Analysis of an Experience of Problem Based Learning in a Physics
Course of Technical Telecommunications Engineering Degree
Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingeniería de Bilbao (UPV/EHU) (Spain)
Active learning methods can be appropriate in engineering disciplines, as their methodology promotes
meta-cognition, self-directed learning, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Problem based
learning (PBL) is the educational process by which problem solving activities and instructor’s guidance
facilitate learning. Its key characteristic is posing a ‘concrete problem’ to students to initiate the
learning process that is generally implemented by students’ small groups. In this approach, learning is
more student-centered and less teacher-directed.
Many universities have developed and used active methodologies with good results in the teaching-
learning process. During the last years, the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) has
promoted the use of active methodologies in the new degrees through a training program, called
ERAGIN, for some of its teachers. The author of this work has been part of this group of teachers, and
in this paper describes and analyzes the results of the educational experience using the PBL method
in a Physics course for undergraduate programs of Technical Telecommunications Engineering in the
Higher Technical School of Engineering of Bilbao.
The modern engineering profession requires a good level of technical competence but other skills are
also important. Some studies conducted to determine the abilities required of engineers by industry,
show that engineering graduates need to have strong communication and teamwork skills, and a
broader perspective of other issues related to their profession. The results show that graduates have a
good knowledge of fundamental engineering science but, in many cases, they don’t know how to
apply that in practice . The lack of effectiveness of traditional pedagogy to develop some skills, led
to the use of new didactic approaches.
Problem-based learning is a pedagogical strategy centered in the student who learns by facing real life
problems and working in teams . Its use in engineering programs has been reported by several
authors  .
The starting point and the basis of the PBL learning process is a real-life problem that allows the
learning content to be related to the context, promoting student motivation and comprehension .
The majority of the learning process takes place in groups, where personal competencies are
developed . During the learning process, teachers are coaches and facilitators.
This work presents the results of a problem based learning experience in a Physics course for
undergraduate programs of Technical Telecommunications Engineering in the Higher Technical
School of Engineering of Bilbao. The responsible teacher was formed in the ERAGIN program of the
Basque Country University . This professional development program introduces teachers to active-
and collaborative-learning teaching methods. The experience was carried out with students on their
third year period with no previous experience on PBL, during 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 academic
years. Both, academic results and students’ opinion are analyzed.
2. Subject characteristics
"Physics II" is an optional subject included in the last year of the BSc in Technical Telecommunications
Engineering. It is offered to students who wish to continue their studies in the Master in
Telecommunications Engineering, in order to complement their knowledge of basic Physics. During
the first year of the BSc, students work in “Physics I” with contents related to Electromagnetism and
Waves. In “Physics II” the contents focus on Mechanics and Thermodynamics:
• Particle dynamics
• Dynamics of particle systems
• The laws of Thermodynamics
• Thermal processes.
• Cooling of electronic equipment
The teaching model in centred in the students’ learning process. The learning objectives can be
summarized as follows:
• To know the basic magnitudes and the scientific theories of Mechanics and Thermodynamics
• To analyze, interpret and solve problems of Mechanics and Thermodynamics.
Learning begins with a problem that students have to solve working together in small groups. The
problem is selected and edited to meet educational objectives. The first year, 2010-2011, only the
Mechanics was implemented using PBL, and the problem proposed rather basic questions. The
second year, 2011-2012, the problem was redefined and extended to the entire subject (Table 1).
Academic year 2010-2011 2011-2012
Contents developed using PBL Mechanics Mechanics - Thermodynamics
Number of weeks 9/15 15/15
Problem deal with Motion of objects Telecommunication satellites
•How do objects move?
•Relationship between the
motion and its causes
•Putting the satellite into orbit
•Satellite active and passive
Table 1. Summary of the proposed problems.
When the teacher presents the problem, students generate hypotheses about the causes or the
effects, the possible resolution, etc. They identify what they know and what they don't know, and they
list what they need to know or to understand in order to complete the problem task. The problem
solution is combined with classroom work sessions and lecture. In classroom sessions, students work
in some activities related to the learning issues. The activity-based learning is a central part of the
process, and requires activities involving research, decision-making and writing. The student
workbook includes all the activities .
Students are evaluated through their participation in classroom activities, the written reports and the
post-tests (Table 2).
Academic year 2010-2011 2011-2012
Activity type Quantity % in final rating Quantity % in final rating
Classroom activities 21 15 24 15
Teamwork reports 6 35 5 35
Individual reports 3 10 0 0
Post-tests 2 40 2 50
Table 2. Summary of the activities and the evaluation.
In my opinion, the implementation proved to be quite satisfactory, especially in classroom activities
and teamwork. One of the highlights of the experience was the good working environment in the
classroom, where students participate actively in the activities. This general attitude is unusual in the
Table 3 shows some of the obtained results.
