Arising from an initial “ultimate challenge” for universities to make themselves relevant to the solution or amelioration of global societal problems, the initial approach was one of devising inter-disciplinary problem-based challenges based on real issues identified by individuals from within and outside the university. These largely featured problems of sustainability, taken in a very broad sense, but later extended to include issues of, for example, ethics, entrepreneurship and humanitarian aid.
Preparing students to tackle complex real-world issues of societal responsibility led to a problem-based (PBL) approach to learning. Why PBL? And, can PBL cope with different student audiences in terms of different disciplines, levels and differing expectations? Starting with a question about the purpose of higher education in the face of increasing complex global problems, the expectation was that a problem-based approach would facilitate transformative and engaged learning, but does this work in practice? Building on a wide review of the appropriate literature, this study draws on the experiences of lecturers, facilitators and students who have been involved in the development process of a series of PBL units. The paper also looks at the background to both engaged and also transformative learning.
The evolution of the series of course units, over a decade or so, is elucidated and models of PBL delivery are compared. With development and transfer to different and larger audiences, greater scaffolding has been incorporated and mixed modes have been developed; assessment has also developed alongside the development of the course units. Three factors seem to have considerable influence: subject discipline, level (and maturity) of students, and the previous experience of students. Whilst problem briefs should be challenging, they need to be readily accessible to all students. Where enabling competences have not previously been embedded, then these need to be incorporated. Design of the peculiar circumstances of each case needs to examine the sensitivities of the institution, and individual departments, and the skills and expectations of both staff and students. The development of the underlying course unit to a range of different circumstances raised a number of issues. These are described and the approach taken to their resolution given.
Evaluation of the efficacy of the course units has taken a number of forms. This covers student feedback, which includes nominal group results and reflective reports. A small study of former students suggests that the PBL approach enables an engaged approach and the development of generic and employability competences. Early offerings of course units were also evaluated through questionnaires and other forms of feedback, both from students but also from facilitators and colleagues. PBL with repeated group assessments, and individual reflection, can lead to transformative learning in a variety of situations.
This sequence of course units began with a premiss that universities needed to pay heed to issues of global societal responsibility and that, in so doing, they needed to equip students to work across disciplinary boundaries, to tackle complex issues that have no single ‘right’ answer and also to participate in the management of change. PBL afforded a route to achieving those aims. However, the concepts need not just to be ‘taught’ but also to become embedded in the students’ mind-set: students need not just to participate but also to engage. The evidence is that the enquiry-based approach enables student engagement not just with their own learning but also with the wider world. Conclusions are drawn about the transformative nature of the approach, the challenges to implementing it and its ability to adapt to different circumstances.