Bengt Lennartsson
Department of Science and Technology
Linköpings Universitet, Campus Norrköping
S-581 83 LINKÖPING, Sweden

ABSTRACT: The views of project organization, problem orientation, and group work are different in different disciplines and different types of curricula. This paper presents conclusion from more than 20 years of educational experiments in teaching science and engineering, and from the development of industrial training programs.

If the program is aiming at improving the capability of searching the library for existing information one approach may be appropriate. If the objective is to improve ability to develop completely new understanding an entirely different method may be the best. In old and mature disciplines there may be a large amount of experience how to learn the basics in the most efficient way, whereas in new areas even the understanding of what the basics is may be missing. In programs aiming at an inter-disciplinary approach to for instance classical mathematics and modern information technology, the gap between the traditions and views may be too wide to bridge when searching for a shared teaching model.

The objective of this paper is to give the rational for each of the different components of "project work" in university studies: individual vs. group learning, individual vs. group examination, discipline vs. problem oriented approach, student vs. teacher directed organization of the work, etc.


Sometimes "problem-based learning", "project organized curricula", "team learning", "learning by doing", etc., have been mentioned as approaches superior (in very general terms) to the traditional one. The specific goals and the criteria for the selection of the means have been implicitly assumed rather than explicitly stated. The aim of this paper is to focus on the different dimensions of the goal of learning and training activities, the different dimensions among the means available, and how the goals and means may be related.

Besides the different dimensions in the goal and in the method spaces, there is one more phenomenon to consider. Very important changes are taking place in the society. Knowledge and skills are no longer something you achieve at school and rely upon during the rest of your life. Next subsection 1.1 presents some provocative statements in this direction.


Just this decade several of the basic requirements on our educational system are about to change. This is in particular true in engineering, but the same trends are present also in other areas. In [1] we claim that the problems facing the design and development engineers in industry today are, in general, such that what is required is:

And the most important reasons why the situation is particularly dynamic just now [2] are:

A consequence of this dynamic situation is that the old Kaizen [3] paradigm, Figure 1 a, with its assumption about a static environment, is in general inadequate. The transition model, Kairyo, Figure 1 b, may be more appropriate.

Figure 1:
a) Continous improvement withing given structure, Kaizen.
b) Transitions to new technology, new methods, new organization, etc., Kairyo.

In the Kaizen philosophy you are assuming you can separate the preparation and analysis from the execution. You can rely upon knowledge available in literature, upon education and training achieved in advance, upon instructions and guidance from higher levels in your organization. In reality this is no longer true. Understanding has to be integrated with doing. There is no room for transfer of understanding by sending documents, instructions, guidelines, etc., from one unit to the other. Today the winners are not the biggest and strongest actors but rather the most attentive and flexible ones [4]. The difficult thing is not to make small incremental improvements in the current procedures but to understand when and why to change to new methods, new models, new technology, and even new objectives.



In the communication between teachers/students in different areas, you can often hear claims like "you have to do this and this" or "you can’t do it that way". Methods, models, and means for organization are considered good or bad with general validity regardless of objectives or context. As an example, at Linköpings University, it everybody knows that the subdivision of a group of students into tutorial groups can’t be done by the students. If the students would be given this responsibility the result would be chaos. At Luleå University of Technology and at Aalborg University (where more than 60 000 such "tutorial groups" have been set up during the years) the responsibility of the composition of the groups has been given to the students. There is no reason to believe that the students (or the teachers) are of entirely different character at the different sites. Rather the objectives, the general settings, and the context may differ. The purpose of this paper is to present some examples where the goals and the conditions in general are different in different disciplines, and suggest explanations why the design of the curricula may have been along different paths.


The frame of reference is engineering education at the university level, and industrial development of complex systems. That is where I have my own experience and where I have tested some of my ideas. However, I have also been trying to understand what is going on in other disciplines and continuously asked myself: what could we in engineering learn from other areas, both in terms of learning models, about psychology and education in general, and in terms of organizing curricula and training programs.

So, with the ideas above in mind, I will use the rest of the paper to present some ideas about the different dimensions of project work, team organization, and problem based learning.

There are no quantitative comparisons in the paper, no numbers or confidence intervals. The reflections presented are based upon specific cases, where parameters or results are difficult to estimate. The conclusions are based on experiences from: a traditional engineering education, project-organized curricula, and the problem based learning model. The different approaches have been used in ordinary university programs as well as in tailor made training efforts out in industry.


The relations between "Problem Based Learning" and "Project Organized Curricula" has been discussed and analyzed before; see for instance Gentler Heitman: Project study and project organized curricula: a historical review of its intentions, and Erik de Graaff: Problem-Based Learning in Engineering Education, both in [5]. In the seventies there were many experimental engineering programs set up based upon "project organized", "problem oriented", or "student directed" models. In particular The Aalborg Experiment [6] is well known. The Problem-Based Learning community has made available a large number of experiences via the Internet mailing list and in traditional publication [7].


