Delving into problem-based learning in Sweden
Delving into problem-based learning in Sweden
  • Choi Ye-jin, Shim Ha-eun
  • 승인 2019.09.02 18:12
  • 수정 2019.09.05 02:30
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In pursuit of defining problem-based learning


Korea’s education system starting from elementary school up to higher education has kept the tradition of high-stakes tests and nationally adopted textbooks. However, educators began to question how can we lead students to be more engaged in their learning? And how can we induce them to connect what they learnt to the real world? The answers to these questions were found in the problem-based learning (PBL) pedagogic technique in the 60s and 70s. This new education model played a major role in changing higher education to be more student-centered. Korea later adopted PBL in the 90s only in the nursing and medicine courses at 35 universities. On the other hand, in Swedish education, professors have taken on this pedagogic strategy in other courses including law, health, and arts. While both Korean and Swedish education utilizes PBL, the lack of well-organized research surrounding this model in Korea has made it difficult for other departments to make use of it. While Swedish education broadens the spectrum of PBL, it has been found that students tend to take on more critical skills in these classes, thus making it a great example for Korea.

What is “problem-based learning?”

Problem-based learning (PBL) has never had its own solid definition due to organizations and researchers defining it in their own way. This education model has been continuously developing and changing with ongoing research broadening the meaning. 
Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation’s definition of PBL is, “a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem.” 

A typical PBL class starts with distributing problems as the main activity for the class. Students are given problems to solve either independently or as a group. The way the class runs also depends on how the curriculum takes on PBL. For instance, PBL has been implemented in the official curriculum in Korea at medical and nursing schools with classes focusing on problem-solving by themselves. Differing from Korea, in Sweden, PBL is used through group work in various classes where students gather knowledge and solve the given problem together. 

According to a study on the status of medical education run by the Korean Society of Medical Education in 2013, only a simple research regarding PBL was carried out. This showed lack of results on this pedagogic strategy making it difficult for educators to utilize PBL at its most. On the other hand, PBL has been continuously growing in other countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, and Canada. 

Sweden has had its own history of PBL and has implemented this pedagogic strategy in university classes, single courses, and individual programs. Swedish education took on PBL as a model for teaching and learning that is interchangeably used with other teaching tactics. Ewha Voice took this opportunity to meet Swedish experts in PBL to take a closer look at what and how this method is used differently in Sweden compared to Korea. 

“The main teaching method in Sweden does not fall under one strategy but is more of a mixture,” said Anna Carlstedt, the Faculty Program Director from Stockholm University, one of the universities that internalized PBL into their curriculum. “In the Swedish context, the students are in focus and independent. Teachers are present to involve the class.”

Carlstedt highlighted how critical thinking and analysis skills are the top priority in Swedish education. Due to these values, solving problems and cases is often used in classes resulting in a lot of group-based work. 

“It has been so long since Sweden used a variety of teaching methods including PBL,” Carlstedt added. “All methods are integrated now, so in many classes, case studies are used to keep students focused and motivate learning.”

The unique characteristic of Swedish education is that teachers have the freedom to run the course in any way they like. Those who prefer the traditional lecture-based system will do so while others run in a way with full-on group work, case studies and problem-solving. 

“The class atmosphere here in Sweden is generally very engaged,” Carlstedt commented. “Students take on a lot more than just basic knowledge because in Sweden, by law, schools are required to teach values to students. This allows them to learn about the basic values useful in society.”

Key points of PBL: group dynamics

Svante Axelsson emphasizes on group dynamics in problem-based learning model. Photo by Ewha Voice
Svante Axelsson emphasizes on group dynamics in problem-based learning model. Photo by Ewha Voice

Svante Axelsson from Uppsala University was originally a chemistry professor but is currently the educational developer at Division for Quality Enhancement, Academic Teaching and Learning. His role as an educational developer is to work with the university staff to teach and assess teaching methods that are used in lectures. PBL being one of the commonly used teaching methods in Sweden and Uppsala, Axelsson had a lot to share.

“First, you give out a common and realistic problem that everyone knows,” Axelsson said explaining how PBL works. “Given the problem, you allow the students to narrow it down to one single issue they would like to resolve.” 

