Commentary: Preparing group facilitators for problem-based learning


  • Harold B. White

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716
    • Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716
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I am now amused by my naiveté the semester a decade ago when I first transformed a sophomore biochemistry course from an interactive lecture format to one with a problem-based learning (PBL)11 format. Not only was I unprepared for managing groups, I had unrealistic expectations of what students knew and how they would miraculously all become highly motivated and eager to learn. The course used classic research articles as problems. That semester I decided to include for the first time an article by Zinoffsky [1] published in 1886. He crystallized and recrystallized to homogeneity grams of hemoglobin from liters of horse blood and conducted careful elemental analysis that showed a 2 to 1 stoichiometry of sulfur to iron. Based on that and an iron content of 0.336%, Zinoffsky concluded that hemoglobin was a pure chemical compound with a minimum molecular weight of 16,700 (quite accurate in retrospect but beyond comprehension at the time). I was excited by the opportunity for students working in groups to use their foreign language skills (German) and review freshman chemistry concepts in a biochemical context.

However, in contrast to my classmates a generation earlier, virtually all of whom had at least a year of German, only three of 22 students in my PBL class had ever had any German! This blunder of major proportions required quick action to salvage any remaining credibility I had. Fortunately the roommate of one of the students in the class had a double major in Chemistry and German. She produced a translation, which after some hasty editing, was copied and distributed to the class 2 days later [2].

That and other episodes contributed to a steep learning curve. The transition from a traditional content-driven lecture format to a student-centered problem-based learning format required new perspectives and involved risk. One of the biggest challenges was managing multiple groups simultaneously. This was particularly difficult because neither the students nor I had much experience with group dynamics, and often that experience was negative. Groups often do not function well spontaneously, particularly if they are neglected by the instructor for a large proportion of the class period. Unless students know what to do in groups or have guidance, the potential synergism often goes unrealized and can lead to poor learning experiences.

Three years after my baptism as a PBL instructor, I accepted the advice of a colleague and employed successful students from the previous year's class as group facilitators. These students knew what to expect and virtually erased the several week lag time that usually precedes productive group functioning for students new to PBL. Concurrently, absenteeism, which was already low, decreased by a third to less than 6%, and the time students reported working outside of class increased by 25% to 6 h a week [3]. Clearly, group facilitators made a difference. However, the facilitators needed instruction for their role in the classroom.

In this issue, Platt et al. [4] describe a training course for PBL facilitators at the University of Rochester where they use the workshop model for instruction [5]. This is a hybrid instructional approach that retains lectures and uses PBL with peer facilitators in the recitation sections. The course for the workshop leaders (PBL facilitators) focuses on pedagogy as well as content and therefore could accommodate leaders participating in courses from different disciplines. Another excellent feature of this course is that it is co-taught by a content specialist and educational specialist. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students who participate as PBL facilitators have and often acquire an interest in education as a result of their experience. One wonders how many students who participate as PBL facilitators will become professors of tomorrow and will feel comfortable with student-centered approaches in the classroom. I certainly wish I had a course like that.


  1. 1

    The abbreviation used is: PBL, problem-based learning.