At FHA, the Faculty of Health Sciences, Linköpings University, the following components are presented [8] as the corner stones of the PBL model:

Eric de Graaf has presented [9] the following five dimensions of the educational process (where the left hand alternative is related to project organization and the right hand one is the traditional):

I would like to add two more dimensions to those of Eric de Graff:

The dimensions are fairly orthogonal, that is each dimension can be set quite independently of the others depending on the purpose of the curriculum and on the general conditions. None of the end-point is good or bad independent of context. For any set of coordinates in this space, it is not difficult to define a situation where the selected combination could be a natural choice.


The student revolt in the sixties initiated many experiments regarding the contents as well as the organization of university education. In engineering and in social sciences project organized curricula became popular. "Project work" can have many different interpretations. In this paper project work means an organization of the learning such that the explicit goal for the activities of a group of students has been defined as an expected delivery at a given time. That is, the task for the student has been defined as writing a report, developing a system, or supplying a solution of some other form to a given problem. The most common arguments why project organization could be useful are:

In some cases the project goal can be defined in close agreement to what the expected learning is aiming at. In other cases the two may be related more indirectly. We distinguish here the concept project meaning organization to produce or deliver something from the group or team aspect, where we focus on the process in a group of persons and not primarily on the end product or delivery.


There are many reasons to give responsibility and authority to groups or teams rather than to individual persons for different tasks. A excellent survey (in Swedish) of different objectives for establishing teams or groups is presented in [10] where current ideas in management and education are related to previous trends as "goal directed groups", "self-managed teams", etc. Just to indicate the wide spectrum of aspects we present a list of objectives, mainly from [10], why the team aspect should be considered:

In the ordinary university curricula we are not developing team capabilities. We are training and preparing the individual students for later work in different kinds of teams, but we are not training or developing the capability of a particular team. In industrial training programs on the other hand, the objective can be to develop the team skills of a specific design or development team. At the university the team of students is just an instrument. By means of the team we can illustrate group dynamics, we can use the team to motivate, support, and control the efforts of the individual students. By using cross-functional teams (nurses, medical doctors, etc.) we can illustrate and practice interaction between the different roles. However, for our ordinary students the team is always just an instrument.


We have different objectives for university studies. You may major in history or mathematics just because you want to understand state of the art in the particular area. You want to understand the internal structure of the subject and you may be interested in memorizing some facts as reference points for analysis and discussions. This kind of knowledge may be called declarative [11]. It is about knowing or memorizing factual information. Another kind of knowledge along the same dimension is the procedural one where you also know how to act in certain situations. In addition to remembering facts, you have ability to act. Depending on the character of the situation different amounts of skills and training efforts may be needed. In order to learn how to ride a bike or to drive a car in a known environment, to play the violin or the piano, a substantial time for practice may be needed.

Another dimension is about whether the knowledge is static or depending on the current context, situational. Here a component of creativity has been added. It is not only about replaying predefined facts or sequences of actions or patterns, but to react upon new situations and events in the environment. You have to analyze and understand the situation in order to take the appropriate action. Playing chess may be a good example of this type of activity.

If you combine procedural with situational you have strategic knowledge. Here a component of self-regulation is required. The acting is not only about replaying predefined sequences and patterns. It is about composing music rather than replaying what has already been written and arranged. About being a coach of the football team or about being a member of an engineering design team. Part of this kind of skill can be achieved by studying and practicing, but part of it may be based more on talent and gift.

The metaphors above, even if not covering all aspects, are sufficient to illustrate the most important dimensions in the space of knowledge and skills.

All four kinds of knowledge can be viewed as individual competencies as well as team capabilities. This aspect is different from the static/situational dimension above. From the point of view of an individual member of the team, the behavior and the actions by other team members may be regarded just as events in the environment, but this is not all. The team is an organism by itself. It has its own shared visions, experience, and behavior patterns, its own skills and capabilities [12]. A successful sports team needs good individual members, but also an appropriate combination of individual skills meeting the requirements on different roles needed in the team. The members have to practice together, just as have members of a philharmonic orchestra.

Figure 2:
The dimensions of skills and knowledge.


There are not only the different kinds of knowledge and skills (declarative, procedural, etc.). Different subjects and topics are also of different character. The use of analysis and algebra in engineering applications is a well-established and mature area. It is well known which concepts are needed and how they are related. During many student generations only a few different ways to introduce the material have turned out to be successful. In order to be able to use algebra and analysis as tools for solving problems in engineering the student must have an understanding of the internal structure of mathematics. The best way to achieve this understanding may very well be to take ordinary courses lectured the traditional way. The mathematical models and methods are some of the basic tools to be used in the engineering profession. Ability to use these tools is like the skill how to use the saw and the hammer for the carpenter. It is natural to first learn how to use the appropriate set of tools and methods, and then to develop an understanding about how to choose and combine the tools in different situations.

There is also a difference in the time needed to achieve an understanding. A student who has got her diploma as a medical doctor as well as in computer engineering explained it this way: If you have 1200 pages of text in anatomy, you can calculate in advance the time needed to read the text and achieve the required level of understanding. In math and engineering on the other hand, it can take days or even weeks to penetrate and understand the contents of a few pages. Not because the text is badly written, but because it is about building new models for reasoning and not about mere transfer of declarative knowledge.


