Problem-Based Learning (PBL) Pedagogy Fosters University Students’ Writing

When our university moved to implement a new second-year writing course focused on helping students develop rhetorical awareness, we thought a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach would effectively guide students to independently apply the course concepts. PBL as a pedagogical approach facilitates the application of course concepts situated in real life scenarios, which can give students an opportunity to write in different genres to a variety of audiences. Convinced of the power of PBL to promote students’ writing, we designed a series of connected ill-structured problems for students in a second year writing course in an American university to determine if a PBL approach can improve student writing. Some research has been done in writing studies to explore how PBL pedagogy raises students’ awareness of audience, context, and purpose in their writing but we wanted to explore how this approach would work with students at our institution. We collected samples of student writing before and after implementation of the problems we designed. The first writing sample was a traditional rhetorical analysis assignment while the second writing sample was an individually written letter to the editor. We evaluated these samples with a rubric using the same criteria (audience, purpose, content, support, significance, and unity and coherence). The instructors applied the rubrics to the papers as part of their regular grading and tallied the scores on the rubrics to use for analysis of PBL’s effectiveness on student writing. To compare pre- and post-grades, paired-sample t-tests and the Wilcoxon signed-rank sum tests were conducted. The results showed there were improvements in all writing categories except for students’ ability to show the significance of their topics. The results show that our students’ writing abilities improved with the use of PBL pedagogy. Although PBL pedagogy is not commonly used in writing classrooms, our findings suggest that it works to help students develop their ability to examine their rhetorical situation when they approach a new writing task. We believe PBL pedagogy works in the writing classroom because it requires students to actively reflect upon their work as writers, which may lead to transfer of writing skills across sites of writing.

Rita Kumar, University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College, Cincinnati, Ohio

Integrating Introductory Instruction in Chemistry and Biology

The Harker Integrated Science and Engineering Laboratory was designed for interdisciplinary integration of research and education. In anticipation of the completion of this building for the fall 2013 semester, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Undergraduate Science Education grant funded planning for establishing an integrated first-year Biology and Chemistry course based on PBL. Setting up this course involved many challenges including different departmental cultures, faculty independence, and the deciding what “integration” means in this context. Now in its third year, the integrated course uses PBL and continues to evolve towards removing the disciplinary boundaries students often encounter.

Hal White, Chemistry & Biochemistry, University of Delaware

David Usher, Biological Sciences, University of Delaware