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The Journal of General Education 51.4 (2002) 282-292

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Problem-Based Learning in a General Psychology Course

A. Sandra Willis


Problem-based learning (PBL) uses authentic problems as the context for learning disciplinary knowledge. In the process of investigation, students seek and learn content information and creatively formulate solutions. Proponents of PBL provide evidence that this technique allows opportunities to stimulate student involvement in ways that make the content material more relevant and promote learning on a deeper level than listening to information presented during a lecture. This approach, most widely used in medical education, emphasizes self-directed learning and practiced use of problem-solving skills, usually not acquired in traditional college coursework (Edens, 2000; Reynolds, 1997; Peters, Greenberger, Crowder, Block, & Moore, 2000).

This paper describes the design, implementation, and assessment of a general psychology course in which PBL techniques are incorporated into seven modules of integrated disciplinary sub-areas. Of concern is the efficacy of balancing the presentation of foundational content from a broad, diverse discipline, while allowing time for PBL activities in a one-semester timeframe. Both content coverage and the learning of problem-solving skills are significant for psychology majors, as a robust foundation, and for non-majors, as the sole exposure to a field with potential to improve quality of life.

A review of psychology teaching research reveals a dearth of PBL application, with the exceptions of Cerbin (in Murray, 2000), Edens (2000), and Willis (in Murray, 2000) in the United States, and Reynolds (1997) in Britain. Despite few published studies, it is likely that other active learning techniques, emphasizing problem-solving skills, are conceptually and practically similar to PBL, though not identified as such. Related teaching techniques may [End Page 282] be more frequently used than is apparent in the literature. Hence, the instructor interested in incorporating PBL should cast a wide net, using a number of descriptors, while conducting a literature search.

Adapting the General Psychology Course

Psychology is usually inherently interesting to students and they often approach the subject expecting it to be relevant to real-life conditions and problems. Some students, however, report disappointment with the "overwhelming" amount of content information and the complexity of many theoretical explanations (Reynolds, 1997). The resulting question, then, is how does one teach an introductory course in a broad field and capture its complex nature and empirical thrust, while making it engaging and relevant to college students?

Three points are of critical concern in the successful teaching of general psychology as compared with the teaching of subsequent courses in the field. General psychology is typically taught in a one-semester framework in which the instructor has the challenge of balancing the presentation of foundational content from a broad discipline, while allowing time for PBL activities. Secondly, for non-majors enrolled in introductory psychology as one of their general education requirements, this exposure to the field may be their only opportunity to learn about a discipline that has the potential to affect their quality of life, including becoming educated consumers of scientific findings. Finally, as the beginning course for a psychology major, it must provide an adequate foundation for the learning of content and research methods in sub-disciplines. Psychology majors will later design research and gather and analyze data. An early, accurate understanding and working knowledge of research methods facilitates and enhances performance in the required statistics and research methods courses, as well as undergraduate and graduate independent study. [End Page 283]

Design and Implementation

Samford University's Problem-Based Learning Initiative included a Summer Institute for faculty interested in learning more about this technique and applying it to courses across many disciplines. Training sessions provided definitions and clarification of PBL concepts, guided work sessions, and examples of PBL activities. Most of the examples of PBL activities presented during the Institute came from other disciplines; however, the PBL format was easily adapted to the teaching of psychology. Other valuable resources specific to the teaching of psychology were the American Psychological Association's publications, Teaching of Psychology (Myers, 1997; VanderStoep & Shaughnessy, 1997), and...


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pp. 282-292
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