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Project design

Based on the analyses of the contemporary challenges, the project design will consist of:

1) A baseline study on the acquisition and understanding of PBL competences combined with scenario methodologies for pointing out future directions. This study will map the existing practices and approaches of how PBL is organised across AAU and will work as a common baseline study for all the subprojects. The common study will be a reference throughout the entire project, including the conclusion of the project, in which the scenarios will point to future directions for PBL.

2) Four subprojects with in-depth analysis of the following research topics:

a) Student-centred problem design

b) Emerging PBL Collaboration Skills for a Digital Age

c) PBL competence development of individual students

d) PBL in flipped semesters. 

PBL Future will apply a mixed methods approach combining quantitative and qualitative methods (Creswell, 2013). The baseline study will primarily use quantitative methods and content analyses of the curricula, whereas the subprojects primarily will apply qualitative methods such as focus group interviews, observations, and case-studies. Furthermore, there will be an experimental approach in the ICT-oriented sub-projects.

PBL competences – common baseline study and future directions

As indicated above, there are several strengths the AAU PBL model. Systematically, analysing those must be a baseline for any future PBL development. The PBL competences, the problem-orientation in the projects and the semester approach are all common features. The questions are how the various educational programs organise and frame the PBL competences, how the students’ projects interact with the courses and how the students and facilitators understand the learning and progression of PBL competences? Also, what kind of digital technologies are students currently using to support their studies at AAU? The baseline study will aim to develop a theoretical and empirical understanding of PBL competences at AAU and create a point of reference for the other projects to inform the development of future PBL directions. 

A theoretically oriented literature review on existing conceptualisations of PBL competences (more broadly known as transferable skills) will address theoretical understandings of how competences can be conceptualized and in particular the PBL competences (Rychen & Salganik, 2003). Empirical studies will be conducted on how PBL is organised and how PBL competences are framed in the curriculum of selected programs, (which are chosen by the subprojects), and how they are understood and experienced by students and staff.

  • Literature review on PBL competences which relate to all sub-projects and to the final PBL directions.
  • Content analyses of the chosen curriculum programs with particular emphasis on the relation between courses and projects and on the framing of PBL competences. Interview with e.g. head of study boards / program coordinators on PBL competences and particular types of problems and use of ICT at the various semesters. This relates to the sub-projects 1, 2 and 4 and makes a common frame for comparison of results.
  • Questionnaire to all academic staff / all first-year students / and all students at sixth semester on their understanding of PBL competences, types of problem they work on, and a mapping of which technologies students adopt in their project work and for what purposes. This relates to the sub-projects 1, 2 and 4 and makes a common frame for comparison of results.

All sub-projects will contribute to the final phase of PBL-future on new PBL directions. In this final stage, the results from the baseline-study and the subprojects will feed into creating a series of directions and scenarios. Scenario methodologies will be applied pointing at a diverse range of basic assumptions, criteria and processes (Kosow & Gaßner, 2008).

Leader: Anette Kolmos and the sub-project leaders. The baseline study will be conducted during the first 20 months followed by scenario methodology.


Subproject 0:


(Description is coming soon) 




The aim of this subproject is to study the unique AAU project PBL approach where students are expected to and held accountable for development of ‘the problem’. Discrepancies exist in the conceptualisation of problem-based learning and the extent to which students are responsible for identifying the problem. Often when discussing the role and nature of problems in PBL, problems are assumed to be identified and designed by teachers and facilitators to trigger student curiosity, motivation and learning (Savin Baden & Howell, 2004). Consequently, most research addresses the problem as a teacher constructed and designed artefact intended to decide precisely what kind of knowledge students should engage with (Schmidt & Moust, 2000). Furthermore, it has been suggested that the design of problems may impact the motivation of students to engage in their learning (Mauffette, Kandlbinder, & Soucisse, 2004). In contrast, the project-oriented approach to PBL suggests a very different learning path inviting students to engage into a research process of identification and justification of the problem. This unique characteristic of AAU PBL projects is still under-researched despite 40+ years of experience.

The questions are 1) What role does the process of student-led problem identification and analyses play for students’ learning in projects? 2) How do students and supervisors experience the self-directed process of identifying, formulating and modifying problems?

The subproject will involve a literature review on the role and function of problems in problem-based learning; a content analysis of 50 projects across faculties to identify the pathway towards and arrival at a problem; focus group interviews with project groups from selected programs to explore student experiences and conceptions of the work towards the problem, of autonomy and self-directed learning in the process, and student reflections on the academic and professional competences they need and potentially develop through their problem-based projects.

Subproject leader: Diana Stentoft. Jette Holgaard will participate as senior staff


Subproject 2:

Emerging PBL Collaboration Skills for a Digital Age

The aim of this subproject is to identify and conceptualise new collaboration skills that emerge due to the changes in how students work and learn in PBL environments saturated by digital technologies. The AAU PBL model has been well-known for enabling students to develop relevant professional PBL competences such as collaboration and project management skills. We need to ensure that students develop the skills and competences to work and learn in increasingly hybrid and digital spaces. Therefore, we need to identify the collaboration skills present and needed in digitally saturated learning and work environments.

