Purdue News

March 14, 2006

New journal focuses on alternative method of learning

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A Purdue University researcher says a method of teaching that began in medical schools several decades ago has the potential to revolutionize the way teachers teach and the way students learn.

Peggy Ertmer, associate professor of educational technology in the College of Education, said problem-based learning, in which students' work is organized around solving a complex, ill-structured problem that encompasses authentic, discipline-based content, can offer benefits that the traditional way of learning cannot.

"Problem-based learning is different because it allows students to utilize so many more skills than if they were simply listening to a lecture, reading a book chapter and taking a test," she said. "This method teaches not only about the subject matter, but also gives students the chance to develop skills in research, collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking."

And to bring more attention to this concept, as well to as create a forum for educators to share best practices, Purdue University Press this month is publishing its first issue of a peer-reviewed, online journal called the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning. Once published, it will be available online.

The quarterly journal, which addresses both the theoretical and practical issues related to implementing problem-based learning in K-12 and college-level classrooms, is co-edited by Ertmer and Alexius Smith Macklin, associate professor of library science at Purdue.

In the journal's first issue, the introduction outlines the two primary goals of problem-based learning. The first goal is to help students develop a deep understanding of specific content knowledge, and the second is to cultivate their problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills.

Other articles in the issue include "Overview of PBL: Definition and Distinctions," "Goals and Strategies of a Problem-based Learning Facilitator" and "Preparing Teachers to Use Problem-Centered, Inquiry-Based Science: Lessons from a Four-Year Professional Development Project."

Ertmer said the journal will have a two-pronged approach: serving as both a scholarly and mentoring journal. The editorial board members have agreed to serve as mentors to junior faculty and graduate students to help them learn how to critique scholarly papers.

In addition, each issue will highlight one article by a graduate student or untenured faculty member who received special mentoring from an individual board member.

Members of the editorial board include Ayfer Alper, University of Ankara; George Bodner, Purdue University; Thomas Duffy, Indiana University; Cindy Hmelo-Silver, Rutgers University; David H. Jonassen, University of Missouri; Karen O'Rourke, University of Manchester; John R. Savery, University of Akron; George Watson, University of Delaware; and Don R. Woods, McMaster University.

Ertmer said she and her colleagues felt a strong need to have a journal that focuses on this teaching method because, although problem-based learning has been around for more than 40 years, very few publications focus on it. In addition, she said, the interdisciplinary nature of the journal allows teachers and researchers from virtually any content area to benefit from, and contribute to, the problem-based learning knowledge base.

Over the past five years, Ertmer has worked with middle- and high-school teachers in the Crawfordsville community schools to integrate problem-based learning units into their curricula. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, teachers attended summer workshops and semesterlong university classes that were designed to help them adapt portions of their current curricula using a problem-based approach.

Problem-based learning revolves around a central question. Units taught in Crawfordsville included questions such as "What is in our water?" or "In what ways can we improve our city?" Small student groups researched the issue by reading about it, setting up interviews with experts or community members, using the Internet, or any other method they chose.

Then, after the often semesterlong project was completed, each team made a presentation of its findings to the class or even community groups.

Ertmer said that among the approach's benefits is that students rely less on memorization and more on what she calls "inert knowledge."

Another plus is that students are encouraged to depend less on the teacher and more on themselves and fellow teammates. Although the entire class works with the same driving question, she said each group of students attacks the problem differently and usually comes up with very different solutions.

"This teaches students the real-life principle that there is usually more than one solution to solving almost any problem," she said.

Ertmer said problem-based learning can be used in virtually every subject because it has the benefit of teaching a sometimes complex subject in ways that young learners can relate to. The method also has produced positive results with medical students.

"Research has shown that medical students who learn from a problem-based learning curriculum do just as well on their medical examination boards as those from a traditional curriculum but do better on clinical rotations," she said. "That's likely because PBL teaches them skills such as listening, collaboration and devising alternative solutions to problems that are needed when interacting with patients."

Ertmer said problem-based learning also shows promise with engaging slow or disinterested learners because of the method's ability to encourage creative, innovative thinking and to create an invigorating environment that encourages peer interaction.

"It's all about seeing a problem and knowing how to attack that problem," she said.

Writer: Kim Medaris, (765) 494-6998, kmedaris@purdue.edu

Sources: Peggy Ertmer, (765) 494-5675, pertmer@purdue.edu

Alexius Smith Macklin, (765) 494-0297, alexius@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Note to Journalists: A reception for the journal's debut will take place from 4-6 p.m. March 22 in the Prusiecki Banquet Room of the Dick and Sandy Dauch Alumni Center. Journalists are invited to attend. Contact Kim Medaris, Purdue News Service, at (765) 494-6998, kmedaris@purdue.edu.


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