This study examines the development of generic and research skills through the implementation of interdisciplinary PBL courses in the Bachelors of Medicine and of Human Biology. Based on the assessment of a previous pilot experience (17), these courses were designed to improve the development of generic and research skills, promote students’ creative thinking, and increase their satisfaction with the methodology. For this reason, the implementation model shifted from a PBL-module within traditional subjects, to fully integrated PBL-courses.
Student and tutor perceptions about the development of generic and research skills were significantly enhanced in the PBL-courses. This improvement can be attributed to the clarification of learning outcomes, skills-oriented evaluation and the role of the tutor as facilitator. In PBL-courses, learning outcomes are clearly focused on generic and research skills, while in PBL-module, these skills could be blurred within the other learning outcomes from the traditional subjects. Consequently, assessment in PBL-courses is skill-oriented and uses different tools, such as rubrics and observation grids, to foster metacognition and guide the skills development. The results suggest that students in PBL-courses have better assimilated the intended learning goals, and that assessment tools might have contributed to improving their skills development.
According to Chng et al. (2014), the tutor plays a role in facilitating student learning; thus, rather than simply conveying knowledge, the tutors question, make suggestions, and challenged the ideas raised by students (13). They have to make the transition from teacher as knowledge provider, to tutor as a manager and learning facilitator (8). This task demands a great amount of time and preparation; further, the better the tutor knows the students and the group interactions, the better he/she can guide the students’ learning processes. In PBL-courses, the same tutor was present for the full 10-week course; in contrast, in the PBL-module, the tutors changed for every problem, and each tutor was only present for 3 weeks. Therefore, we partly attribute the improvement of the students’ skills development to having long-term tutors, who were in a position to better guide the learning processes. In this study, students recognised the pivotal role of the tutor in their development and considered that an ideal tutor should facilitate and guide the learning processes as well as promote creative thinking. Whenever the tutor had not maintained this role, he/she was identified as a limitation of the PBL methodology.
Thus, our results suggest that both students and tutors perceived that the students developed a high level of generic and research skills in PBL-courses. Additionally, the results showed that a strong correlation existed between the development of generic skills and that of research skills. These results are also aligned with comments from both students and tutors.
Active learning and student-centred methodologies, such as PBL, imply that learners play an active role in planning, monitoring, and evaluating the learning process. Thus, students have to consider different ways to approach a task, set clear goals, select strategies for achieving these goals, anticipate what has to be done, and evaluate the process and the product of the learning cycle (2). Development of both generic and research skills are intrinsically tied to this process. In this light, the strong correlation between the acquisitions of these two sets of skills is not surprising. In fact, the ability to become a knowledge seeker, to be able to collaborate and communicate, and to regulate and self-direct this learning process are essential skills necessary for defining a problem, analysing the situation, and integrating and applying knowledge to develop solutions for new situations (9,11,12). Additionally, students and tutors think that this methodology can also enhance creative thinking. There is a general consensus that domain-knowledge and skills are major components of creativity, and that creativity occurs when investigating various aspects of a problem (23,24). Scientific exploration and activities, such as definition of scientific problems, hypothesis formulation, design of a research, and evaluation of evidence, are considered key elements in scientific creativity development (25).
Our hypothesis that cooperative work during the PBL learning process can enhance the development of generic and research skills was confirmed. The quantitative results show moderate correlations between the group dynamics and the development of generic and research skills. These results are also aligned with student comments. Students considered that, during the processes of learning and of knowledge construction, working with peers helped them to analyse different perspectives, integrate different points of view, and build on each other’s ideas to reach the solution of the problem presented. In fact, collaboration during the learning process involves mutual interaction and a shared understanding of a problem: participants have a common goal, share responsibilities, and need to reach an agreement through mutual interaction. In this situation, learning and development of skills may be enhanced by elaborations, verbalisations, co-construction, and cognitive and socially constructive criticism (2).
The PBL collaborative learning environment is also favourable to cultivating creativity. A high percentage of students (86%) thought that they developed their creativity through these PBL-courses. Based on the creative skills described by Burnett and Keller-Mathers (2017), we determined how these skills are developed during the PBL phases. In the first phase, students are encouraged to produce and consider many alternatives to solve the problem, and then they have to combine the different ideas and synthesise them into a working plan. In the second phase, students must share their research results and highlight the essence, while keeping an open mind to new ideas or perspectives as possible solutions to the problem, and then elaborate their own answers. In the third phase, students require originality to present their findings, and they put their new ideas into a bigger framework, based on the problematic situation. They also perform a self-evaluation about their participation in the group, during which they become aware of their emotions, an aspect that has also been linked to creativity. Identifying how these skills are implicit in the PBL learning cycle can help educators to emphasize them and hence better promote creative skills development.
Both students and tutors in the PBL-courses were more satisfied overall than those in the PBL-module, and those in PBL-courses scored the usefulness of this pedagogical approach higher. Notably, however, significant differences between the students of the different Bachelors have been found in PBL-courses. Because satisfaction and usefulness show a strong correlation to each other, the differences in these two items can be attributed to the perception that medical students find learning through PBL more useful for their future professional lives than do human biology students. Indeed, the skills applicability is very clear for the medical profession, and less clear for human biology students (whose career goals are often less clear), even though all develop essential skills for their future professions.
Students who took the PBL-courses stated that they were satisfied with this methodology as it allowed them to develop useful skills, which is also demonstrated by the high correlation between satisfaction and usefulness, and the self-perceived generic and research skills acquisition. Also, students perceived that they retained the knowledge gained over the long term. Thus, this study demonstrated that PBL promoted the development of generic, domain-specific, and self-reflection skills and long-term knowledge retention that should enable individuals to gain and apply new knowledge and skills as needed, as has been previously shown (26,27). These higher cognitive abilities, such as problem-solving, collaboration, or creative thinking, will be required to confront new future and social challenges in our ever-changing world (26,28,29).
The increase of student satisfaction for PBL-courses as compared to that for PBL-module could also be attributed to the recognition of, and adjustment to, the student workload, which was identified as a critical aspect in the PBL-module. In that first model, students noted their dissatisfaction with the fact that the amount of workload was not rewarded enough in the final course mark (16). This problem was solved in PBL-courses, as the final marks were independent from traditional teaching. Students evaluated positively the different evaluative tasks, and the only weakness they noticed was the role that subjectivity played in some cases. Student perceptions of assessment are influenced by previous experiences; this means that any intervention involving assessment can be perceived in various ways by students, and thus can affect them and their learning process (30). In this study, the student perceptions about assessment had to be considered to help clarify student concerns.
Our study has several limitations, the most important of which is related to its own characteristics. The overarching aim of the study was to explore whether changing the PBL implementation model enhances student learning outcomes and satisfaction with the learning experience. It was performed in a naturalistic academic environment, and no experimental interventions were carried out. In this non-interventional design, many variables changed between the two models that were compared. Consequently, we cannot identify which factors contributed the most to enhancing the aspects analysed (e.g., the perceived improvement of learning outcome and better satisfaction with the courses). Another limitation is the lack of evidence of the real student development in generic (including creative thinking) and research skills in each model. This was not possible as the assessment methods used in these models were not comparable; therefore, we focused the study on perceptions of students and tutors. However, we consider that our results are of interest as they show significant differences between both models, and describe how these skills were developed, from the students’ and tutors’ perspectives.