D. V. MCMAY ET AL.
to learn about the challenges similar to those that they will face
in their future careers. If the project is well designed, students
will work at high levels of critical thinking by evaluating and
synthesizing design factors and their potential impacts. The
“real world” aspect of the problem in their own community
created special interest for many students who lived on campus
and rarely left its grounds.
One challenge to implementing PBL is the reluctance of stu-
dents to engage in a new way of learning when their focus is
often entirely on final grades. One way to counter this anxiety
is to be clear about the problem statement, as well as both the
parameters within which students are to work, and how their
work will be evaluated. In this study, requiring students to find
a potential source of funding for all services provided proved
helpful in curbing students’ desire to “fix all the problems in
the world”. In addition, the instructor’s anticipation of barriers
that students would likely face helped to diminish frustration.
For example, the instructor chose to limit the facility created by
the students to a non-residential facility operating between the
hours of 8 am-6 pm. This pre-determination eliminated the
major hurdle of zoning restrictions for residential facilities (par-
ticularly those for ex-offenders) that students would face when
seeking an acceptable space to rent.
Using PBL in the classroom poses challenges for the in-
structor, as well. Students’ expressions of difficulties should
not always be taken as expectations for the instructor to solve
the problems—or answer questions—for them. Fighting the
urge to help and letting students struggle to find good solutions
is truly at the heart of this pedagogy. The better the initial prob-
lem statement is designed by the instructor, the more opportu-
nities there are to turn the students’ questions back to them.
When a student asks, “Can we ···?” It is entirely acceptable to
reply, “I don’t know. Can you?” This gives “permission” for
students to make the decision.
Setting aside the lecture format, and thus a great deal of con-
trol over the course content, is one of the most frequently cited
difficulties for instructors using this pedagogy (e.g., Pepper,
2008). Designing a specific structure for class meetings can
help reduce this anxiety. For example, setting benchmark dates
for students to make decisions about aspects of their project
helps give students a focus for each block of class time, while
reassuring the instructor that progress was made during that
Another implementation element is the re-allocation of time
and the change in the instructor’s role in a PBL model. In our
example, we used a “standard” course design for the first
two-thirds of the course. For the last month of the course, the
instructor role shifted to that of facilitator. Reminding students
of potential resources in the community and asking questions
that prompted students’ own critical thinking became the new
instructor roles. Gradually incorporating PBL into the course
aided both instructor and students to adapt to the differing roles
required of traditional vs. PBL pedagogy. An initial positive
experience with using PBL in one segment of the course can
give an instructor the confidence to use this approach in the
future as the primary method of instruction for the entire
There are several areas that future instructors might consider
implementing to improve the experience for instructor and stu-
dent. First, projects can be enhanced when an authentic audi-
ence assists in actually evaluating project outcomes. Being
given advanced notice and a student assessment form would
allow the stakeholders to give feedback rather than just observe;
the students can benefit from this type of feedback from people
working in their future career fields. In addition, feedback from
stakeholders can help the instructor determine if their grading
of the students’ efforts is too harsh or too lenient in comparison
to industry standards. Finally, allowing the students to
self-evaluate their whole group final product (rather than just
the efforts of their working group) affords them the opportunity
to assess what went well, and identify areas they might choose
to do differently. Incorporating any or all of these suggestions
should be beneficial to both students and instructors attempting
this pedagogy for the first time.
The authors wish to acknowledge the help of Jeffrey Wentz
and Chris McQuiggan in implementing this pedagogy in the
classroom. Thanks also to Barbara K. Fowler and Andrea A.
Zevenbergen for helpful comments on an earlier version of this
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