Blogging My Research: Problem-Based Learning Across the Disciplines

A few weeks ago, I announced that I’m blogging my research to prepare for conference presentations during my first year as an Assistant Professor. My first post in the series focused on the origin and benefits of problem-based learning (PBL) in its traditional formulation.

In this follow-up post, I discuss how PBL has moved well beyond its original locus in medical education. However, PBL has not yet gained a firm footing in the humanities. Disciplinary suitability, however, is only one part of the “to PBL or not to PBL” puzzle. The placement of PBL in the sequence of a course also is an important consideration, no matter the discipline.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user callion

CC-licensed photo by flickr user callion

After PBL’s emergence in medical education (first at McMaster University — see image below), it quickly found a home in the hard sciences (Savin-Baden and Howell 20) because it encourages students to apply their knowledge (what we call “deep learning”) and go beyond mere rote memorization (what one could call “surface learning”).

For similar reasons, PBL eventually spread to other, quite different disciplines, like social work, business, and mass communications. In social work, PBL “is seen as appropriate…because of the breadth of the profession, the various intervention types used by the profession, and social work’s integration of values alongside knowledge and skills” (Bolzan and Heycox 194). Interestingly, as Natalie Bolzan and Karen Heycox report, while classical PBL meshes nicely with the field of social work, the term itself became problematic within the context of social work. Should certain social concerns necessarily be called “problems”? To avoid vilifying or otherwise stereotyping issue like “ageing and immigration,” Bolzan and Heycox describe how one Australian university began to consciously call PBL “issues-based” learning (194).

Though PBL gained a stronghold in medicine, the hard sciences, and the social sciences, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, its presence in the humanities is less palpable, perhaps because of the ways PBL needs to be reimagined in order to fit within the scope of traditional plans of study (Savin-Baden and Howell 20).

CC-licensed photo by flickr user ocad123

CC-licensed photo of McMaster University by flickr user ocad123

Bill Hutchings and Karen O’Rourke advance a similar position. They argue in the journal Arts and Humanities in Higher Education that PBL can be used productively in literary studies, but only when adapted appropriately (Hutchings and O’Rourke 74). Consider that in traditional PBL, students take on a role within their group, and they act in this capacity for the entire tutorial. This aspect of PBL contradicts the spirit of literary studies. In a subsequent book-length study, Hutchings and O’Rourke assert that “literary studies is essentially a[n]…open-ended, critically contested…and creative subject that…encourages [students] to find their own intellectual pathways” (Hutchings and O’Rourke qtd. in Savin-Baden and Howell 21). Forcing students to select a job or role for the entire PBL process might be “counterproductive to the nature of learning within the discipline” (Savin-Baden and Howell 21).

Despite the difficulties in adapting PBL to certain kinds of literature courses, it seems that PBL could be utilized more easily in the teaching of rhetoric and writing. Libby Miles claims in The Practice of Problem-Based Learning: A Guide to Implementing PBL in the College Classroom that in her “field of rhetoric and composition, the move to PBL can be a natural progression” because it “values situations for writing” (Amador, Miles, and Peters 8). Indeed, “many writing classes at all levels…place students in different writing situations and ask them to respond to the situation appropriately and effectively” (Miles qtd. in Amador, Miles, and Peters 7).

In my business writing classes, students always produce documents (i.e., major assignments) with an eye towards a specific rhetorical situation. What this means is that when they are asked to say, compose an adjustment letter or create a feasibility report, they must consider the needs and constraints of the audience as well as how those issues intertwine with their own goals.

While business writing naturally presents complex situations in which rhetoric and writing help to solve, first-year composition does not easily offer up such situations. So, I read Miles’ sections of The Practice of Problem-Based Learning with great interest. Perhaps the most curious thing I discovered is that she reported beginning her composition courses with a PBL project because this kind of activity “encapuslat[es] and introduce[es] all the elements [she] hope[s] to teach” students (Miles 8). Among other skills, PBL in composition courses, Miles relates, helps students to “negotiat[e] complex and diverse perspectives on an issue” in writing (8).

In contrast to what Miles does with PBL, I’m implementing PBL in my business writing course this semester as a capstone project—something that will culminate the plan of study. When PBL is placed at the end of a course, it can help students not only collate their learning experiences, but also “extend and apply” this knowledge if the PBL activity has a “new wrinkle introduced” (Amador, Miles, and Peters 76). Adding a complication into the mix allows students to “take their previous knowledge and practice to a different level” (Amador, Miles, and Peters 76), and as I mentioned in my first PBL post, self-directed learning is an integral part of PBL.

When I first began reading about PBL, I was nervous that the project I had envisioned for my business writing course wasn’t technically “PBL.” After some research, I’m confident that, designed correctly, this project will retain the central goals of PBL, and it’s placement at the end of the course further will ensure that the activity will encourage self-directed, praxis-oriented learning.

Because my PBL project will encourage students to apply their skills towards business-oriented writing in a digital, social context, the next few posts in this series will focus on the concept of “digital natives,” teaching with technology, and examples of how twitter has been used in business writing courses.

In the meantime, if you haven’t read other posts in this series, please take a look at: post #1, Blogging my Research; post #2, A Definition of PBL.


Works Cited

Amador, Jose, Libby Miles, and CB Peters. The Practice of Problem-Based Learning: A Guide to Implementing PBL in the College Classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker, 2006. Print.

Bolzan, Natalie and Karen Heycox. “Use of an issue-based approach in social work education” eds. David Boud and Grahame Feletti. The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. London: Kogan Page, 1991. Print.

Hutchings, Bill and Karen O’Rourke. “Problem-Based Learning in Literary Studies.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education. 1.1 (2002): 73-83. Electronic PDF. 23 Sep. 2012.

Savin-Baden, Maggi and Claire Howell Major. Foundations of Problem-based Learning. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. Print.

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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