Student learning in undergraduate engineering courses in most Australian universities has relied mainly on lecture-based teaching, supplemented where appropriate with laboratory practicals, tutorials, seminars, projects and other approaches peculiar to the discipline (Lloyd, 2001; Lloyd et al, 2001). While most of these methods are teacher-centered, many research studies over the past decade indicate a paradigm shift to learner-centered curriculum in engineering.
Problem-based learning (PBL) is an example of a learner-centered approach to teaching that has been used in health professional education settings for many years. McMaster University at Hamilton, Canada, pioneered and extensively used PBL in its medical school. In Australia, the pioneers of PBL were The University of Newcastle Medical School, New South Wales College of Law and Hawkesbury Agricultural College.
Within engineering settings, Aalborg University in Denmark developed the Aalborg PBL model and used it extensively in its engineering degree courses. In Australia, Central Queensland University and University of Technology Sydney were the pioneers to use PBL in their engineering degree courses (Johnson, 1996). Because the PBL approach had mainly been used in health professional education, its introduction in engineering courses triggered questions about the suitability of the approach to engineering (Mills & Treagust, 2003).
Research in PBL has focused mainly on the design and implementation of PBL curricula, the advantages and disadvantages of PBL, the nature of student learning in PBL and the effectiveness of different teaching-learning approaches (Entwistle, 2005; Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983). Although there is exclusive literature on how students act in PBL tutorial groups, the focus of many of the studies is not on the student experience but on how tutors manage the group process. There are almost no published reports of research into how students act outside of formal group meetings, in the self-directed study phase of the PBL process.
Moreover, most studies of the student experience of PBL are either based on large-scale student surveys, for example, Van Berkel & Schmidt (2000), or small-scale observation studies (Schmidt & Moust, 2000), each of which has its limitations. This study investigated first year undergraduate engineering students' experiences of learning in PBL teams and thereby the learning cultures that emerged in PBL teams from the view point of students (Krishnan, 2009).
2 STUDENT LEARNING IN PBL TEAMS
Large-scale studies based on student surveys and measures of student achievement, such as those of Schmidt and his colleagues at Maastricht University, have produced causal models of PBL that include factors relating to the student experience, such as tutorial group functioning, group attendance and time spent on individual study (Van Berkel & Schmidt, 2000). Studies such as these shed some light on the student experience, but in an indirect way. As Bereiter & Scardamalia (2000) observed, research of this type is unlikely to illuminate what actually goes on in the "emergent complexity" of a PBL setting.
Other studies have used observation of what goes on in PBL tutorials, for example, Koschmann et al (2000), Barrett (2005) and Visschers-Pleijers et al (2004). These studies typically focus on discrete segments of a tutorial rather than on the entire tutorial, and on a particular facet of interaction between group members rather than the student experience. They, therefore, seldom illuminate the broad student experience of PBL tutorials. While such studies are often presented as research into PBL group processes, the focus is often on the facilitator rather than on the students. This is also true of many survey-based studies as well, including those of Schmidt and his colleagues, where the focus is often on the effect of different facilitation approaches or types of facilitator (Schmidt & Moust, 2000). …