So, what is the synthesis of all these dimensions?


If you are aiming at declarative knowledge in a well-established area, where the accumulated understanding of mankind is available in the literature in the library, the traditional teaching model may be appropriate. Tutorial groups can be used to support the building upon the existing experience of the students and also to increase the interest and motivation. In case the existing textbooks are of the narrow subject specific type, a PBL or a project organized approach can enable holistic thinking and create links between the narrow textbooks. However, it should be possible also to produce better textbooks and supporting material in this situation.


If the objective is to develop procedural skills also understanding has to be integrated with exercises. Certain such exercises may be individual. Understanding and developing the skill how to use mathematical models may require the same amount of individual training as needed to play the violin, become a pilot, or to run marathon successfully. Such individual efforts are hardly supported at all by the PBL method or by project organization.


However, other kinds of procedural skills may benefit strongly from project work. Communication skills and ability to contribute to the progress in a group are of outmost importance in most professions. The activities in the tutorial group/project group may thus be regarded as not only an instrument supporting the learning of the subject-related contents. The exercises in communication and co-operation can itself be regarded as an essential part of the contents. A professional engineer must be able to handle the organization of an activity in project groups with subprojects. Hence it can be natural to give the engineering students the opportunity to tackle the organizational problem of composing project groups as part of their program. Of course they must then be aware of what their responsibility is and about the constraints.


Engineering programs at the university level are aiming at fostering design and development skills. Such industrial design and development must be based on well-established principles as manifested in literature. However, the specific problems to be solved in the development teams are such that little guidance can be found in the library. The engineering student must be trained to find solutions also to yet-not-solved problems. This capability adds a new dimension to all the others mentioned in previous sections.


The traditional model of the engineer is the smart inventor sitting and understanding everything by himself. Like professor Balthazar in children television he suddenly comes up with a solution to the impossible problem. Today the problems are almost always such that skills and experiences of a number of persons from several quite different disciplines and with different backgrounds will be needed to understand what to do, why, and how. The problem solving capability is most often a team skill. Only when all members of the design team are sitting together they have the ability to define the problems and encourage and support each other such that a shared vision and a sufficient understanding evolve.

When training the students to become design and development engineers the team is not a mere instrument to support the declarative learning. It is not only a means where communication and co-operation can be trained. The team is eventually the object to be trained to achieve the capacity to find the solutions. There is some evidence, [10] and [12], that such teams should be composed of five to eight members with different backgrounds and of different characters. It is really a challenge to think of what kind of education we should offer the engineering students of today when ability to learn, to ask questions, and to co-operate is more important than knowledge and skills as such.

Our educational system is very robust and conservative. It is not evident how the changes necessary can be implemented.


[1] Bengt Lennartsson, Kristina Davidson: Team Understanding Capability - The New Requirement on Higher Engineering Education. Proceeding of the Second International Conference on Teaching Technology at Tertiary Level. Stockholm, June 14-17, 1997.

[2] Pernilla Eskerod: Meaning and action in a multiproject environment - Understanding a multiproject environment by means of metaphors and basic assumptions. International Journal of Project Management. Vol. 14. No 2. pp. 61-65, 1996.

[3] Imai Masaaki: Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. New York. N.Y. 1986.

[4] Michael A. Cusumano, Richard W. Selby: Microsoft Secrets - How the World's Most Powerful Software Company Creates Technology, Shapes Markets, and Manages People. The FREE Press 1995. ISBN 0-02-874048-3.

5] Project-organized curricula in engineering education. SEFI, European Society for Engineering Education. Proceedings of a seminar held on 5th-7th May 1993.

[6] Finn Kjersdam, Stig Enemark: The Aalborg Experiment - Project Innovation in University Education. Aalborg University Press 1994. ISBN 87-7307-480-2.

[7] Mark A. Albanese, Susan Mitchell: Problem-based Learning: A Review of Literature on Its Outcomes and Implementation Issues. Academic Medicine. Vol. 68. No 1. Jan. 1993. pp. 52-81.

[8] Karin Kjellgren et.al. (Eds.): Problembaserad inlärning - erfarenheter från Hälsouniversitetet. Studentlitteratur 1993. ISBN 91-44-37261-2.

[9] Erik D.U. de Graff: Teaching independent learning skills.
Proceeding of the Second International Conference on Teaching Technology at Tertiary Level. Stockholm, June 14-17, 1997.

[10] Jan-Inge Lind, Per-Hugo Skärvad: Nya Team i organisationernas värld. Liber ekonomi. Kristianstad 1997. ISBN 91-47-04042-4.

[11] P.J. Janssen: Students as Problem Solvers: From 3X3 Study Experiences into Academic Expertise. Placing the Student at the Centre. Maastricht University 20th Anniversary Conference. November 1996. pp. 11-16.

12] Peter M. Senge: The Fifth Discipline - The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Currency Doubleday, 1990. ISBN 0-385-26095-4.