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UC Students Seek Solutions with New Method of Learning

Date: April 24, 2001
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Archive: Campus News, Research News

A pedagogical initiative supported by the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost for Baccalaureate and Graduate Education places more of the "action" of active learning into the hands of students. Problem-Based Learning or PBL was first explored in the medical schools of Maastricht, Holland, but the initiative has spread across disciplines and across the Atlantic to American universities, including UC.

PBL presents new challenges to both faculty and students, as emphasis is shifted from teaching to learning, according to Kristi Nelson, Vice Provost for Academic Planning. Faculty don't lecture, but rather present a problem that students, working independently and together, must solve. Instead of being the expert with the answers, faculty serve students as facilitators, guiding students along their journey of independent learning. Nelson says that while the approach has received mixed reviews, it's getting widespread support in colleges across the United States.

"It started out in American graduate degree programs but is now becoming popular in undergraduate programs. We're exploring this as an alternative pedagogical approach."

Since last fall, a university-wide faculty committee has been researching how other institutions have integrated Problem-Based Learning in curriculum. That exploration took some members of the committee to Samford University in Birmingham last fall. Nelson says Samford had immersed much of its curriculum in the PBL method of pedagogy. "The faculty at Samford are into it hook, line and sinker," Nelson continues.

"Samford, though, is a small, private, Baptist College. This summer, we're sending a team to explore PBL at the University of Delaware, a Research I institution." Results of that trip will lead to a three-day faculty workshop next fall. The Delaware research is sponsored by a $10,000 Faculty Development Grant.

The UC Counseling Program also is actively exploring and sharing ideas on PBL with support from a $13,000 Faculty Development Grant. Members of the committee traveled to Ohio State University last February to sit in on classes where the PBL approach is used in Columbus. On April 5, John J. Curry, director of the Problem-Based Learning Pathway (Departments of Physiology and Cell Biology and Obstetrics and Gynecology) at Ohio State, presented a seminar in the Annie Laws Drawing Room, College of Education, as part of a two-day seminar on PBL. "The philosophy of the program is that we're not only conveying information to students, but most importantly, getting them to understand it," said Curry. "PBL is about working with students to become independent, active, self-directed learners, and the problems are the means of creating that goal."

"Located at the extreme end of the range of active-learning models, PBL provokes students' curiosity for learning rather than force-feeding them facts," says John Bryan, Dean of University College, who adds that 80 percent of the nation's medical schools are now using some form of PBL, including Harvard and Stanford. "It mends what our age of disciplinary specializations has torn apart: an integrated understanding of how to solve real problems that involve not only complex knowledge but also complicated people and tight budgets and short schedules and all the other constraints we face. I can't think of a learning model better suited to UC's tradition of melding the abstract and the applied."

Experimentation with Problem-Based Learning at UC actually started in the College of Medicine back in 1990. PBL faculty team member Saad J. Ghosn, MD, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, was on the team that brought PBL to the College of Medicine. "I was pathology course director at that time," explains the 2000 recipient of the university wide Distinguished Teaching Award. "At that time, PBL was becoming very popular in the medical schools. As we designed the curriculum, we focused on how to include students in a more active learning process and how to make them become independent lifelong learners and integrate all the necessary knowledge from the various disciplines."

The approach appears to be a comfortable fit for med schools, as a patient presents a complaint (the problem) and the doctor, based on his or her independent research and shared information with colleagues, seeks to apply a solution to that problem. Robert Conyne is a PBL committee member and director of the UC Counseling Program, which is developing seminars to present the "problem" part of Problem-Based Learning.

"It's a challenge to be able to teach this way, but it's relatively consistent with teaching in counseling because we teach experientially, and counseling is an experiential approach. PBL is continuous learning that takes place over a period of sessions. For example, one problem may cover five weeks of an academic quarter in the counseling program.

"The problem is meant to be complex and ill-defined...something that sets up a situation. Students would need to figure out what they already know to respond to the problem, and what they need to gain to help their client. Another part of the challenge is working together as a group and building on each other's resources. This gives students a connection to 'real-world' practice, which requires people to work together. It fits well with our general pattern of working," Conyne said.

Ellen Lynch, coordinator of the early childhood care and education program in University College, said PBL works well for teachers too. "In PBL, students are challenged to develop flexible, cognitive strategies as they analyze problems and produce meaningful solutions. To be a successful teacher of young children, students need practice solving ill-structured problems that reflect real life as a teacher. The development of this skill is the role of Problem-Based Learning," says Lynch.

She used the PBL approach for her winter quarter online course, "Families, Cultures and Inclusion." This spring, Lynch is using PBL for her traditional class on the same subject.

"PBL is a pedagogical strategy that meshes perfectly with both my philosophy of teaching and my theoretical stance on learning," summarizes Lynch. "In short, PBL allows me to practice what I preach."

Members of the university wide Problem-Based Learning Committee:

  • Kristi Nelson, Vice Provost for Academic Planning
  • Linda Brown, associate professor of human and social science, College of Applied Science
  • John Bryan, dean, University College
  • Ellen Cook, professor of human services, College of Education
  • Robert Conyne, professor of human services, College of Education
  • Saad Ghosn, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, College of Medicine
  • Edward S. Grood, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering physics, College of Engineering
  • Carl A. Huether, professor of biology
  • Chet Laine, associate professor of teacher education, College of Education
  • Ellen Lynch, coordinator, Early Childhood Care and Education Program, University College
  • Floyd Ogburn, associate dean, University College

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