A real-life example Axelsson gave was about a filthy student dormitory presented as a broad issue. From there, students are required to choose only one major problem they find, for example, a dirty kitchen. Once the problem is indicated, potential solutions are discussed and presented to the challenger, the owner or the person in charge. Then, students would receive feedback on their solutions. Axelsson explained that by going through this process, critical skills are absorbed as they face real-life problems and find rational ways to solve it. 

“PBL is not just merely solving a problem,” Axelsson commented. “PBL is group work for students to help them learn new knowledge, not taught by teachers. The role of teachers and professors is to supervise the group. Rather like a coach.” 

Likewise, Axelsson pointed out that unlike lecture-based classes, PBL gives the spotlight to students where the main objective of the class is to stimulate good “group work” along with problem-solving real-life cases. It was mentioned that once one goes into the professional world, working with others is equally as important as background knowledge on a person’s major. For instance, working at a company requires a person to collaborate with colleagues from other departments like marketing and finance to come up with the final product. 

“Group dynamics is crucial when utilizing PBL during a class,” Axelsson added. “This pedagogic strategy intertwines with the traditional way of assessing students on individual assignments because PBL requires basic individual studies as the starter. Everyone has their own level of knowledge and through a PBL method, you learn to share them. This way you take on compromising skills which are useful in society.”

Uppsala University has been using a learning platform called Learning Management System (LMS) where students can easily share their writings, articles and research with classmates. The school encourages active group work making it an accessible environment for PBL focused courses.

Based on how Swedish curriculum uses PBL, it requires big student groups ranging from six to 10 persons per group. Therefore, according to Axelsson, the atmosphere of the group plays a big role in the final outcome. Especially, in an interdisciplinary course with students coming from different backgrounds like the summer course run by Axelsson called Game Innovation, working as a group is a challenge itself. 

Axelsson added that working as a group also acts as a motivation factor compared to when working alone. If one shares ideas with others and have people agree on it, it will motivate them to act upon their ideas. 

“In my opinion, every course can be run in PBL,” Axelsson said. “I met with a lot of university staff and from what I hear, the Faculty of Law is highly satisfied with how they use PBL because it helps students relate the laws they learnt to a real case. However, a few teachers in medicine criticized this method because they did not trust the students to come up with realistic solutions when working with life and death problems.” 

Despite a few criticisms, Axelsson concluded on a positive note regarding PBL stating that through this method, students can gain more than just knowledge about their major but also cooperation and problem-solving skills.

Key points of PBL: active participation

Margareta Krabbe (left) and fellow professor from Uppsala University. Photo by Ewha Voice.
Margareta Krabbe (left) and fellow professor from Uppsala University. Photo by Ewha Voice.

Having been working at Uppsala University for more than 15 years, Margareta Krabbe is currently a senior lecturer and also a program coordinator in the Department of Molecular Biotechnology and Bioinformatics Engineering. 

Her job is to arrange and organize courses for students, including Synthetic Biology, which was a summer course for this year that uses problem-based learning (PBL) at work. Based on these experience, Krabbe shared her thoughts and experience about PBL.

On the way to her office, Ewha Voice found that the hallway was filled with her pictures with students and their projects, which showed her deep interest in students. As a teacher in the higher education field, Krabbe commented that she puts in much effort to stimulate and motivate students to be active learners. 

“I believe problem-based learning is the key to active participation that allows students to interact with each other,” Krabbe marked. “It’s very important for students to mobilize the knowledge that they have. PBL makes this progress possible by giving students a chance to come up with their own solutions to each problem.”

As Krabbe viewed her job as a stimulator, rather than a teacher who simply conveys knowledge to students, her main focus was to help students gain the ability to apply and utilize knowledge in real life. She further commented that she tries to use PBL in every course either as an in-class task or during the entire lecture. 

When asked about the important value in Swedish education and how it was related to problem-based learning, Krabbe replied that “curiosity” is the most important. Despite the fact that she was also a university faculty member, Krabbe sharply pointed out that it was the school that sometimes kills curiosity in students.

“Curiosity on community, communication, and knowledge drives students to be engaged in learning,” Krabbe explained. “Every year, new intelligent students who are eager to learn come to college full of curiosity. Ironically, more and more teachers find their classrooms empty because students don’t see reasons to come to lectures. We have to know that students can’t be inspired or motivated by the traditional way of teaching anymore.”

