Transforming a Problem-based learning course into a Challenge-based learning course: UT M-EEM “Challenge-based Sustainability Case projects”

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From the academic year 2021/2022, all M-EEM group work courses in quartile 3 have served for a pilot process to become challenge-based, adopting tailored Engage-Investigate-Act phases. Traditionally, these have been a problem-based course, i.e. teachers provided research problems including external partners/clients. The alignment of challenge-based learning (CBL) in the three applied case courses within M-EEM is desirable not only in terms of programme cohesion, but also in terms of experimenting with new forms of educational methods. As such, we would like to position these courses as an occasion to find out:
1. How does challenge-based learning contribute to the development, formulation and execution of profound, original, and integrated sustainability research in a student group setting?
2. How does the use of a combined self- and peer-assessment procedure contribute to formative student learning about their personal development and group participation in a challenge-based learning setting? (Section 1)
The case project courses are embedded in a 1-year master programme at University of Twente that trains students to become professionals in environmental, energy or water management. The courses are specifically meant for students to implement the knowledge and skills they have acquired in the previous quartiles in a dedicated group work setting and also prepare them for their individual thesis research work, by putting into practice their research skills before they have to do this on their own. The learning objectives are the same for all three courses and are structured according to content-related and process-related skills. These have been overhauled for the specific purpose of aligning with a CBL approach, as have the teaching activities. These involve a not too rigid pre-structuring of the quartile into the three CBL phases Engage-Investigate-Act. Progress is assessed through progress reports, self- and peer assessment sessions, as well as a mid-term report and a final report. (Section 2)
To answer our research questions, we have used three sources, including dedicated teacher reflections elicited after the courses ended; the forms students submitted for their self- and peer assessment sessions, which detailed their progress on 21st-century skills; and the alignment of the content reporting with principles of CBL. These were analysed with qualitative thematic analysis, and counting (a) how often certain skills were mentioned by students, and (b) how many skills students cited in their reflections. (Section 3)
In general, teachers felt that the Engage phase was executed best in the first run of the courses. This led to satisfactory challenges for all groups. Unfortunately, from the Investigate phase on, the course became more of a ‘regular’ research course, also owing to the kind of rubrics used for the summative assessment of the courses. Teachers thought the self- and peer assessment sessions were a welcome and useful addition to the course. Talking about their divergent group work performances helped students individually and in the group.
The analysis of the self- and peer assessment forms brought to light that students reported more on the criteria of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘communication’ than on ‘creativity’ and ‘collaboration’ (the latter were lower down on the form). The skills that were mentioned often in all three courses included systems thinking, confidence about collaboration, and taking initiative/finding ways to make the project run better. These are all skills that are encouraged by the challenge-based learning approach. However the micro-level differences in how the courses were taught make it slightly difficult to come up with clear conclusions as to the differences between the courses.
Summative assessments had pre-defined contributions to CBL by including specific sections on how students worked on their challenge. They had to describe how they implemented the CBL approach in their methods, as well as derive conclusions for the stakeholders in their final chapter. However, due to the time restraints for the course, the action phase of CBL is sometimes only reached as part of the discussion/conclusion sections in which students make action proposals or plans to address the challenges they researched. (Section 4)
The teaching team has made several suggestions for improving the courses for the second run and aligning them even more with the CBL philosophy. Some of these have already been implemented in the second run of the courses executed in quartile 3 of academic year 2022/2023. In the self- and peer assessment forms, we have found issues regarding
- the number of assessment sessions, which should be reduced to two,
- the single-point rubric, which now includes generic 21st-century skills criteria that could be aligned better with CBL,
- how students fill out the self-assessment forms, for which teachers need to safeguard that a similar level of immersive reflection is achieved for all criteria,
- the 21st-century skills that students thought they learned about; these included, for example, low-hanging fruit skills related to project management in a group setting.
For the summative assessments, the role of describing the CBL process and infusing the academic research reports with a stronger CBL influence was highlighted. It is suggested to change the prescribed report structures and assessment rubrics to reflect the CBL ‘learning journey’ that students navigate through. (Section 5)
We conclude that the challenge-based learning approach has definitely had its influence on the outcomes, albeit mixed. Regarding research question 1, it has in the first run been difficult to deviate from a traditional academic research report, in which the engagement with stakeholders could have been emphasised more. Regarding research question 2, we found that we might have overshot the mark with the three formative self- and peer assessment approach we implemented, and that two should suffice. Although the variables contributing to how students fill out their forms do not allow for a specific answer, we are fairly confident that our self- and peer assessment procedure has contributed to students personal development. (Section 6)
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationEnschede
PublisherUniversity of Twente
Number of pages39
Publication statusSubmitted - 23 Feb 2023


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