The Journal of General Education 51.4 (2002) 257-271
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Words That Make s Difference:
Problem-Based Learning in Communication Arts Courses
David W. Chapman
Although almost everyone—students, faculty, parents, employers—stresses the importance of communication skills to success in life, this does not automatically translate into student motivation to perform well in their introductory courses in the art of communication. Instead, students are likely to view these courses as just another general education hurdle to overcome on their way to a major. This has several consequences. Although most students are motivated to some degree by a desire to make a good grade, they often consider the corrections they receive to be unworthy of their attention—just the pointless fastidiousness of a tiresome pedant. As a result, many of them do not profit fully from these corrections, nor do they reach their full potential as writers and speakers. Even for those students who do work diligently in order to receive the best grade possible, they are often simply playing at an academic game. As a result, when they leave the communications course, they often revert to their former habits. Instead of writing and editing carefully before submitting their work, they are content to turn in their unrevised drafts. Such work reflects poorly on the university and on the student.
In order to increase motivation and performance in the course, we adopted a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) format for Communication Arts that emphasized setting real world tasks for writing and speaking. Communication Arts is one of six courses required of all students at Samford as a part of the Co-neXus core curriculum. Each section of Communication Arts is normally limited to 18 students. Approximately 650 students are enrolled in the Communication Arts sequence each fall. Most students enroll in Communication Arts I, an introductory course in speaking and writing, in the fall; and Communication Arts II, an advanced course in [End Page 257] communication that emphasizes argumentation and research skills, in the spring. Students are expected to use technology effectively for communication, including email, Internet resources, Power Point presentations, and advanced word processing skills. Samford is one of the few universities in the world which takes an integrated approach to communication skills.
Problem-Definition in Writing and Speaking
The design of the Communication Arts course made it particularly amenable to a problem-based approach. The idea that each rhetorical situation has an embedded "problem" has a long and venerable tradition. Aristotle stressed the need for invention and discovery in his classic definition of rhetoric, "the faculty of discovering in the particular case what are the available means of persuasion" (Cooper, 1932, p. 7). The idea of a pre-existing "case," a problem to be solved, is taken for granted in Aristotle's rhetoric. A politician must convince his hearers to go to war or to remain at peace. A lawyer must convince the jury of the innocence of his client. A general must honor those who have died in a worthy cause.
The philosophical rhetoric of Aristotle was soon institutionalized into schools of oratory. Students were trained to present highly stylized declamations through the imitation of their masters. As George A. Kennedy (1980) notes, "The characteristic rhetorical form of Hellenistic and later rhetorical schools is the melete, or practice exercise" (p. 37). Thus, rhetoric moved from a practical role in the collective decision making of the Athenian republic, to a ceremonial role in developing civil servants for the Roman Empire.
The preoccupation with rhetoric as a means of social advancement persists into modern times. As James A. Berlin (1987) noted in his history of writing instruction, the freshman composition requirement can be directly tied to the emergence of a "new middle class, a body claiming and receiving economic privilege and power on the basis of its certified, professional status" (p. 20). The social value of the course can be seen in its prevalence as a course [End Page 258] requirement. Freshman composition, or a similar course promoting communication skills, is the most frequently...