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The Journal of General Education 51.4 (2002) 235-256

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Problem-Based Learning in General Education at Samford University:
A Case Study of Changing Faculty Culture Through Targeted Improvement Efforts

Claire H. Major



Despite the many claims that the paradigm has shifted in higher education from a traditional instructional paradigm to a learning paradigm (Farmer, 1999; Fischetti, et al. 1996; Cambridge, 1996; Barr & Tagg, 1995; McDaniel, 1994), planning for curriculum-wide change on campus is still a challenging task. Stark and Lowther (1988) note, for example, that faculty and administrators are sometimes reluctant to invest the necessary effort needed to pursue substantive curricular change. Barriers and resistance to change are common. In particular, institutional values, beliefs, and norms can impede change efforts.

Most curriculum changes have been implemented on a short term, piecemeal basis within colleges and universities (Ewell, 1997) and thus the change has been neither widespread nor long lasting. Research should examine how curricular change can be accomplished over time and across programs and what cultural considerations enhance or impeded these efforts. This article attempts that by presenting the results of a case study focusing on one university's major curriculum transformation process that has been underway for over three years.

The curricular reform efforts at this particular institution moved the university towards active, student-centered learning. The change process helped to promote curricular coherence because faculty pursued common learning outcomes (such as team work or problem solving) that were integrated across the curriculum. Undergraduates enrolling in general education courses had [End Page 235] numerous opportunities to develop and build upon certain skills that faculty agreed were important. In addition, the major faculty development initiatives and structure of this work enabled faculty to revitalize their own teaching by placing an increased focus on what they want students to learn and be able to accomplish. The change was accomplished within the institutional cultural context.

Following the project's completion, this qualitative case study analysis was intended to examine structures used to promote change on campus. Two concepts are essential background for this analysis: the nature of academic culture and the theoretical underpinnings of problem-based learning.

Academic Culture and Change

Because of deeply embedded and shared values, beliefs, and norms, organizational culture may play a more significant role in universities than in other types of institutions (Bess, 1992; Clark, 1983; Dill, 1991; Peterson & Spencer, 1990). Understanding cultural forces can help leaders interpret stakeholders' visions and thus shape the ways change can occur (Argyris, 1990; Beckhard & Pritchard, 1992; Mintzberg, 1987; Senge, 1990). On a university campus, both faculty, who generate and depend on the substance of culture, and administrative leaders, who use culture to strengthen the organization, are necessary for change (Bess, 1992; Clark, 1983, Dill, 1991; Tierney, 1999). Unfortunately, universities often lack the structures necessary to nurture unifying aspects of culture (Bess, 1992; Clarke, 1983; Dill, 1991; Peterson & Spencer, 1990; Tierney, 1999). The use of appropriate structures and strategies targeted at supporting culture represents a potentially powerful tool for managing change in academic organizations (Frost & Jean, 2000). [End Page 236]

Problem-Based Learning as Change

Problem-based learning (PBL) represents a dramatic shift from the traditional, lecture-based instructional paradigm. One of the bases for this shift is that PBL comes from the theory that learning is a constructive rather than a receptive process (Gijselaers, 1994). In a PBL classroom, students confront a complex and compelling problem and they work in teams to develop viable solutions as a faculty member facilitates the learning process (Major, 1998). Its basis in constructivism dramatically alters the roles of faculty, student, and content in a classroom. Rather than formal authorities dispensing knowledge, faculty members become guides and facilitators (Barrows, 1994; Major, 1998). Unlike passive receptacles learning things beyond their experiences, students become stakeholders and take some of the responsibility for their learning (Barrows, 1994; Gijselaers, 1994; Major, 1998). Knowledge becomes something to be constructed or developed rather than content to be received and replicated (Barrows, 1994; Gijselaers...


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