Jolene Muneno, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
Problem-based learning (PBL) is a learner-centered pedagogy in which participants learn by solving real-world problems. In this approach, learners identify what they know and what they need to learn more about, conduct research, and apply their knowledge to come up with solutions to problems. A facilitator guides the learning process.
Boud and Feletti (1997) explain that the pedagogy evolved through innovations in medical education. An alternative to traditional lectures that teach different medical disciplines separately, PBL requires medical students to research and combine knowledge from multiple domains and to use deductive reasoning to problem solve. In an overview of PBL, Savery (2006) states that PBL became an accepted instructional approach in North American and European medical schools in the 1980s and 1990s. The use of PBL has since spread to elementary, middle, and high schools, universities, and professional schools.
PBL and Advising
Problem-based learning has been shown to improve learner independence and confidence (Thomas & Chan, 2002) and long-term retention of knowledge (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009) in college settings, and learner motivation (Chiang & Lee, 2016) and problem solving skills (Gallagher et al., 1992) in high school settings. Advisors strive to foster these same qualities in students. While group advising traditionally relies on a lecture-style presentation of information, it is worth exploring whether PBL can effectively present the same information in a way that is more engaging and that encourages independent thinking and problem-solving skills.
A PBL advising activity was designed to help University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UHM) undergraduate students learn about University requirements and campus resources and identify solutions to advising-related problems. A post-assessment evaluation survey measured student engagement and their preference for PBL compared to a lecture-style presentation of the same material.
All incoming Kinesiology & Rehabilitation Science (KRS) students for Fall 2019 were invited to participate in the PBL advising activity, and 12 students opted in. The participants were divided into three groups of four students. Each participant was provided with a laptop to use for internet research. The participants were told they would play the role of an advisor and were given background information on what advisors do.
Three undergraduate juniors and seniors majoring in KRS were invited to be group facilitators. The invited students were selected because they had leadership experience within the KRS Club and KRS Summer Bridge program and were in good academic standing. The three students attended a researcher-led training on PBL group facilitation which introduced them to the background and theory of PBL. In the training, the researcher also guided the trainees through the entire PBL advising activity as if they were the participants and modeled what questions to ask as a facilitator. Trainees were then asked to reflect upon their experiences as PBL participants and the role the facilitator played.
A group facilitator was assigned to each group. The groups were incrementally presented with a series of common advising scenarios that followed the first semester of a UHM freshman student majoring in KRS. The scenarios involved teaching the student about graduation requirements and the registration process, and connecting the student to campus resources like tutoring and counseling services. Once the group completed one scenario, they were given the next one.
Most participants had little prior knowledge of the scenario topics. A few times, someone in the group had some knowledge of the topic and was able to begin the inquiry. More often, during times when the entire group did not know how to begin their research, the group facilitator asked guiding questions such as “What is the student struggling with?” and “What can you do an internet search for to learn more about this?” The group facilitators took notes on the whiteboards during the discussions, frequently asked the participants to expand on their thoughts, and reminded them to find tangible evidence to support their advising decisions. For each scenario, the participants researched solutions online, identified campus resources to refer the student to, and shared their findings with their groups. The groups then discussed how they would advise in each scenario. If they missed important information, such as a campus resource that would have been helpful to the student, the facilitators asked follow-up questions to help prompt the participants.
PBL Activity Evaluation
In a post-assessment evaluation survey that was completed in person, 83% of participants “Strongly Agreed” and 17% “Agreed” that the activity was engaging. 100% of participants “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” that the activity gave them a better understanding of graduation requirements, resources on campus, and what can be covered in an academic advising appointment. 83% “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” that they prefer the PBL advising activity over a lecture-style presentation on the same topics.
Participants were asked what they enjoyed about the activity. Seven out of twelve participants stated that they enjoyed learning about the various campus resources. Three participants indicated that they enjoyed learning about the requirements for their KRS major. Two participants used the word “engaged” to describe their experience in the activity.
Participants were also asked how the activity could be improved. Two participants mentioned that it could be improved by incorporating more complex or challenging scenarios. One participant suggested expanding the activity to two advisee storylines.
One of the group facilitators shared reflections on the experience: “It's one thing to read/learn about the system, as well as listening to our suggestions on how to do things, but applying that information to the scenarios gave [the participants] a chance to think critically. . . . As a leader, it made me realize that I need to do what's best for the entire community instead of what I want to do. It’s important to listen to people.”
Post-assessment results suggest that students find PBL advising to be highly engaging and most students prefer it to a lecture-style presentation on the same topic. Furthermore, 100% of participants self-reported having a better understanding of campus resources, graduation requirements, and academic advising after completing the PBL advising activity.
PBL advising may also be beneficial to the group facilitators by providing opportunities to develop their leadership skills. As the facilitator’s reflections reveal, participating in the PBL advising activity can lead the facilitator to the realization that leadership involves attentive listening and allowing others to discover things for themselves rather than telling them what they need to do or know.
While the results indicate that PBL advising can be successful, translating PBL to a group advising format comes with limitations. In many group advising settings, an advisor can present information to a large number of students at once. A PBL approach to advising can be limiting because in order for it to be effective, it is ideally done with smaller groups (Lohman & Finkelstein, 2000). This can be time-consuming and unrealistic for advisors who have large advising loads. Furthermore, since PBL requires participants to research, discuss their ideas, and problem solve, the learning process can take more time than traditional group advising would.
Advisors who are constrained by time and a large group size can experiment with incorporating PBL-inspired mini scenarios into their group advising presentations. For example, periodically throughout their presentations, advisors can ask students to research and discuss various scenarios in short think-pair-share activities. This can serve to make the presentations more engaging and effective.
A long-term goal of advising is for students to develop independence and self-sufficiency as they progress through their academic careers. While research outside the field of advising suggests that a PBL approach can cultivate these qualities, little research exists on the effects of PBL as it relates to advising. Future research can focus on the effects of PBL advising approaches on post-secondary students’ long-term retention of knowledge, engagement, motivation, and problem-solving skills.
PBL Advising can be an effective platform for advisors to orient new students to campus in an engaging and empowering way. It is also an innovative approach to fostering collaboration and camaraderie among new students and developing group facilitators’ leadership skills.
In the future, group facilitator recruitment efforts will target students who plan to attend graduate schools that use PBL as the primary method of instruction, such as medical schools. The group facilitator experience can then serve as an early introduction to PBL methods for these students, which has the added benefit of preparing them for graduate school.
An additional plan for the future is to incorporate PBL-inspired mini scenarios with in-person and virtual large group advising sessions to investigate whether these shorter PBL-inspired activities are effective, and whether the outcome is affected by the delivery format.
While many new student group advising sessions focus on one-way delivery of information from the advisor to the student, PBL advising aims to empower students to find information themselves and share it with their peers. PBL advising reinforces the idea of advisors as facilitators and aligns with the goal of students becoming independent learners. Since PBL advising is a new approach to advising, further research is needed to determine its effects on long-term student academic success.
Office of Student Academic Services
College of Education
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
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Chiang, C. L. & Lee, H. (2016). The effect of project-based learning on learning motivation and problem-solving ability of vocational high school students. International Journal of Information and Education Technology, 6(9), 709–712. http://www.ijiet.org/vol6/779-EP00028.pdf
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Cite this article using APA style as: Muneno, J. (2021, March). Problem-based learning advising. Academic Advising Today, 44(1). [insert url here]