PBL modules are effective ways to develop competent engineers from undergraduate students. Despite this, they are incredibly challenging to develop, run and assess.
In this post we share eight tips to reduce the overhead, and increase student satisfaction on, PBL modules.
Students usually want to work with their friends, but this rarely benefits them, or the cohort as a whole. An effective method discussed in ‘Managing project-based learning modules’ was to ensure each team had an approximate average academic ability. There may be reservations from the higher-performing students, but these are counteracted, as you will see in tips four, six and seven.
Grouping students by average academic ability reduces the likelihood that a team will fail the module and therefore increases progression. On engineering courses, this is relatively simple to do because most courses have common mathematics modules. Although not a definitive measure of ability, it provides something of a baseline.
If you have structured your module with students from multiple courses, it is also prudent to ensure students from each course are in each group to allow for multidisciplinary exposure.
Local, or larger companies, can be engaged in several ways to add an ‘industry-relevant’ flavour to your module. Most companies will have small projects which are not business critical, or industrially sensitive, and can serve as material for developing assessment briefs. It gives companies the opportunity to see potential graduates in action.
Some engineers are more available than others, so give them an option for how much they wish to engage which could either be weekly, monthly or just at the beginning or end of the semester.
For students to gain the full benefit of a CDIO module, an engaging and immersive project is needed. Where possible, you want to avoid creating these resources yourself, as the workload can be significant.
If industry projects briefs aren’t obtainable, organisations such as Engineering Without Borders will provide rich resources and support, for a fee. This also gives students the opportunity to present their project at national, or even international competitions and win prizes!
Students are becoming more tactical with how they spend their time, particularly those who work as well as attend university.
In order to promote good engagement with their team, it can be beneficial to give a relatively large portion of marks for individual contribution to the team effort i.e 40% and provide a lower weight for group assignments. By doing this, students who provide little benefit to the team effort, are unlikely to pass.
Managing the assessment for the ‘individual contribution’ element of the module’s assessment can be incredibly onerous, particularly with larger cohorts. The marking workload can be significantly-reduced using peer-marking on a weekly basis. Using peer-marking software such as Peermarkify can reduce this workload to less than ten minutes per week.
Using peer-marking has a secondary benefit, in that the students providing feedback on their peers are less likely to feel frustrated by colleagues receiving marks without contributing to the team effort and feel 'heard' when providing their marks.
One of the most effective ways to get student teams up and running in a productive fashion is to create a ‘team contract’ once groups are formed.
The general form of this is to let the team members agree on expected behaviour and consequences for when these behaviours are not met. It is essential for student ownership that staff have very little say in these rules.
Once done, get the students to sign and keep these rules for reference when there are transgressions or disagreements.
Non-engaging students is a major challenge for project-based learning modules. They can significantly affect group output as well as being a major cause of dissatisfaction on modules
A highly effective approach to remove ‘passengers’ from teams is to apply the ‘yellow card/red card’ scheme, in which students are warned about non-engaging with a ‘yellow card’ and if further non-engagement occurs, they are removed with a red.
Exactly what constitutes ‘non-engaging’ needs to be covered in the team rules, as the standard of agreed behaviour may be different for each team.
After weeks, and even months, of hard work on a project, it is a great source of pride for students to be able to share their work with colleagues, academics or even industry.
A great means of doing this is a showcase event containing team pitches and prizes for the best ones. If you engage a company, it is a great idea to ask them to invite their staff so that they can give feedback, judge and award winners. It is also a great opportunity for them to identify potential graduate employees.
Showcases provide a point of focus throughout the modules to help students stay motivated during the module.
Developing simple and effective engineering PBL modules is heavily affected by the level of preparation employed.
Hopefully you have gained some useful insight in how to run project-based learning modules. If you have any additional thoughts or suggestions, please get in touch via out contact page. We’d love to hear from you.