PBL in Computer Science Education

Titus Brown, a professor at Michigan State and one of my advisors, is teaching his database-backed web development course CSE 491 for the fourth time (?) in the spring semester. He spoke with me about his plans for the course (which I took last year), indicating that he plans to use the flipped classroom setup and problem-based learning (PBL). He even has access to one of the REAL classrooms at MSU, which are designed for courses which use active learning techniques. I’m including a sketch of the classroom below:

I think he should assess the new techniques he is trying. PBL is untested in the computing classroom – at least in my recent literature survey of PBL in engineering. Finding out how successful the classroom approach is would be very helpful to the computing education community.

I think we should use a quantitative approach in our assessment, like the one used in this paper: Problem-based Learning: Influence on Students’ Learning in an Electrical Engineering Course. Not necessarily the exact method, but definitely something that is not only qualitative.

What do we have to do? Listed in no particular order, numbered so Titus and others can comment on individual aspects easily:

  1. Decide on an experimental design for assessing PBL. The electrical engineering example used an A-B-A-B research design, which consisted of alternating 4-week modules of traditional lecture and PBL. I think Titus wants to take a true PBL approach to teaching this class, so I don’t know if he wants to do something like the A-B-A-B model which would force him into periods of traditional instruction. If we aren’t going to use the A-B-A-B design, then what is our “control?” Titus has modified the class greatly from year to year, I think, so it would be difficult to compare this year’s results to that of previous years.
  2. Identify explicit learning objectives.
  3. Develop a way to measure student performance on the learning objectives.
  4. Prepare a way to ease students into the new active learning style. The literature on PBL clearly documents student resistance to transitioning to a new learning environment. The best way researchers and educators alike have found to bridge that gap and develop autonomous learners is to provide scaffolding during the transitional period. There is a professor at MSU who has developed some scaffolding techniques – activities that require students to work in a collaborative environment, identify their own strengths and weaknesses in a group atmosphere, and metacognitively reflect on how collaborative learning enhances everyone’s experience. I need to talk to her. Mark, who was this professor?
  5. Decide how closely we will adhere to PBL tenants. Will Titus lecture at all? Will students present to each other? How often? Where will they be getting information – textbooks, online tutorials (perhaps written by Titus as times), faculty, video tutorials, etc.?
  6. Clear our research initiatives with the appropriate boards on campus, since it involves researching student learning. What channels do we need to go through, who do we need to contact, and what parts of this process is a graduate student permitted to do?

And all of this (or most of it) needs to be in place before the class starts on January 7th.

Why? What’s the motivation behind spending time to develop a good quantitative assessment of CSE 491 and PBL?

  • PBL hasn’t been formally tested or reported on in any CS class that I’m aware of. It is getting a lot of attention in other fields (medicine, in particular, where it originated). It has a clear application in any engineering class because engineering itself is problem-driven.
  • The REAL classrooms are being used for the first time this semester, and Titus secured one via an application. If we want more awesome classrooms like these at MSU, we need to show that they are actually useful and improve learning.
  • If CSE wants to use the REAL classrooms in the future, we will have a better foundation for applying to use them. I’m guessing as professors become increasingly aware of their existence, the rooms will be in higher demand. If we start early with projects like this, we can (I hope) claim the need for such a classroom in the future.
  • With the rise of MOOCs, people are starting to question the fundamental need of in-person classroom instruction. PBL is a clear departure from MOOCs and cannot be easily replicated using current technology in an online environment. It would be interesting to have some numbers showing whether or not interactive, collaborative, in-person, guided instruction really improves student learning. I’m guessing it does, but MOOCs are popular now that we need the numbers to argue our case as educators.
  • The problem interests me and I want to research it. If you have someone willing to do the leg work, isn’t that all that really matters? :]
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