A hurdle too high? Students’ experience of a PBL laboratory moduleby Orla Kelly, Odilla Finlayson

Chem. Educ. Res. Pract.


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RESEARCH www.rsc.org/cerp | Chemistry Education Research and Practice ience of a PBL laboratory module

Pu bl ish ed o n 22

Ja nu ar y 20 09 . D ow nl oa de d on 2 4/ 10 /2 01 4 15 :2 9: 21 .

View Article Online / Journal Homepage / Table of Contents for this issueA hurdle too high? Students’ exper

Orla Kellya and Odilla Finlaysonb

Received 23rd June 2008, Accepted 26th November 2008

DOI: 10.1039/b901459b

The experience of a cohort of students enrolled in a Year 1 chemistry laboratory module delivered through a problem-based learning approach was studied. The methodology involved both qualitative and quantitative data analysis. The results show that students had a very positive attitude toward the PBL approach.The data suggests that a high proportion of students felt that learning and enjoyment in the PBL laboratory were better than in the traditional laboratory.

Furthermore, by the end of the module, 83% of students indicated a preference for the PBL approach, and a similar percentage indicated they would choose to continue this alternative approach into their second year. The study also suggests that those who have little background in chemistry struggle more with the alternative approach at first, but over time the difference is reduced. Ability to do calculations is found to be a significant factor in whether students prefer the traditional or PBL approach.

Keywords: Problem-based learning, first year/general chemistry, laboratory work, previous chemistry experience


Problem-based learning is an approach to curriculum/module design that involves students engaging with problems from practice, which provide a stimulus for learning. According to

Engel (1997 p. 15) “It is a means of developing learning for capability rather than for the sake of acquiring knowledge”. It is a student-centred approach, with the tutor as the facilitator.

In this role, the tutor shares the learning process with the students, placing less emphasis on academic expertise and more on the tutor’s ability to guide small group discussion and decision making. This can be a threat to those who view education as hierarchical. (Margetson 1997)

A problem-based learning (PBL) chemistry laboratory module was developed and implemented over the course of three academic years. The development of this module has been previously described, (Kelly and Finlayson, 2007). The aim of the module was to develop the students’ practical and transferable skills, as well as their content knowledge and scientific understanding, in an environment where there is concern over the effectiveness of the traditional laboratory courses. The rationale for evaluating the students’ experience was three-fold: firstly, to allow for the ongoing development and improvement of the module; secondly, to explore the students’ experience of this alternative teaching and learning environment in terms of learning and enjoyment; and thirdly, to investigate whether the experience of the module was different for those students who had previous chemistry experience compared with those who had not. In this paper the second and final points will be considered.

Traditional vs. problem-based learning in the laboratory

Before investigating the experience of students taking this problem-based approach, it is important to describe clearly what the authors mean by a ‘traditional’ laboratory approach and by a ‘problem-based’ one. The traditional laboratory approach discussed in this study is similar to what other authors have described as expository (Domin, 1999 and

Johnstone and Al-Shuaili, 2001). This means that the procedure is given, the outcome predetermined and a deductive approach is followed, whereby the students have met the concept/theory/principle previously and are following a procedure to evoke/prove this principle. However, it is argued that this places little emphasis on thinking. Criticisms of this approach include: “Its ‘cookbook’ nature emphasises the following of specific procedures to collect data;

It gives no room for the planning of an experiment;

It is an ineffective means of building concepts;

It is unrealistic in its portrayal of scientific experimentation.” (Johnstone and Al-Shuaili, 2001 p. 46)

In terms of assessment, the conventional written laboratory report is the common assessment tool. It is disputed, however, that this method does not allow for assessment of all laboratory objectives. (Johnstone and Al-Shuaili, 2001)

Despite these criticisms, the expository style approach still remains in many laboratories because it can cater for a large number of students with minimal involvement from the instructor, at a low cost, and is time efficient. Furthermore, it can support certain aims of laboratory teaching, such as development of manipulative and data-gathering skills. (Johnstone, 2001) However, Lagowski (1990 p. 541), nearly 20 years ago, described how “laboratory experiences – the heart of any science – have been allowed to degenerate to rote exercises designed to consume minimal resources whether time, space, equipment, or personnel”. It is because of a combination of these problems coupled with our personal experiences that we decided to investigate an alternative approach to laboratory teaching, PBL, which until recently a Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK; E-mail: orla.kelly@plymouth.ac.uk b School of Chemical Sciences, Dublin City University, Dublin 9, Ireland.

E-mail: Odilla.finlayson@dcu.ie 42 | Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 2009, 10, 42–52 This journal is © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2009 has been primarily reserved for the health disciplines.

PBL was initially developed by the Faculty of Medicine at

McMaster University in Canada where pure PBL courses started with problems rather than the exposition of disciplinary knowledge, with students moving towards the acquisition of knowledge and skills through a staged sequence of problems presented in context together with associated learning materials and support from tutors (Boud and Feletti, 1997). Margetson (1997) has pointed out that this encourages open-minded, reflective, critical and active learning, with students and teachers coming together in a shared educational process. In this research an adapted form of PBL is used.