Reflective Writing by Distance Education Students in an Engineering Problem Based Learning Course

Article excerpt


USQ began 40 years ago as an Institute of Advanced Education and gained university status in 1990. The University has five faculties: Engineering and Surveying, Science, Education, Arts, and Business. The University has approximately 26,000 enrolments, of which some 35% are international students. Students can choose between three modes of study: on-campus, distance and online. The majority of students, approximately 77%, study off campus by distance education, making USQ an international leader in distance education (USQ, 2005).

The Faculty of Engineering and Surveying (FOES) has approximately 2600 students, of which approximately 600 study on campus. The remaining students use the flexible education offered by the university to work and study simultaneously at locations across Australia and the world. The faculty offers 26 programs of study over 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 year (double degree) programs through to doctoral studies. There are 9 majors offered, including agricultural, spatial science/GIS, electronic, civil and mechanical engineering (USQ 2006).

In early 2000, the FOES embarked on a major review and restructure of its programs to prepare for the re-accreditation of its programs by the Institution of Engineers Australia (now Engineers Australia). Recent reports from major engineering accreditation and professional bodies have prioritised the need for problem solving skills, teamwork and communication skills in graduates (IEAust, 1999; IEEE, 2002; ABET, 2003). This has been in response to criticisms that programs failed to equip graduates with collaborative problem-solving skills required for life long learning and the reality of the work place (Wilkerson & Gijselaers, 1996; Boud & Feletti, 1997; Brodeur et al, 2002; Felder & Brent, 2003). Fundamental aspects of engineering education--multidisciplinary teamwork, communication, problem solving, application of knowledge and the skills for lifelong learning--are ideally suited to problem based learning (PBL). As a result of the review and in light of these required attributes, the faculty introduced four new courses or subjects using PBL (Porter & Brodie, 2001).


This paper discusses the results from the reflective writing exercises undertaken by the distance education students in the first PBL course over three offers delivered in semester 1 of the academic year.


PBL is a pedagogical strategy where students are presented with open ended, contextualised, real world situations. They develop content knowledge, application of knowledge and problem solving skills by defining the problem, sourcing resources (including prior knowledge and experience of team members) and identifying gaps in their own knowledge (Mayo et al, 1993). PBL is now a widespread teaching method in disciplines where students must learn to apply knowledge, not just acquire it (Wilkerson & Gijselaers, 1996; Brodeur et al, 2002).

Student learning occurs within small group discussions and the academic assumes the role of a facilitator, not a lecturer (Aspy et al, 1993; Barrows, 2000). Thus the amount of direct instruction is reduced and students assume a greater responsibility for their own learning (Bridges & Hallinger, 1992). As they can share prior knowledge and experience with the group, mentoring and peer assistance assumes a more prominent role in the student learning experience and helps build a learning community. This shared and interdependent learning experience can be successfully done in an online or virtual environment given appropriate scaffolding. The novel approach taken by the FOES in delivering PBL to distance education students supports learning in virtual teams and develops problem solving skills (Brodie & Gibbings, 2007; Gibbings & Brodie, in press).

In addition to the standard problem solving process, PBL adds the steps of abstraction and reflection (Koschmann et al, 1994; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). …