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The Review of Higher Education 23.3 (2000) 347-363

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A Context for Learning:
Collaborative Groups in the Problem-Based Learning Environment

Karen Sunday Cockrell, Julie A. Hughes Caplow, and Joe F. Donaldson

Presidential Address


A central issue in preparing professionals is creating a link between education and practice. A number of instructional strategies have been recommended for facilitating this link including cognitive apprenticeships (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989), the reflective practicum (Schon, 1987), and problem-based learning (Barrows, 1986). Of all these innovative instructional [End Page 347] approaches, problem-based learning (PBL) has perhaps attracted the most attention from educators in such professional fields as nursing, education, and medicine.

McMaster University adopted PBL for medical education in the 1960s, the first school to do so. As PBL has gained recognition and credibility in medical education, allied health fields (e.g., Branda, 1990; Gist, 1992; Glen, 1995; Royeen, 1995), have begun to use PBL in their educational programs as an entire curriculum or as an instructional strategy within a conventional curriculum. In education, Bridges and Hallinger (1995) have applied a modified PBL approach to the preparation of school administrators and Casey and Howson (1993) have investigated the use of a PBL approach in the education of preservice teachers.

A central, organizing premise of PBL is linking theoretical knowledge to practical application through the use of collaborative groups in which students are responsible for deciding what is to be learned. Collaborative learning is premised on Vygotskian concepts that define learning as the social construction of knowledge. Acquiring new knowledge and restructuring existing knowledge emerge as individuals with differing viewpoints, experiences, and levels of knowledge about a particular topic engage in testing, reconciling, and ultimately forging a new, shared understanding of that topic through interaction with one another. A fundamental rationale for instructional strategies that promote the cooperation between learners is that such strategies more closely approximate the "real world" than traditional didactic approaches. That is, activities requiring cooperation among individuals reflect how tasks are usually accomplished in practice (Vygotsky, 1978). The purpose of this research was to examine students' perspectives of their learning in the collaborative group context of PBL.


Much research and evaluation has been conducted on PBL as a curricular and instructional innovation. For the most part, this research has investigated outcomes (e.g., comparisons of achievement outcome measures of students in PBL versus conventional curricula), the organizational and administrative tasks involved in implementing an innovative curriculum, and students' information-gathering and study patterns. However, little research has been conducted on the underlying learning processes of PBL, specifically on students' perspectives of the process in relation to their learning.

Some studies, primarily in medicine, have focused on the thought processes that PBL promotes, but these results have been mixed. In their comprehensive review of the research on PBL, Albanese and Mitchell (1993) reported the results of a study by Moore, Block, and Mitchell which found no difference in the diagnostic reasoning skills between students enrolled [End Page 348] in PBL and in conventional curricula; however, Patel, Groen, and Norman (1991) found more backward reasoning links, errors, and lack of decisiveness among PBL students. On the other hand, Claesson and Boshuizen (1985) found that PBL students had greater recall of basic science information than those in a conventional curriculum; however, they also found greater inclusion of irrelevant material in case analyses.

Recently, research has addressed students' perspectives and attitudes about PBL. Bernstein, Tipping, Bercovitz, and Skinner (1995) investigated shifts in students' attitudes after a five-week PBL component. In response to a survey given before and after a PBL experience, students indicated that PBL helped develop essential communication skills, increased knowledge retention due to opportunities for discussions, and facilitated thinking about the material rather than simply memorizing it. Another study examined students' perspectives of their learning process within a PBL curriculum and found that students were able to reflect on and examine their learning strategies when there was a clear association between the PBL goals...