Book by Dave S. Knowlton & David Sharp
Review by Susan V. Iverson
University of Maine
A central purpose for higher education is to prepare students for active participation in our government and our communities (Colby et al, 2003). Thus, the development of critical thinking skills is important to the goals of education. To develop these skills, many instructors employ experiential strategies in their classrooms. One such approach is problem-based learning (PBL).
Knowlton and Sharp (2003), in Problem-Based Learning in the Information Age, offer a useful overview on the practices and theories associated with problem-based learning. PBL is “any pedagogical approach that requires students to solve for an unknown” (p. 5). Problem-based learning is self-directed, collaborative, and active; it challenges students to "learn to learn" and work cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. “Ill-structured” problems are used to engage student curiosity and initiate learning within the subject matter. These characteristics contribute to PBL’s highest praise: its emphasis on higher-order thinking among students.
The authors caution, these benefits—namely students’ ability to think critically and analytically—are not automatic. Instructors need to serve as facilitators to elicit student understanding of group dynamics, ability to identify and analyze problems, and to gain insights into themselves are as learners. This more unconventional role—teacher as facilitator rather than transmitter of knowledge—can contribute to student discomfort and uncertainty. Further, the authors advise, many students are initially discomforted by PBL and its unfamiliar approach; however, students report satisfaction with PBL once the transition is made.
Advisors can play a key role in helping students unlearn their teaching-learning assumptions. Through familiarity with PBL, advisors can help students make a smooth transition into PBL courses. Regrettably, not all course descriptions denote the use of PBL (or other experiential approaches); however, advisors can inform students about different learning styles and instructional strategies, and how these enhance student learning.
The authors provide numerous descriptions of faculty designing and implementing problem-based curriculum that challenges students to confront, analyze, and ‘solve’ problems. In particular, I found myself drawn to the sections that had examples, e.g., descriptions of PBL problems (p. 28). However, I was left wanting more of these illustrations. For instance, in a section on strategies for helping students analyze and solve problems (Ch. 9) the authors delineate various strategies: journal keeping, role playing, and Socratic conversations. However, a sample assignment or writing prompt or vignette from a conversation would have further illuminated the authors’ examples.
Finally, the latter part of the volume’s title: “in the Information Age” is somewhat “theoretically obtuse” (as the authors acknowledge on p. 2). When I selected the text, I assumed the authors would be linking the use of PBL with classroom technologies. However, the text is largely void of this; in fact, there is only one chapter on integrating computers into problem-solving process (Ch. 4). While Knowlton and Sharp dismiss the notion that the title is “an attempt by us to add buzzwords that will attract enlightened readers’ attention” (p. 1) and explicate their rationale for the title by linking PBL with the heightened complexities for decision-makers in the information age, I was left feeling their use of “information age” in the title was more about buzzwords.
Overall, I found the book a useful introduction to PBL, theories associated with it, considerations for course design, and suggestions for its implementation. This book is a valuable resource for academic advisors to enhance their knowledge of PBL, one of many experiential strategies employed in the classroom that prepares students to be self-directed, lifelong learners, and practical problem solvers.
Colby, A., Ehrlich, T., Beaumont, E., & Stephens, J. (2003). Educating citizens: Preparing America’s undergraduates for lives of moral and civic responsibility. Jossey-Bass.
Problem-Based Learning in the Information Age (New Directions for Teaching and Learning #95). (2003). Book by Dave S. Knowlton & David Sharp (Eds.). Review by Susan V. Iverson. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishers. 104pp. $27.00 (paperback). ISBN # 0-7879-7172-3