Relationship between deep / surface learning styles and students' evaluations of their first problem-based learning experience

Frances Reynolds,  Brunel University,  UK

Background and Objectives:  Problem based learning has been advocated for adult learners because it encourages personal responsibility for learning, help students apply knowledge to real-world problems, and can reflect individual interests (Barrows and Tamblyn, 1980).  The learning process is initially stimulated by a case or problem, then students work in fairly autonomous small groups to identify their learning needs, allocate tasks, share and apply information.  Learning outcomes comprise academic / professional knowledge relevant to the case, and a variety of transferable skills includingt eamwork, communication skills and time management.   Students tend to favour problem based learning over more traditional methods of teaching (Bligh, 1995).  It is unclear whether students' learning styles   influence students' responses to PBL.

This study explored students' evaluations of their initial PBL experience.   The study focuses on whether students with deep approaches to learning (who enjoy learning / study for its own sake) express more positive attitudes to PBL, and conversely whether those with surface learning styles (who value external direction of their studies) feel more anxious about this experience.

Method:  First year occupational therapy and physiotherapy students were surveyed following an interprofesional PBL assignment during weeks 6-8 of the course, during which they had, in mall groups, researched and presented a pain management approach for a written case study patient.

A short form of the Learning Styles Questionnaire (Entwistle et al, 1992) was presented together with a questionnaire previously used to assess attitudes to PBL (Reynolds, 1997).  Data about students' age, sex and professional course were also collected.

Results:  Questionnaires were received from 157 students (78% response rate). 84% were female.  The PBL Attitudes Questionnaire (PBLAQ) had an acceptable internal consistency (Cronbach's alpha =0.73) justifying use of an total score.  PBL attitudes were unrelated to age, sex or professional course, but were significantly related to learning style, with students scoring high on deep approaches to learning being more favourable in their responses.  In response to specific attitude statements on the PBLAQ, students with deep approaches to learning were significantly more likely to agree that they enjoyed the responsibility of PBL, that group discussion had helped them to make connections between ideas, that the case scenario had motivated study, and that they had developed skills useful for future PBL.  Students with more surface learning styles expressed significantly more anxiety about the method, were less certain that PBL helped them to make connections between ideas and expressed somewhat lower confidence in their future skills for PBL.

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