My first PBL lecture

I recently attended a workshop on problem-based learning (PBL). It was very interesting and I couldn’t wait to try it out! From what I understand about PBL, it addresses some of the challenges I have found with lecturing:

  • PBL dispells the notion of the lecturer as the “source of all information” and puts the onus of information gathering onto the student. (Incidentally this doesn’t relieve the lecturer from researching information, in fact the exact opposite is true as the lecturer has to be extremely knowlegable about the topic being investigated.)
  • Previously I exposed my Management 2 class to labour legislation through a project, but not all group members participated which was frustrating to the students who did put in some effort. My hope is that although PBL sessions are collaborative discussions, the learning issues generated must be researched by each individual student.
  • Instead of passive lecture sessions where students listen and don’t participate, PBL encourages full enagagement and participation of students and minimal lecturing/input from lecturers. (Personal note: this is great for those after-lunch lectures when it’s difficult to keep students’ attention in a lecture!)
  • Additionally I believe PBL replicates the types of ill-defined labour problems students may encounter in the workplace – as opposed to neat and tidy problems found in textbooks. (Is this authentic learning?)

In planning my lecture session, an Introduction to the South African legal system, I converted the course outcomes into learning issues:

What is law?
How is the law enforced?
Criminal vs civil law
Sources of South African law (there are 7)
What is the Constitution?
What are rights?
What is the Bill of Rights? (and what two categories of rights are there?)
What is Parliament?
How is the South African court system structured?

Ordinarily I would have presented the answers to the above questions in the form of a lecture. According to PBL, I needed to generate a problem that could be presented to students which they could use their existing reasoning skills and knowledge to create a discussion around the topics.

Generating the problem question has proven to be the most difficult, challenging and time-consuming task in my lecture preparation! I struggled to develop a question specific enough to encompass all the learning issues and yet be open-ended enough to lead into a discussion. Each problem I developed didn’t seem quite right. In a search for articles on teaching labour law in a PBL environment, I found a wonderfully and honestly written article by Rachel Arnow-Richman. I was secretly hoping that the article would describe a “magic formula” for deriving PBL questions! Instead, I found possibly the best and most reassuring advice on selecting a PBL question:

In light of this, I have made peace with what is essentially a trial and error process for selecting and assigning problems. The insights I gain from my first sally with a particular problem show me where it needs to be tweaked for the following year; I may even decide that a particular problem is best abandoned. In the meantime, I am mindful of the risks of my experimentation, and where a problem proves less than effective, I switch up my teaching style, supplementing with a bit of lecture or perhaps resorting to more traditional case-based questioning to bring students up to speed or to take them where I need them to go. Thus, for the first few years, faculty may be forced to select problems with less than complete information and to endure a bit of uncertainty about how things will play out.” (Arnow-Richman, 2013:55)

(Rachel, if you ever read this, please know how much value your article has added to my journey in PBL – thank you!)

I realised that I was unlikely to be able to execute PBL perfectly, so I took a deep breath and chose the best (but nowhere near perfect!) of the questions I had developed:

“Can a lecturer legally ban students from smoking?”

In the lecture session I asked the students to form groups of 4 – 6 students and gave each group an A3 sheet of paper for them to brain storm the question and write down their thoughts. After about 15 minutes I asked some of the groups to share their thoughts with the entire class.

My hope was that the discussion would lead into discussions such as who can create laws?, how are laws enforced?, how are laws promulgated?, where are laws made? and perhaps discussions around personal rights such as the right to freedom (to smoke in one’s own home) which could lead to a discussion on the Constitution.

The reality of the lecture was that the best answer I received was “it depends” (which I think shows that the students are realising the answer could change if additional information was provided) but most students seemed to focus on the idea that if there was a “no smoking” sign then yes the lecturer could enforce it. I tried to question the students about who could decide on the rule that there would be no smoking or who would enforce it but we ended up having very circular discussions about CPUT and their internal rules. I really struggled to direct the discussion to the laws of South Africa (which I had thought would have been prompted by the word “legally” in the original question).

I readapted the question to:

“Could the Minister of Health legally ban students from smoking?”

This pushed the discussed towards Ministers, MPs, Parliament, Acts and the idea that laws need to be enforced.

PBL Lecture 1BOur lecture time was nearly up so although we had only identified 3 out of the 9 learning issues, I gave the students a handout with the 9 learning issues as a self-study/research exercise. (To test their research abilities/understanding of the information I set up a Blackboard quiz for the students to complete.) I will probably need to conduct a mini-lecture on the learning issues next week, which defeats the point of PBL but I will try to allow students in the class to present the information. (Thinking aloud: maybe each group can present their findings on one of the questions?)

Notes and reflections:

  • while the groups were discussing the question, I walked around and observed their group discussions but didn’t offer any input until the larger classroom discussion. I later noticed that some groups had reached some of the learning issue topics that I was hoping to discuss, but they did not share them in the general class discussion. In the next lecture I am going to try to engage with each group and allow them to develop their own discussion, irrespective of where the rest of the class is.
  • perhaps PBL is not designed to be taught in classrooms of 100 students, or at least if it is, there ideally need to be more tutors who can engage with each group of students
  • I need to avoid PBL questions with a yes/no answer
  • I need to ensure that the learning issue questions are more specific. For example “What is the Constitution?” is quite open-ended. I should rather have asked “When did the Constitution come into effect? What is the purpose of the Constitution?” etc.
  • I need to ensure that students are motivated to research the questions (they probably need to submit something for “marks”  ha ha) and
  • I also need to continue to provide a method (e.g. Blackboard quizes) for students to test their understanding of the content.


