical students to prepare for their profession through experiential learning, as this method been adapted and developed, the “problem” often becomes less directly relevant to the learners involved. PBL courses today are more likely to focus on a problem chosen or constructed to serve a course’s agenda or goals rather than one students will face in their everyday lives. While the McMasters program was designed to offer learners practice in understanding, diagnosing, and treating patients’ medical conditions — a real-world context in which they would continue to function throughout their professional lives — many implementations (especially as PBL has been adapted to K–12 settings) are designed around more hypothetical or fictional contexts — including the Martian example above. This distance can result in isolating  and limiting the learning context rather than making it richer, and this limitation can sometimes impact the other dimensions as well.

Nonetheless, while the context dimension may be more limited, the community and content dimensions typically benefit from the learner agency required by PBL, and they’re typically richer than one might find in other learning approaches. Because learners must apply what they’re learning and because they often need teammates to help them process and respond effectively to the problem, they cannot remain at the lowest levels of these two dimensions. Of course, this necessity for learner agency can pose a challenge for teachers, who must demonstrate significant trust and faith in the process by getting out of its way. A true problem-based approach can only flourish if the learners (rather than the teacher) are at its center. Chained to a teacher-centric approach, PBL loses its engagement; it becomes less an exercise in discovery and creativity and more a protracted slog of “filling in the blanks.” But designed by a teacher who is willing to trust learners’ discovery and creation and serve as someone who probes what they discover and make rather than directing it, PBL can unlock levels of engagement that drive learners well beyond what they would learn or produce in a more traditional setting.

Because most PBL methods feature a standard series of steps (for example, understanding the problem and exploring what’s unknown, generating a plan, acquiring needed resources, constructing a solution, presenting the solution, evaluating responses, and iterating a final version of the solution), teachers can dedicate themselves to interacting with learners and what they produce rather than having to shepherd them through each step. Similarly, reliance on collaborative frameworks like Scrum means that teachers can direct their energies elsewhere because learners are empowered to organize, direct, and regulate their own collaboration. This reliance on established structures or frameworks can give teachers the space they need to engage learners more deeply.

While many teachers may fear implementing more learner-centric approaches, feeling overwhelmed with the notion that they’ll have to do all of the extra work of guiding, engaging, and critiquing on top of all they’re already doing, frameworks like PBL and Scrum can significantly lessen the burden, giving them more time and energy to facilitate deeper learning. Rather than having to provide all of the information for learners and all of the tools and resources they’ll need to process them, teachers can “plant a few seeds,” allowing learners to fill any gaps in content or skills. This not only makes learners more likely to internalize the course’s content, it also gives them a broader set of experiences and skills that they can draw on later. Learners’ experience with research, collaboration, presentation, and revision become invaluable “secondary skills” that they can carry with them into future work. More than this, engaging in approaches built around learners exploring and creating can provide new opportunities for teachers themselves to learn and discover, and many report that the fun they having in learning along with their classes makes teaching these sorts of courses seem all the more worthwhile.

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How can one overcome the potential contextual drawbacks of PBL — and increase the learning dimensionality at the same time? Check out my forthcoming post: ELM assessment of a challenge-based learning course…

©2017 William Rankin

Author: williamrankin

Explorer in emerging pedagogies, mobile learning activist, digital book prospector, information designer, medievalist

One thought on “‘Cubic’ ELM Assessments 3: A Problem-Based Learning Course…

  1. Pingback: ‘Cubic’ ELM Assessments 2: A Laboratory Course… | Unfold Learning