Recent studies show that students at AAU are already working and learning in ‘hybrid’ environments. Certain tools and services are omnipresent in students’ work (e.g. Facebook and Google Drive/Docs), but gaps happen in the students’ use of technologies, and more academically oriented services and practices are less commonly adopted (Ryberg, Davidsen, & Hodgson, 2016; Thomsen, Sørensen, & Ryberg, 2016). This suggests that while students come with certain expectations, skills and competences, they need support to develop these to a more advanced level of digital mediated PBL competences. Other studies show that ICT tools may even impact the basic understanding and experience of students concerning collaboration and mutual contact, captured in the concept of virtual distance (Lojeski & Reilly, 2008), leading to yet another layer of new skills needed to cope with a more advanced level of ICT tools. In general, however, we lack a deeper understanding of the practices, skills and competences that students develop, or should develop.

The main research questions are: 1) What experiences do students have with digital technologies and what is the impact of new technologies and hybrid spaces on students' collaboration in a PBL environment? 2) What are the PBL practices and collaboration skills that emerge out of this meeting and how do these translate into wider PBL competences, that students develop or need to develop throughout their study?

Based on the baseline study, ‘extreme cases’ (Flyvbjerg, 2006) will be chosen within specific programs that can help  scope out interesting practices in different faculties and programs. In the study, we further draw on insights and data that have previously been collected, as well as international research literature and studies. The subproject will be aligned and coordinated with a study commissioned by the AAU task force for “Digital Understøttelse af Læring” headed by HUM-pro dean Hanne Dauer Keller (carried out by Jacob Davidsen, Mia Thyrre and Thomas Ryberg) and with the PBL development project “Fælles annotering som læringsressource i PBL” headed by Jacob Davidsen.

Subproject leader: Thomas Ryberg.




The aim of this project is to study individual students’ reflections on their PBL competences, when they utilize digital tools in form of e-portfolios. Individual AAU students struggle at times to identify the specific PBL competences they acquire through their project work, their courses and the overall educational outcomes they strive towards. The problem is, if students are not able to identify the specific PBL competences of their chosen education they may struggle to form a clear identity and may not be able to confidently communicate their competences to external stakeholders and/or future employers.

PBL learning approaches present some unique challenges for an individual to evaluate the outcomes of their own learning, since much focus is on the benefits of working and thinking in teams in which the diversity of contributions helps to solve complex problems (Major & Palmer, 2001). However, university education ought to lead to higher order learning competences that include the competences to think independently, including about one’s own learning. Self-reflection and formative assessment can assist such aims (Davies & Le Mahieu, 2003). Tools that support self-evaluation include portfolios since they provide the structures needed for organized reflection and (self)-assessment of learning. In electronic form, they can include multimodal formats (text, images, video), that afford flexible and hybrid learning spaces. In this project, it will be important to acknowledge and work with the expertise on digital media students bring with them to develop and co-construct a unique format of an AAU PBL e-portfolio and explore if such a tool and the co-construction process thereof can address the following questions. 1) What kind of e-portfolio can support the reflections of the individual student when they work and study in project groups? 2) What kind of discipline specific differences will need to be considered when using e-portfolios to make PBL student learning visible, support reflection and deep learning; (3) How do e-portfolios support individual students in confidently communicating their PBL competences to external stakeholders and/or future employers?

Pursuing a design-based research approach, the project will be working with students and teacher cohorts from 3 faculties, and 3 programs. Departing from an e-portfolio focused literature review, teams of students and their teachers will co-construct and design prototypes of e-portfolios that will be tested, evaluated and refined. Data collection will involve video observations, student produced reflective notes and group as well as individual interviews.

Subproject leader: Kathrin Otrel-Cass. Lone Krogh will participate as senior staff.




This subproject will study the impact of a new PBL approach ‘flipped semester’ and the challenges faced by facilitators and students in implementing this approach. It will explore and find new ways of integrating projects and courses in a digitally oriented semester. Around the world, we see new and radical learning ideas being applied like Flipped Curriculum (Ortiz, 2016). Also, the more modest idea of ‘flipping the classroom’ has generated wide interest within Education, and. internally at AAU many small-scale ‘flipped classroom’ teaching and learning initiatives are carried out as part of individual courses. However, they are seldom internally coordinated at a semester level.

Digital resources and learning activities will increasingly be integrated in education and affect the organisation of PBL. As previously described, the courses do not always support the projects in AAU. Through employing the technological possibilities, a semester curriculum could be changed or “flipped” as for the project work to become the main guiding activity. Teachers could experiment with more dynamic course designs that respond better to the projects and challenges identified by the students. For example, teachers could guide students towards available Open Educational Resources and Massive Open Online Courses. Openness is, however, not a neutral term (Bayne, Knox & Ross, 2015) and there is a risk that application of more open resources may reinforce the separation of courses and projects in a semester, if no attempts are made to relate these. Whereas flipped classroom initiatives are often focused on the teaching activities of a specific course, moving towards ‘flipping’ a whole semester curriculum puts focus on a broader scale of structural changes which especially needs coordination and communication among the group of teachers and supervisors.

The subproject will depart in the current AAU PBL development projects (Flipped PBL semester and some of the flipped classroom projects). It will analyse the challenges occurring from the experiments with flipped semester, as well as flipped classroom projects to identify the impact on the entire semester. This will be done by interviewing the involved actors (staff, head of study board, students) in the flipped projects – at both semester- and course level. The analyses, together with a literature review, will form the basis for designing new semester approaches to be implemented in selected programs.

Subproject leader: Lise Kofoed. Lars Birch Andreasen will participate as senior staff.