UpDate - Vol. 13, No. 21, Page 1
February 24, 1994
New PBL classroom offers novel teaching approach

     Getting answers, solving problems, discovering why things happen and
figuring out how to make improvements are a few common, widely accepted
educational objectives.
     Traditionally, a large percentage of information is passed from
instructors to students through lectures and standard classroom
demonstrations. While there is agreement that this teaching method is able
to relay information efficiently, no one teaching technique is ideal for
every situation.
     One approach gaining interest and acceptance by both new and
experienced instructors is problem-based learning (PBL).
     According to Barbara Duch, a teaching consultant in the Center for
Teaching Effectiveness, problem-based learning is considered by some as a
return to how learning originated. The approach focuses on identifying a
question or problem and then determining what information is needed in
order to arrive at the solution. In PBL, students must ask: What do we need
to know in order to answer the question?
     After gaining a clear understanding of the question, students approach
the solution through a rational system of inquiry. A clear understanding of
the objective will dictate and guide the efforts at arriving at the
solution. This developing learning process may involve choosing appropriate
readings, doing relevant research and, sometimes, deciding upon the best
way to present the findings to fellow students.
     In PBL settings, instructors serve as facilitators, directing students
and groups as they work through the exploratory process. If common concerns
are identified by several groups, the instructor can focus on those
particular questions and respond in an appropriate fashion--be it by a
general discussion, a short lecture or demonstration--involving all members
of the class.
     In problem-based learning sessions, Duch said, decision making occurs
very much like it does in the real world. Small groups discuss approaches,
engage in problem solving and participate in, at times, animated and
rapidly occurring fluid exchanges of information.
     While science classrooms seem to be the sites of much problem-based
learning instruction at the University, Duch said the approach is relevant
and can be applied in most disciplines.
     In the fall of 1993, the Center for Teaching Effectiveness proposed
that the University design a specific classroom for PBL use. Responses to a
questionnaire from the center indicated that faculty--in such diverse areas
as political science, business, communication, education, the physical and
life sciences and dietetics and nutrition--were interested in the approach
and, more importantly, would like to use the new PBL-designed classroom.
     Traditional classroom desks, with attached armrests for note taking,
are not present in corporate boardrooms or areas used for small discussion
group settings. Traditional-style classroom furniture arranged into a
circle is not conducive to sharing learning resources and information and
takes valuable class time to rearrange.
     Specially designed tables--which may be joined together so small
groups of six students are able to work face to face, or can be separated
so all participants can face the front of the room--have been installed.
     Attractive padded chairs, with wheels, are being used. This mobility
is important, Duch explained, since teachers and students should be able to
redesign the classroom setting easily and rapidly. The mobility also is
advantageous when students from different groups mingle to share ideas.
     Adjustable and directional lighting, additional chalkboards, on-site
computer, video and projection equipment also are features of the room that
will enhance both student productivity and faculty involvement.
     Duch said she is excited about the University's first PBL classroom.
If the response from faculty is as positive as she expects, and requests
for its use grow, Duch said she would not be surprised to see additional
PBL classrooms constructed throughout the campus.
                                                  -Ed Okonowicz