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Myths about Assessing the Impact of Problem-Based Learning on Students

From: The Journal of General Education
Volume 51, Number 4, 2002
pp. 326-334 | 10.1353/jge.2003.0012

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The Journal of General Education 51.4 (2002) 326-334

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Myths about Assessing the Impact of Problem-Based Learning on Students

Elizabeth A. Jones

Although problem-based learning (PBL) is increasingly adopted by faculty who teach undergraduate courses, there is little evidence that PBL makes a significant difference in student learning and development over time. Some faculty, who have reviewed the limited assessment evidence, are calling for more assessments to better understand how, when, and if PBL fosters the development of certain types of learning outcomes (Blumberg, 2000). Ideally, PBL should help undergraduates improve their abilities to think critically, analyze and solve complex, real-world problems; find, evaluate, and use appropriate learning resources; work effectively in teams; demonstrate strong written and verbal communication skills; and use content knowledge and intellectual skills to become life-long learners (Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001). However, there is a dearth of evidence regarding whether PBL helps undergraduates develop these types of outcomes over time.

Although faculty often state specific goals for student learning within their own individual courses, it is challenging to determine if students actually gain more advanced skills and knowledge as they complete series of courses within General Education and their majors. The extent of students' cumulative learning is critical to assess. As faculty devote considerable time and energy to implementing widespread change, it is critical to determine whether the integration of PBL across the undergraduate curriculum has a significant impact upon student learning and development.

Numerous scholars have articulated their beliefs and their own experiences with students. For example, Astin (1985) notes that "students learn by becoming involved . . . Student involvement refers to the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience" (pp. 133-134). [End Page 326] Chickering and Gamson (1987) stress that "students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers...They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves" (p.3). Finally, Cross (1996) states that "students who reflect on their learning are better learners than those who do not" (p.9). PBL has the potential to make a difference in terms of student learning and development.

The purpose of this article is to explore five myths about the assessment of PBL. Some faculty and administrators believe these myths reflect reality, but this discussion will reveal selected strategies to build strong assessment processes that can lead to determining whether PBL does make a difference. These myths are not derived from a group of faculty at a particular college or university rather they reflect the collective beliefs of some individuals who attempt to assess PBL. Individuals who believe in these myths are constrained in the decisions they make regarding the assessment of PBL. These myths interfere with the development of assessment plans and contribute to the lack of evidence that is gathered and analyzed. As Terenzini and Pascarella (1994) note, when myths continue to guide thought and action, they can become counterproductive.

The assessment of student learning, especially in these new PBL environments, is complex and challenging. Typically undergraduates are working on projects focused on real-world problems. Often these problems are embedded within ambiguous conditions and have no single right answer. Their structure is not always apparent (Huba & Freed, 2000) and they reflect the realities of complications found in real life. Students are often asked to work in teams to examine these ill-structured problems. Ideally, faculty expect students to use their knowledge and skills to effectively solve these problems. PBL is a means of developing learning for capability rather than learning for the sake of acquiring only knowledge (Engel, 1991).

Faculty may feel comfortable and have more experience focusing on content or knowledge outcomes that are concerned with the mastery of material specific to a particular course or discipline. The challenge is getting students to develop stronger reasoning [End Page 327] or higher-order thinking skills to critically evaluate numerous sources of...