Krabbe commented that the role of the university was changing. As new technologies develop, it has become easier for people to acquire knowledge outside the campus. Rather than adhering to the old norm that university was the foundation of knowledge, she stated that now was the time for teachers and universities to change. 

“Learning has become something that people can do alone through online lectures or the internet. Thus, students nowadays choose to go outside and actually acquire something through experience, rather than wasting time in boring classrooms,” Krabbe said. “If a university can’t organize classes that are fairly different from online lectures, no students would come to university. Our job is to keep encouraging students and provide classes that are worth both their money and time.”  

Krabbe viewed PBL as a circle of design where students could engage curiosity to question problems. By solving real-life cases and problems, students could learn about a subject and further experience how to apply the knowledge that they learned. Krabbe explained that this kind of progress was crucial for students in the sense that they can know about society’s needs and wants beforehand.  

“Although PBL takes some efforts to construct, it’s important to create an environment where students can challenge themselves,” Krabbe replied on the pros and cons of PBL. “PBL takes more energy from teachers since we have to come up with legitimate cases related to real life. It’s also painful for students as it requires more integrated knowledge when coming up with solutions. However, I can say for sure that students actually learn something from it.”

Believing the construction of PBL environment will never end as long as new technologies are developed, she wished for continuous and vibrant changes at Uppsala University. 

“Teachers at Uppsala University are positive in utilizing PBL in large classes. Open discussion and group dynamics are what we pursue. We are sure that innovative and creative courses come from a university that tries not to lag behind,” Krabbe concluded.

Additional features of PBL: active-learning classroom design

While investigating the concepts of PBL in Swedish education, Ewha Voice found a common feature in both interviews with Axelsson and Krabbe - they emphasized the importance of classroom design that plays a role in motivating students to participate actively.

“Traditional lecture rooms are often designed unidirectional, which naturally leads to a less active-learning atmosphere in class,” Krabbe mentioned. “Rows of fixed seating and students facing a teacher with their backs to one another hinder communication and interaction between students. If you want to change the classroom atmosphere, classroom design is the first thing to remodel.” 

Krabbe gave a tour and showed a section on the first basement of Biomedical Center at Campus Uppsala, where several classrooms with the active-learning design were located. 

Each room had mobile tables and chairs with wheels attached to each leg. Whiteboards and smart boards were installed on four walls and noise-reduction mats were laid on the floor to minimize noise that occurs when moving the furniture.

“These tables and chairs with wheels allow students to change the classroom seating arrangements easily,” Krabbe explained. “Boards on four walls are also a great communication tool for teachers to teach students in an interactive and engaging way. Moreover, noise-reduction mat psychologically lightens the burden of moving tables and chairs. It makes classrooms come alive by using rooms in three-dimensions.” 

She said that this modification recently took place about six months ago. Although it might take a few years, her goal is to change every traditional classroom to the following active-learning classroom.  

When Ewha Voice visited Campus Gotland, Axelsson also signified the influence of the physical setup of the classroom.

“We strive to form an active-learning environment and changing classroom design is one way of doing so,” Axelsson commented. “Although it’s hard to achieve the ideal active-learning room design due to our limited budget in Campus Gotland, we still try our best to form an active-learning classroom that enhances student participation.” 

One of the rooms that Axelsson showed had a unique seating arrangement which looked like a double horseshoe. With an inner and outer row of seats arranged like a horseshoe, he explained that this flexible seating arrangement encourages greater discussion among students. 

“This is the standard seating arrangement for this room; however, students are welcome to modify this setting whenever they want,” Axelsson said. “Tables and chairs with wheels make that process fairly easy.” 

He further pointed out that conventional room models for lecture and seminar-type courses minimize student participations. By designing active-learning classroom as well as using PBL in class, he wishes to see more energetic group dynamics in class.

PBL at work and its prospect

What are students’ responses to PBL and how do they utilize it in class? A journey to discover the real atmosphere of PBL at work will be covered in the next issue. Some real examples from the actual university courses will be handled, including PBL’s future prospects in higher education.

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