Commentary: What do students say about problem-based learning?


  • Harold B. White

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    1. From the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716
    • From the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716
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At the beginning of each semester, I tell the students in my courses that if they do not change in some way as a result of taking my course, it will have been a waste of their time and mine. For the sophomores I teach, this almost always is their first problem-based learning (PBL) experience. I suspect they interpret my comments in terms of content knowledge. Although I certainly expect they will learn a lot of biochemistry, the changes I am hoping for relate most to developing intellectual, attitudinal, and social behaviors that characterize mature self-directed adults. These are changes that PBL encourages and few lecture courses openly address. They are changes that are hard to measure well and are typically ignored in assessing courses taught traditionally.

My approach to assessing change is to analyze the content of the responses to an open-ended question on the anonymous final course evaluation. It reads, “In an informative sentence or two, describe or characterize CHEM-342 to someone who might consider taking the course?” Basically I am interested in the first thoughts or biggest impressions students have about the course and what they would want to tell a fellow student about the course.

After reviewing all the responses to that question over the past ten years, I see them falling into several broad categories. Some describe the mechanics of the course. For example, the following is a fairly well articulated description.

“CHEM 342 is a problem-based learning course centered around articles that present a progression of knowledge about hemoglobin. The course is different from most in that, in a group format, we have to read the articles and research topics we don't understand on our own to understand the material.”

While such factually correct responses address the question, I find the responses that reveal students' opinions about the course and their reactions to PBL much more informative with respect to whether or not the course has achieved my goals.

Quite a few students express frustration in various ways such as:

“Rarely, if ever, are you given a yes/no response to a question.”

“Hard to know how to study for the tests.”

“I don't recommend this course if you don't like group work.”

“Frustrating to those who like structured classes.”

“The professor does little teaching.”

“The course is a waste of time, could learn the same amount in a couple of weeks of lecture.”

Then there are responses that note the amount of work required:

“You will work extremely hard, find many dead ends, in all you will learn so much.”

“Takes a lot of personal initiative and cooperation.”

“The more you and your group put into it, the more you get out of it (maybe even more).”

“In order for one to succeed, and by that I mean do good in this class and learn the info, you have to have the desire to constantly do work b/c no one is going to spoon feed you the info like in other classes.”

Gratifyingly, there are a considerable number of responses that reflect on the learning process.

“You learn how to really understand science by questioning conclusions and realizing your own limitations.”

“Emphasizes understanding, rather than memorization.”

“In this course you will learn how to ask the right questions and apply what you do know to figure out what you don't know.

“Teaches you how to think.”

“All about learning how to learn and evaluate information. What and how you learn is up to you.”

“You can learn a great deal of information, if you are willing to ask questions and try to find answers.”

“It's a very interesting class that gets you to think for yourself in a very different way.”

“It makes you understand what you are reading and not just memorize.”

Some responses touch on skills or the class atmosphere.

“Deals with many things other courses do not, e.g. creativity, communication, and writing.”

“The course can be frustrating, but you learn a lot in the end and we learned a lot of different skills that will be useful anywhere.”

“Working with other students makes the learning much more enjoyable.”

In a way I am pleased that many responses do not mention hemoglobin, sickle cell disease, or biochemistry. I would like to think that means the students have grasped the idea that, although they have learned a lot, the nominal course content provides a pretext for a different and more fundamental learning experience. I am also gratified that most of the student responses, in one way or another, reflect how the course has affected them in ways that I intended.

Nevertheless, I am leery of evaluations by people who have a stake in the outcome, as I have done here. Thus, despite my attempt at objectivity, what I see and interpret in the responses might well be viewed differently by others. Readers can decide by accessing the course web-site where final course evaluations from virtually every student since 2001 are linked,