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The Journal of General Education 51.4 (2002) v-xii

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Implementing Problem-Based Learning in Undergraduate Education:
A Message from the Guest Editor

Claire H. Major

Educators and employers often agree on the skills college graduates should possess, and many recent reports outline these skills. For example, The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998) suggests that the research university should create education to produce an individual "equipped with a spirit of inquiry and a zest for problem solving; one possessed of the skill in communication that is the hallmark of clear thinking. . . ." (p. 13). The National Education Goals Panel (1992), in like fashion, suggests that undergraduate education should be linked to producing definite outcomes, such as critical thinking, problem solving, effective communication, and responsible citizenship. Similarly, the Wingspread Report (1994) suggests that students should be able to think in complex ways, to analyze information, to solve problems, and to communicate. The Business-Higher Education Forum (1995) stated that corporate leaders agree that college graduates should possess a number of skills, including "leadership and communication skills; quantification skills, interpersonal relations, and the ability to work in teams; the understanding needed to work with a diverse workforce at home and abroad; and the capacity to adapt to rapid change" (p. 3). These common themes intimate that a general college education, then, should enable undergraduates to develop their problem-solving and critical thinking, team skills, and communication skills.

However, as faculty and staff try to design learning experiences, these questions arise: 1) how can students learn these essential skills, and 2) what kinds of strategies will strengthen student learning. Evidence about how learning occurs due to developments in cognitive and instructional science over the last decade provides some insight (Ewell, 1997). Students learn by establishing [End Page v] and reworking connections, patterns, and relationships. Direct experience shapes individual understanding. Learning occurs best with substantial interaction and personal support. Learning requires time for reflection. And, learning occurs best in the context of a compelling problem (Ewell, 1997). From this knowledge, we are able to make inferences about strategies that promote learning. Approaches to learning should emphasize linkages between established concepts and new situations, application and experience, and interpersonal collaboration. Approaches should emphasize rich and frequent feedback, and curricula should focus on a limited set of clearly identified, cross-disciplinary skills, which are publicly deemed important (Ewell, 1997).

Emergence and Development of Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based Learning (PBL) is an innovative educational framework designed to help students improve critical thinking and problem-solving, team skills, and communication skills. In PBL, problems serve as the context and the stimulus for learning. Students work together in teams, and faculty members guide learning. PBL first appeared in medical schools in the 1960s as educators attempted to deal with the information explosion, the fragmentation of the curriculum, and the lack of graduates with adequate problem-solving and critical thinking skills. McMaster University in Canada designed its newly created medical school around PBL. The framework focused on integrating PBL across the curriculum. Several other new medical schools adopted this curricular model, including Maastricht University in the Netherlands and University of Newcastle. Some medical schools revised their curricula and developed hybrid PBL and traditional curricula; Harvard University medical school is an example of this hybrid model. Other medical schools developed parallel tracks in which a small number of students proceeded through a PBL curriculum that ran alongside of a traditional classroom; Southern Illinois University medical school is an example of this parallel track model.

PBL is moving beyond its origins in medical schools. Many graduate professional schools began to see the applicability of PBL [End Page vi] to their courses and curricula (Barrows, 1994). These schools had similar concerns as medical schools, and they responded positively to findings from medical school research such as increased faculty and student satisfaction and increased retention. PBL was a suitable strategy for professions that were attempting to produce competent practitioners, and PBL soon found a place in several professional schools such as...


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