Objectives: This study investigated the use of a Web-based community health simulation as a problem-based learning (PBL) experience for undergraduate students majoring in public health. The study sought to determine whether students who participated in the online simulation achieved differences in academic and attitudinal outcomes compared with students who participated in a traditional PBL exercise.
Methods: Using a nonexperimental comparative design, 21 undergraduate students enrolled in a health-behavior course were each randomly assigned to one of four workgroups. Each workgroup was randomly assigned the semester-long simulation project or the traditional PBL exercise. Survey instruments were used to measure students' attitudes toward the course, their perceptions of the learning community, and perceptions of their own cognitive learning. Content analysis of final essay exams and group reports was used to identify differences in academic outcomes and students' level of conceptual understanding of health-behavior theory.
Results: Findings indicated that students participating in the simulation produced higher mean final exam scores compared with students participating in the traditional PBL (p=0.03). Students in the simulation group also outperformed students in the traditional group with respect to their understanding of health-behavior theory (p=0.04). Students in the simulation group, however, rated their own level of cognitive learning lower than did students in the traditional group (p=0.03).
Conclusions: By bridging time and distance constraints of the traditional classroom setting, an online simulation may be an effective PBL approach for public health students. Recommendations include further research using a larger sample to explore students' perceptions of learning when participating in simulated real-world activities. Additional research focusing on possible differences between actual and perceived learning relative to PBL methods and student workgroup dynamics is also recommended.