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The Journal of General Education 51.4 (2002) 293-305

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World Regional Geography and Problem-Based Learning:
Using Collaborative Learning Groups in an Introductory-level World Geography Course

Eric J. Fournier


World Regional Geography was one of several classes developed during the pilot phase of Samford University's Problem-Based Learning initiative. The decision to adapt this geography class was based on a broad trend towards active learning in undergraduate institutions as well as more specific trends within the discipline of geography (Bonwell & Sutherland, 1996). Today's students need to be better prepared to solve spatially related problems in a shrinking world community. To accomplish this, geography needs to be transformed from a declarative enterprise based on facts to a problem-based enterprise (Golledge, 2001). In addition students are expected to leave college with more clearly defined transferable skills (Chalkley & Harwood, 1998). Finally students should be exposed to the vast array of print and electronic resources available as well, and they should develop evaluative skills in assessing the validity and appropriateness of those resources (Healey, 1998). The transformation of this general education class addresses all three of these concerns.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and Transferable Skills

Despite the relative paucity of published evidence, there is clearly a consensus that problem-solving abilities are a crucial skill that students need to develop. Clark and Higgitt (1997) suggest, [End Page 293]

The key issue which aim to prepare graduates for the 21st century is how to use that education to instill the key intellectual qualities for next century's career patterns. The key qualities include...general intellectual skills such as problem solving, identifying the core of a problem, the ability to transfer knowledge and skills to new situations and to learn new complex subjects, and making judgments on the evidence available. (p. 11)

The link between the development of problem-solving abilities and future career opportunities is made explicit through what are termed transferable skills. Students are expected to work together in groups. Group work is an essential part of the work world. Students must learn to rely on their classmates, much as they will rely on their co-workers in the future. Group organization helps facilitate communication skills, develops interpersonal skills, and helps prepare students for the future. This is one of several transferable skills that can be developed via PBL. Healey (1992) explored the use of groups to encourage the incorporation of such skills into the curriculum. Several others have written about the use of groups for a variety of classes (Burkill, 1997; Stainer, 1997; Crewe, 1994). The development of these skills, which include time management, joint decision-making, group work, task allocation, and self-assessment, was introduced by Madge (1995) in a problem-based exercise to explore university library resources. Many of these skills can be easily applied to the needs of the workforce. Chalkley and Harwood (1998, p. 1) noted "that no degree curriculum would be considered complete without some reference to the role of skills and employability."

Employers are often disappointed with the ability of new recruits to communicate their ideas clearly, work in teams, solve problems, and use their initiative. In the United States there are concerns that large numbers of graduates lack basic skills in problem solving (Johnson Foundation, 1994). Birnie and O'Conner (1998) suggest the use of practical exercises and laboratory work to develop these abilities. Common aims of practical work include the development of skills such as working in teams and problem solving. In addition, they note that such an approach can enthuse [End Page 294] students with the subject and bridge the gap between theory and practice. Finally PBL may be considered a form of active pedagogy as described by Moser and Hansen (1996):

Active a student-centered approach: it involves students actively in their own learning, assures their involvement with the material (i.e., their world), teaches skills for problem-solving rather than instilling information for occasional regurgitation, and prepares students to...


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