Number % Number %
Enrolled students 32 100 45 100
Drop-out 4 12.5 10 22.2
Success 20 62.5 28 62.2
F Failed 0.0 - 4.9 8 25 7 15.6
C Pass 5.0 - 6.9 18 56.25 24 53.3
B Outstanding 7.0 - 8.9 2 6.25 4 8.9
A Excellent 9.0 - 10 0 0 0 0
Table 3. Summary of the obtained results.
The dropout rate (10-20%) is similar to that of other elective subjects of the Spanish University. Some
students dropped-out because they could not assist regularly to worksessions. The main reason was
that they were working, but in some cases they were enrolled in too many subjects and they could not
acomplish all the activities. The increase of the drop-out rate in 2011-2012 year, results in a decrease
of the fail rate, since the success rates are similar.
Table 4 details the results of the different activities.
Academic year 2010-2011 2011-2012
Classroom activities 0% 87.5% 5.5 0% 77.8% 7.4
Teamwork reports 0% 87.5% 7.0 0% 77.8% 6.8
Individual reports 3.1% 84.4% 6.2 --- --- ---
Post-tests 56.2% 31.3% 4.6 37.8% 40.0% 4.7
Total 25% 62.5% 5.7 15.6% 62.2% 5.7
Table 4. Summary of the results of the different activities.
The class average score for the complete evaluation was 5.7, the two years. As it can be seen, the
success rate for classroom activities and teamwork reports is very high: all students that follow the
course passed these parts of the evaluation. However, this is not true for the post-tests, where the
failure rate is quite high. This may be because more interested students lead team activities, obtaining
In order to detect problems in teamwork and to identify those students that have not worked
conveniently, the opinion of the all the members of each team has been collected, and these opinions
have been included in the calculation of the teamwork scores. Very few cases of parasitic students
have been detected but in the majority of the teams one of the students has worked better that the
Some comments obtained from interviews, indicate that students have difficulties searching and
manipulating information obtained from several resources, resulting in an inefficient activity. This could
explain the difference between the scores of the team activities and the post-tests.
5. Students’ opinion
The opinion of the students has been collected using an opinion poll that includes 35 questions. The
questions are related to the materials included in the workbook, the activities, the teamwork and the
PBL methodology. Students could rate each question from 1 (disagree) to 5 (agree). Some of the
results can be seen in Table 5.
Question 2010-2011 year 2011-2012 year
Teamwork is satisfactory 4.30 3.63
The number of members of the group is adequate 4.15 3.41
PBL improves teamwork skills 3.56 3.63
PBL improves self-directed learning 3.41 3.30
PBL prepares for professional career 2.67 3.15
I wish there were more subjects with PBL 2.30 3.15
Table 5. Summary of the students’ opinion.
Students’ opinion has evolved from 2010-2011 year to 2011-2012 year. In reference to teamwork, the
opinion has worsened. This can be due to the number of components of the groups: 4 members the
first year and 6 the second one. Considering that students are accustomed to working in pairs in the
laboratory, this increase in the number of the members could complicate the activities achievement.
On the other hand, the perception of the usefulness of PBL gets better. The reason can be that the
starting point proposed problem in 2011-2012, was more suitable to promote students motivation and
comprehension, because it was closer to Telecommunications field.
Students think that PBL promotes the development of methodological skills, but they do not perceive
their significance in the modern engineering profession.
In view of the results of 2010-2011 year, some changes were introduced in the proposed activities and
their development during 2011-2012 year. The most important were:
• The PBL was extended to all the subject (15 weeks)
• The initial proposed problem was changed and adapted to Telecommunications field
• The number of activities per week was reduced (3.6 in 2010-2011 vs. 3.0 in 2011-2012)
• The number of students per group increased (4 in 2010-2011 vs. 6 in 2011-2012)
The first three changes seem to have a positive effect in the students’ opinion about BPL. However,
their interest on this type of methodology is not high. This can be due to the very traditional teaching-
learning context where they are studying.
The PBL approach is more demanding with the achievement of competencies than the traditional
system. This fact is perceived by students as an increase in the work they have to do, so they
considered appropriate to reduce the number of activities per week.
When the initial proposed problem is related to the students’ field of interest, their satisfaction
increases. Teachers’ efforts should be centred in the generation of “good problems”, related to the
context, and that promote student motivation and comprehension. The relationship between the
formulation of the problem and the students’ experience, relates to their previous knowledge,
increasing their motivation.
Students think that PBL helped them to improve some abilities, as communication and teamwork
skills. We can say that PBL promotes the development of methodological skills that are essential in
the modern engineering profession, although students did not percive this fact clearly.
The continuous assessment is a positive aspect of PBL. The influence of all the activities in the final
score maintains the students’ interest and supports the continuous work.
The number of students per group is important. The students are used to work in pairs in laboratory
work. However they do not work in groups of more than 3-4 people, so they have difficulties when the
teams are composed by six students.
The Basque Country Government and the University of the Basque Country supported this work
partially. I would like to extend my gratitude to the people of the Research team on the teaching of
Physics, Mathematics and Technology created and funded by the University of the Basque Country
and the Basque Country Government. The professional development program in active-learning
ERAGIN of the University of the Basque Country is also acknowledged.
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