Student conceptions of problem and project based learning in engineering education: A phenomenographic investigation

Virginie F. C. Servant-Miklos, Anette Kolmos

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Problem-oriented project work, also known as problem and project-based learning (PBL), is a popular educational approach in engineering education. However, the focus of the literature on the implementation of PBL has been at the course and institutional levels. Scant attention has been paid to the student experience, especially regarding student conceptions of PBL.

This is a phenomenographic study of student conceptions of PBL in a Danish engineering program that uses a systemic PBL model.

This study follows a phenomenographic qualitative design. Sixteen participants from four different engineering disciplines were asked to share their views and experiences with PBL. The interview transcripts were analyzed to identify emerging variations in the student conceptions of PBL.

The outcome space suggests three levels of students' conceptions of PBL: individual, group and society levels. Within the categories of description, sublevel variations appear: PBL as an unsupportive process and environment, PBL as a supportive process and environment, and PBL as a structured education method. These conceptions were organized hierarchically from a narrow individual to a broader society level.

Student conceptions of PBL as a structured education method echo the literature on the intended learning outcomes of PBL. However, our study shows that conceptions of PBL as personal and social processes fall outside of the scope of current scholarly discussions on PBL. Issues of societal relevance, while prominent in the literature on PBL, do not feature in students' thinking about PBL at this stage. Introducing broader reflection practices informed by exemplarity could address some of these discrepancies.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Engineering Education
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)792-812
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2022


  • phenomenography
  • problem and project-based learning
  • reflection


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