Problem method has high dropout

May 28, 2004

Students are more likely to drop out of courses that have adopted problem-based learning in place of traditional lectures, a study suggests.

According to the research, which compared two groups of nursing students in London, 41 per cent of the PBL group failed to complete their courses while just 5 per cent dropped out of the lecture-based course. Early leavers often cited PBL as a key reason for quitting.

The research was carried out by Mark Newman from the Institute of Education, who said too little was known about PBL.

The approach was pioneered by medical schools in the late 1980s to speed the process of getting students through the massive medical curriculum. Now it is used in many disciplines in higher education.

Instead of a lecturer transmitting knowledge to students, PBL treats learning as an interactive process in which students are given problems to solve. The theory is that as they find solutions, they will teach themselves.

Dr Newman said: "The students struggled with PBL throughout the programme, and their dissatisfaction was evident early on.

"They complained that they were not being 'taught' and that the teachers did not know what they were doing. Students were uncomfortable with the uncertainty of PBL because they had to expose what they did not know in order to identify what they needed to know.

"While it is recognised that students need a period of adjustment to get used to PBL, most institutions using the learning system assume that this is a stage that students eventually get through."

Dr Newman added: "In this study, they did not get through it, they simply dropped out.

"Students appeared to expect to be passive recipients of knowledge, taught to them by an expert, instead of having to make their own way through difficult material."

He said the research, which followed 70 students, was not intended to discredit the teaching method but rather to highlight the careful evaluation necessary to establish when it could be used effectively.

Dr Newman told an audience at Sheffield University last week that his study had raised questions about student satisfaction rather than the academic results, which were broadly similar.

"Even the students who completed the PBL curriculum enjoyed it less than those on the lecture-based course," Dr Newman said.

However, the research revealed that the PBL curriculum reduced the amount of time spent in the classroom by about six working days over the year.

The work is part of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, Britain's biggest educational research scheme.

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