Asee peer logo

Tensions with PBL Implementation in Undergraduate Engineering Education: Results from Teaching Practice

Download Paper |


2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Problem-based and Challenge-based Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1272.1 - 25.1272.20



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Angela van Barneveld Purdue University

visit author page

Angela van Barneveld is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the College of Education (learning design and technology) at Purdue University, and a Program Manager at IBM (business analytics). Research interests include problem-based learning, engineering education, professional education, and the transfer and application of academic learning to practice (workplace).

visit author page


Johannes Strobel Purdue University, West Lafayette

visit author page

Johannes Strobel is Director of INSPIRE, Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning, and Assistant Professor of engineering education and learning design and technology at Purdue University. NSF and several private foundations fund his research. His research and teaching focuses on policy of P-12 engineering, how to support teachers and students' academic achievements through engineering learning, the measurement and support of change of habits of mind, particularly in regards to sustainability and the use of cyber-infrastructure to sensitively and resourcefully provide access to and support learning of complexity.

visit author page


Greg Light Northwestern University

visit author page

Gregory Light is the director of the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy. He arrived at Northwestern University in 2000 from the University of London (UK) where he was deputy head of the Lifelong Learning Group – now the School for Lifelong Education and International Development - at the Institute of Education. He has taught post-graduate courses in higher and professional education and consulted across the higher and professional education sector in the UK the USA and Canada. His research and scholarship focuses on the theory and practice of learning and teaching in higher and professional education. Recent projects and publications have focused on student learning and the professional development of teaching in higher education.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Tensions with PBL implementation in undergraduate engineering education – results from teaching practiceMotivation and Background: This research focuses on the experiences of engineering educatorsin the United States with their implementation of innovative pedagogies such as problem-basedlearning (or its variations) and the management of tensions that arise at the classroom and systemlevel when implementing these pedagogies. Engineering education has been undergoing reformefforts for several years. Not only have PBL approaches been deemed by research literature to bean optimal approach to develop graduate competencies and attributes, but many reform effortsutilize explicitly or implicitly key components of PBL.Methods: We designed an online survey which served as a sampling strategy to identifyvolunteer participants for the second phase of data collection, semi-structured interviews. Thisqualitative study focused on the variation in engineering educators’ ways of experiencingtensions in PBL implementations, as well as how they managed the tensions (n=14). In thespecific context of the first two years of undergraduate engineering education, the researchquestions were (1) based on their teaching practices, what are the predominant tensionsencountered by engineering educators? (2) What are the qualitatively different ways in whichengineering educators experience tensions with a PBL implementation in their teachingpractices? (3) How do engineering educators manage these tensions? The methodology used wasphenomenography, a research framework that focuses on the relationship between a phenomenonand people’s conception of the phenomenon.Results: The predominant tensions encountered by these engineering educators in this study werethe students’ initial discomfort with the transition to PBL, the educators’ role as instructor versusfacilitator, and the individual versus the organizational value assigned to teaching. Tensionsrelated to the students’ initial discomfort with the transition to PBL were addressed by managingexpectations and aligning learning activities with the learner level. Tensions related to theeducators’ role as instructor versus facilitator were managed by shifting the relationship betweenthe content, the student, and the instructor, and optimizing the use of the instructor during classtime. Finally, tensions of depth versus breadth of curriculum were managed by makingadjustments to the learning environment, to the content, and to the use of instructor and classtime. Implications, limitations, and future research are discussed.Conclusions and significance: For engineering educators considering the implementation ofPBL, this study offered not only insights into potential tensions, but also the managementstrategies used to mitigate the tension. For administrators, this study demonstrates the need forthe establishment of instructor support mechanisms that facilitate and encourage theimplementation of innovative pedagogies, as well as the redesign of recognition and rewardpolicies. Administrators may also consider creating a greater alignment between pedagogicalinnovation, course and educator evaluation processes, and the outcomes-based emphasis onstudent capabilities in order to support engineering education reform and the development ofengineering graduates who are prepared for the demands of a global and rapidly changingworkplace. For faculty development specialists, implications for the design of professionaldevelopment programs that focus on innovative pedagogies like PBL occur at two levels, theclassroom and the larger system level. Finally, for curriculum design and development, designersmay consider an analysis of need-to-know versus legacy content, the latter of which may carryless relevance in today’s professional engineering practices; redistribution of content to allowoptimal use of instructor time to support deep learning in students and; an integrative rather thanan additive approach to the inclusion of new content or to meet accreditation requirements.

van Barneveld, A., & Strobel, J., & Light, G. (2012, June), Tensions with PBL Implementation in Undergraduate Engineering Education: Results from Teaching Practice Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--22029

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2012 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015