Problem-based learning and undergraduate research


  • Harold B. White

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Deleware 19716
    • Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Deleware 19716
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The Boyer Commission Report in 1998 chastised US research universities for neglecting undergraduate education [1]. It suggested that the unique strengths of research universities needed to become part of the undergraduate experience. The first of 10 major recommendations was, “Make research-based learning the standard.” And the first sub-recommendation under that was, “Beginning in the freshman year, students should be able to engage in research in as many courses as possible.” Many academic scientists envisioned hordes of undergraduates invading their laboratories and dismissed these and other recommendations as unreasonable, if not impossible. They overreacted because they did not appreciate the range of research-based learning experiences available.

Research takes many forms and varies among disciplines. Fundamentally, research is an “attitude of inquiry.” I often marvel at the difference between elementary school students and college students when given the opportunity to ask questions. In a classroom of 8-year-old students, there will be a sea of hands, while in a college classroom there may be none. It seems as though college students have lost their curiosity, a key element of any research activity. Traditional science education bypasses the curiosity and clever experiments to focus on the results and conclusions. Students perceive science as what we know rather than a way to satisfy our curiosity and expand what we know. How dreadfully revealing was the question of an incredulous second-year medical student who asked, “You mean to say that everything in this physiology textbook was discovered by doing research?” [2].

The Boyer Commission Report specifically mentioned problem-based learning (PBL)11 as one way undergraduates can have a research-based experience. PBL is an excellent way to stimulate attitudes of inquiry and perhaps recover some of the curiosity of childhood. It puts a premium on being able to ask relevant questions and pursue answers to them. It is a way to introduce students to the research literature. It can lay the ground work for students who eventually do work in a research laboratory. As frequently noted, laboratory research is the ultimate PBL experience. For those who do not do laboratory research, PBL provides a window on the nature of research and the attitudes of inquiry needed to do research. Providing investigative elements to laboratory courses also contributes to these goals.

Unlike many reports on education that are soon forgotten, the Boyer Report attracted considerable attention and continues to have influence. Undoubtedly due to Shirley Strum Kenney, the Commission's chair and president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the Reinvention Center was established. It is dedicated to promoting the recommendations of the Boyer Report on university campuses. In late 2002, the Center sponsored a conference on “Undergraduate Research and Scholarship and the Mission of the Research University” held at the University of Maryland [3]. Among the presenters was William B. Wood, a coauthor of the first problem-based biochemistry textbook [4,5]. Discussion in his session [p. 35 of Ref. 3] drew the general consensus that a laboratory research experience was not a tenable or even desirable goal for every undergraduate but that inquiry-based teaching should be incorporated into all courses. Clearly there is a significant and largely unrealized educational role for PBL on most university campuses. For those interested in incorporating PBL into their courses, there will be a session at the ASBMB meetings in Boston in June 2004 on “Getting Started with PBL.”


  1. 1

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