Arnow-Richman, R. 2013. Employment law inside out: Using the problem method to teach workplace law. Saint Louis University Law Journal. 58 (29), pp 29 – 61.



Introduction to mapping

I teach a Site planning class to first year students and during the introductory lecture we engaged in some map reading activities.

I split the class into three groups and each group rotated between 3 activities. The first two activities involved students studying a topocadastral or orthophoto map and answering questions about what they could see. I had not explained anything to the class about the maps but set up the questions for the students themselves to discover characteristics about the maps (such as the meaning of certain symbols or drawing conventions).

Students studying an orthophoto mapFor the third activity, I connected 6 topocadastral maps that covered the Cape Metropolitan area. As an interesting exercise, and for students to personalise their own connection with mapping, I asked students to put a red pin at the location of their home or residence and using string, trace their route to varsity.

3D infographic / artwork showing student residences in relation to CPUT

Language in assessment

Language is a particular obstacle that many students will have to deal with on a daily basis. For most students whose mother tongue is not English, the learning process involves translating English, regardless of whether the actual concept is understood or not.

Our TDP course encouraged us to reduce the language barrier in lecturers and exams by including words and questions in multiple languages (the answers however must still be given in English). Here is a list of word translations into isiXhosa and Afrikaans that I will be able to use in my Management lecture notes and exam questions:

English – Xhosa – Afrikaans

Business management – ULawulo lwezoShishino – Bedryfsbestuur
Human resources – Icandelo lezabasebenzi – Menslike hulpbronne
Leading – Ukukhokela – Leiding
Control – ULawulo – Beheer
Needs and wants – liMfuno nokuFunwayo – Behoeftes en Begeertes
Products – limveliso – Produkte
Public relations – Unxulumano loluntu – Openbare betrekking
Competitors – Abagqatswa – Kompetisie/Mededingers
Economic systems – linkqubo zoqoqosho – Ekonomiese sisteme
Command/Socialist/Capitalist – Umyalelo/UBusoshiyali/Ungxowankulu – Opdrag/Sosialisties/Kapitalisties

Wright, Jenny (2003) An Integrated Course: Communicating in Horticultural Business Management, Top Copy, Claremont

Formative feedback

Formative feedback is an important aspect of the learning process, for both the student and the lecturer. Formative assessment allows students to assess how well they are understanding the course content, as well as providing them with an opportunity to practice answering questions to prepare them for their exam (constructive alignment). As a lecturer, I have found formative assessment very valuable as it allows me to track students’ progress (especially to determine at-risk students) and to assess how I need to adjust lectures.

Below are a few examples of formative feedback I have made use of:


The Site Planning course had two sessions each week – one theory/lecture session and one tutorial session. Each week I would lecture on a particular topic, and during the tutorial session later in the week, students would attend a tutorial session where they were required to work through a set of questions and exercises based on that week’s lecture (see an example of a Tutorial). The students had a couple of days to complete the tutorial, which they would then submit for formative assessment. Some students struggled with the work and those who failed the week’s tutorial were given the opportunity to redo the tutorial. If I noticed that a particular student was struggling with a concept I would write a note encouraging the student to speak to me about that question during the next tutorial session.

Other than formative feedback, I found that the tutorial sessions were particularly valuable for several reasons:

  1. students were more confident to ask questions during a tutorial session than a lecture
  2. tutorials enabled me to interact with students in small groups where it is more easy to gauge if individual students are grasping the concept or not
  3. tutorials provided an opportunity for learning from peers or working with peers to understand the content

Design crits

The Landscape Technology course is primarily a design studio where students are given design tasks and must complete a set of drawings and/or models for each particular task. Because the deadlines are often once a month or so, students are encouraged to see a lecturer at least twice a week (there were 3-4 lecturers available for this). Each student had a “comment sheet” that was filled in by the lecturers with whom they had crits. This comment sheet was then submitted with every deadline or hand-in.

Although I did not design or implement this formative assessment system (it has been in place for a couple of years), I actively took part in it and provided students with opportunities for design crits by posting consultation timetables outside my office (see below).Consultation Self-assessment and peer assessment

I felt particularly encouraged by a TDP session on formative feedback to make use of self-assessment and peer formative feedback. One of the courses I have been lecturing in the seond semester has a large project due at the end of the semester. Each week the students are required to submit a section of the work for feedback. I found that some students were not following instructions or that I was repeating comments to multiple students about items that were missing from their hand-ins. I started including a “checklist” for students to read through and tick off and submit with their work. This was not entirely successful as it requires students to read and work through the checklist while completing their assignment, and not to tick off every item regardless if it was completed or not. My next strategy is once students have submitted their assignment, they will be required to assess it (using a rubric) as well assess the work of a peer.