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Learning to Use Spreadsheets: a Problem-based Approach

by Leong K.K., School of Business and Accountancy


Decision Support with Spreadsheets (DSS) is a 1st year module offered by the School of Business and Accountancy at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. One of the main objectives of this module is for the students to develop a working knowledge of spreadsheets for use within a business environment. Students are expected to develop spreadsheet skills that can be used for data analysis to enhance business intelligence.

The original module format

The original teaching and learning model for this module was designed around a conventional 1-hr lecture, 1-hour tutorial and a 2-hour workshop each week during the semester.

A spreadsheet chart. [Image source.]

The purpose of the large-group lectures was for the lecturer to explain Microsoft Excel concepts, while the tutorials offered opportunities for students to practice these concepts in a smaller class. In the workshops, students undertook small group problem-solving activities.

A review of student learning outcomes indicated that students felt they were learning about Excel functions as a theoretical exercise and the main purpose appeared to be learning for a test, rather than being able to apply the concepts.

The review highlighted an apparent mismatch between 50% of the curriculum time (the teacher-led, content-centered relatively large-class lecture/tutorial) and the applied knowledge that the students actually needed to develop.

Moving towards more learner-centered learning...

In reviewing how students learn, the teaching team felt that learning would be more effective if curriculum space could be created for students to handle more realistic business problems in a learner-centered manner. Opportunities had to be created to involve students in the capture, manipulation and analysis of data and in the construction of possible solutions.

Instead of asking students to do text-book assignments during tutorials, the students experience a Problem Based Learning (PBL) approach so that they are better able to apply their understanding of the topic to real world issues. Working in small teams, students now encounter real-world problems, identify the key issues, conduct reviews and information search, suggest ways to handle and resolve the problems, select the best solution/method, and present their findings for review and critique by their classmates and tutors.

Scaffolding learning - with PBL

In the course of the semester, students are given two PBL assignments which aim to develop the students’ thinking from that of a novice to a “professional”. The first assignment is designed with more guidance and scaffolding as students are still new to this method of learning. In working through the problem, students are expected to learn Excel functions, learn how to apply these functions and concepts to real-world problems, capture and manipulate the necessary data, analyse the data and posit solutions to the problem using Excel decision support features.

spreadsheet-1 spreadsheet-2
Students working on their PBL assignments

The second PBL assignment further develops the student’s ability to integrate classroom knowledge and real world issues as they are required to develop their own “problems” and to solve them. In order to identify real world problems, students would need to demonstrate good understanding of the concepts in the module as well as the problems arising from the use of these concepts in the workplace. Students would be challenged to synthesize their knowledge of the module, analyse the workplace environment and evaluate the various options for the most appropriate solution. This would take the students from novice to a more expert level.

Further enhancement to create more learning spaces

To further create the space for applied learning, the weekly large-group lecture of 250 students was removed. The revised model now includes a weekly 2-hr seminar and a 2-hr workshop with a class-size of 40 & 20 respectively.

The seminar sessions are used to highlight specific features of the Excel software and for students to complete in-class assignments which are more “text-book” based. A longer workshop allows the students more time to discuss and collaborate with their group on their PBL tasks. The smaller class size also meant that the tutor could spend more time with each group.

In order to ensure the validity of the assessment, the module team changed the assessment to emphasise the applied nature of the module. Theoretical assessment now covers only 25%, with the rest of the 75% being PBL assignments, class assignments and quiz.

Summary of Changes

Original Module Design

  • Lectures were conducted where concepts were explained.

  • Concepts are reinforced during tutorials where students practice.

  • Workshop sessions were for students to work on small-group problem solving.


Revised Module Design

  • The first hour of the tutorial is used by lecturers to explain concepts. The second hour is meant for students to practice.  

  • Workshop sessions are meant for students to work on their PBL projects.

Original Module structure

  • 1-Hour Lecture (250 students)

  • 1-hour Seminar (40 students)

  • 2-hour Workshop (40 students)


Revised Module Structure

  • 2-hour Seminar (40 students)

  • 2-hour Workshop (20 students)

Original Assessment

  • Class & e-learning Participation (20%)

  • Common Test & Final Test (40%)

  • PBL Project (40%)


Revised Assessment

  • Class Participation & assignments (20%)

  • PBL Project (50%)

  • Practical Test (25%)

  • Quiz (5%)

Alignment with graduate outcomes

In this revised approach to learning how to use Excel to make informed business decisions, students develop the following repertoire of attributes, skills and knowledge:


  • Being responsible for self-directed activity

  • Being confident about self-learning


  • How to create, capture and manipulate data in Excel

  • Data analysis

  • Real-world Problem handling skills

  • Critical thinking business and data-driven decision making

  • Collaboration and team work


  • Excel decision support functions

Student Feedback on their PBL experience

Students have reported that while they find the learning experience to be meaningful and more effective than learning the concepts through the lecture mode, the module is challenging in that the problems are now larger and the workload is also heavier given that the PBL approach places a large amount of responsibility for the learning in the hands of the students. This is perhaps the most critical discomfort that students have registered about this new approach. Without the security of the 'authorised content' of the lecture, they feel a little lost and insecure about what they know and what they know to be 'correct'.


Some students, especially since these are first year students, may find the PBL approach to Decision Support with Spreadsheets a little too challenging. They will probably need more scaffolding to develop the skills and attributes necessary for them to experience satisfaction from such a learning design. However, most students have also demonstrated that they are able to draw more meaning, relevance, and demonstrate the intended applied knowledge and skills, making this learning method more effective in achieving the learning objectives of this module.


Leong KK

By Leong Kwok Keong, lecturer in the School of Business and Accountancy, Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

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