Problem Based Learning in Chemistry

By Michael Edmonds 05/12/2013

One of the plenary speakers at the NZIC conference this week was Professor Tina Overton from the Chemistry department at the University of Hull. We were lucky enough to have Professor Overton speak to us several times and she is a strong advocate of active learning, in particular, problem based learning.

In her coursework Professor Overton provides students with open ended problems, for example, asking them to work out how much gold is in the world’s oceans, or how many keratin molecules are produced every hour. For such questions students are not allowed to consult Google and work in groups where they reason through the answers. They are not expected to provide the “right” answer, rather the point is, how they work through the problem.

For example to work out amount of gold in the oceans, they may be provided with the concentration of gold in seawater and the diameter of the Earth, but the rest is left up to the students to reason through an answer.

One of the reasons Professor Overton takes this approach is that our current education systems (both here and in the UK) rely largely on algorithmic thinking – students take a series of facts or numbers and plug them into a formula to get an answer, without considering the “bigger picture” or seeing that the answer they have produced actually means something. These types of questions also provide a meaningful context for who chemistry can be used to solve problems, and also reflects real science, when sometimes the best you can do is make a calculated guess and that the “right” answer isn’t always possible to determine.

Professor Overton also presented some interesting data based on interviews with chemistry graduates asking them how the skills they had been taught during their degrees compared with those they needed in the workplace. The results showed that while they felt well prepared by their university training in terms of content, they had not been taught enough of the “soft” skills (I really hate this term as such skills are not as easy as “soft” suggests). For example, they felt underprepared in terms of their presentation skills, ability to work in groups and even in terms of their practical skills. Furthermore, the data showed that in many respects these skills were more important in the workplace.

The work presented by Professor Overton stimulated some great discussions amongst those interested in chemical education at the conference so perhaps we will see a bit more active learning appearing in undergraduate programmes around New Zealand in the future.