He was one of the advocates of Problem Based Learning (PBL) from McMaster University in the ’60s, when this approach was only known in the academic field. Today, with the coming adaptation to the European Higher Education Area, more commonly known as the Bologna Plan, PBL stands as one of the methods that best fits the new educational system. Luis Branda and Rosa Maria Torrens approach this teaching methodology for teachers of the future university system in the new PBL training seminars initiated by the Dr. Antonio Esteve Foundation.
Why has there been such rejection of the Bologna Plan by students?
With the information I have, I think it is a result of lack of communication between everyone, which has led to misconceptions of what Bologna is and what it is not . The controversy is not related to the plan but with the decisions of the regional and state governments.
One of the arguments wielded by its detractors is that the new system is more concerned with entry into the European labor market than with knowledge, for example by the abolition of courses that have less professional potential.
I do not know the entire situation in Spain, but I not share this view. Students in the past were worried because there was no connection between what was expected out of college and what the university gave them. My impression is that now, as is happening throughout the world, there is a greater connection between university learning and social reality. The removal of courses is not based on an anti-knowledge attitude but on a very serious problem, which is the number of students enrolled in many courses. I had the opportunity to do an audit on Catalan universities and too many courses had fewer than 5 students. And that’s expensive.
What will this new system do that the previous ones were not able to accomplish?
The Bologna plan was based primarily on the idea of facilitating the mobility of students and to consider whether curriculums were consistent. Two aspects that Bologna deals with in general is the need for a revision of the curriculum, to try to introduce the student to something close to what will be the reality, using problems that they recognize as relevant. It is obvious that students of the classical professions are more motivated by learning from this reality (engineering, health sciences, business, etc.). The literature also says that other professionals are much more motivated when they can relate the knowledge to something that is in some way familiar. Bologna was by no means specific in this, but very general. The other aspect that I find very positive in this plan is the use of European credits, which doesn’t imply transforming hours into numbers. These credits are helpful in that they include the time the student spent on homework, making an estimate of course. Until now this was not in place.
However, some students believe that with these new credits it will be impossible to combine study with work.
The learning that takes place now is done compulsively before the exam. Just visit a library before or after an examination to see this. There is no sustained learning over time. The new plans require students to commit to lifelong learning. Can the students work or not? I think that on this issue there again needs to be good coordination between the institutions and the students. If, for example, the institution stipulates that students can only study in this period, they have to reduce to the minimum the essentials, such as practicals. “Classes? There must be some very clear learning objectives, but this should not mean an obligation to always attend class, it should be entirely optional. Flexibility should be offered. For example, in PBL the group could negotiate on the basis of different needs and not necessarily be forced to comply with what the institution establishes. The institution guarantees places and spaces, but it is the group who must negotiate when they can, keeping in mind compatibility problems with work. Don’t have mandatory classes and reduce to the minimum what is presential and essential (and the classes are not), such that the student is clear about the expected objectives and the possibility of negotiations are measures that help solve this problem.
Do you think that Spanish universities are prepared for this change of mindset, both in level of resources as much as flexibility?
I don’t know. I have seen both sides: resistance on the one hand, but also an attitude of change. It will take time. There are still areas in which the teacher believes that all their material should be learned by the students. These teachers have difficulty accepting that they must only select the essentials. In many institutions, attendance in class is compulsory, when it is likely that the information provided is available in books or by other means. Students, for their part, take turns in taking notes. There may be lectures, to which the student can or cannot go, that don’t just contain what already exists in the books, but use the teacher’s experience and are conceptual and inclusive. You have to let the student decide. We say that students must be responsible. Then they start making these decisions. If the student has not done enough study, this will be reflected in the assessment. But if what we expect in an evaluation is that the student repeat what they have memorized in a expository class, that has to change. And I continue to encounter resistance; I don’t know if it is widespread or only by isolated groups.
Is the change possible for 2010?
It is about changing paradigms, ushering in self-directed learning, changing to routines of continuous learning. The experience of institutions using such programs is that the student does not have to work harder but continuously. I don’ know whether students are prepared to accept that. There have been many misunderstandings about Bologna, for example that it is a movement that encourages private institutions rather than public, but there is no evidence that verifies this. Neither do I know the reasons why people say such things.
Why, despite the successive changes in the Spanish educational system, are our students are still behind at the international level?
I don’t know. I don’t know the situation enough. I think it is a shared responsibility. It is known that providing information is not very effective and that it is better to develop approaches in which the teacher is more active, without implying that lecture notes need only be put online, which is the most comfortable position. Doing activities in which students take responsibility and participate more. The student must also change their attitudes and not expect everything to be given by the teacher. The changes must occur on both sides, and polarization does not help. In my opinion, Bologna has not started in the most effective way, because it was the ministers of education who met and took decisions. It didn’t arise from a dialogue with the actors involved, but came from above.
PBL is one of the methods that best fit the European framework.
It fits better because it motivates, because it allows the student to undertake self-directed learning and because it enables development of generic skills that do not belong to any one subject.
How would you summarize what PEL consists of for those who do not know?
It consists of having clear learning objectives specified by the institution, which I consider non-negotiable, and offers students a real problematic situation, edited to facilitate learning, and in which the student identifies what they should learn in relation to the non-negotiable objectives of the institution and their own personal goals. Basically, you start with a problem, identify what should be learnt, use resources, to see if you can apply yourself and make decisions about the direction to follow. Those are the decisions taken by the student group.
If the student becomes the protagonist, what role remains for the teacher?
The teacher’s role is very important in two areas. One of them is as an expert in presenting the learning objectives in their area, their discipline, which the teacher considers should be met by the student. That is, developing methods of evaluation as to whether the student is competent or not. The other role is that of tutor facilitator of this work group, which, without giving information, helps in the dynamics of learning . Very important roles, perhaps more than that of giving lectures.
What is addressed in the courses in PBL taught by Rosa Maria Torrens in association with the Dr. Antonio Esteve Foundation?
They are aimed to inform and clarify. They are also initial training for a teaching group that decides to change and shows what direction to take. It is just a beginning and should be followed by teacher training courses for those who decide to implement PBL.
How have students embraced the first two courses?
I left with a very positive feeling in two ways. First, from comments we received from students, I think they have been useful. But also, I was extremely encouraged by observing the potential for change. Of course it is people who decide to take courses, but despite that, people that came with certain ideas, and afterwards they had changed. I think the potential is huge.