Peer Review

Design and Implementation: Transparency and Problem-Based Learning at St. Edward’s University

St. Edward’s University (SEU) is a private, Hispanic-Serving Institution with an undergraduate enrollment of over four thousand students. As a Catholic university, our mission statement speaks to the school’s dedication to prepare graduates “to analyze problems, propose solutions and make responsible decisions” and “to confront the critical issues of society and to seek justice and peace.” An essential learning outcome is for students to “use critical, creative, and collaborative thinking to solve problems and achieve common goals.” The university considers problem-based learning an ideal mission fit because of the practice’s demonstrated effectiveness in promoting deep learning; its student-centered nature provides for the very sort of open-ended problems with which we want students to engage after graduation.

In the 2014–2015 academic year, a team of SEU instructors participated in the AAC&U Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning project with a goal of examining how faculty intentionality and transparency affect student learning in a problem-centered environment. Participants redesigned assignments to include problem-based components and infused intervention sections of courses with heightened intentionality and transparency. The following account explains how our project team redesigned assignments and outlines the transparency practices applied, the challenges encountered, and the benefits gained.

Transparency and Problem-Based Learning across Disciplines: The Courses

The instructors of our five-person team were deliberately chosen to reflect a variety of disciplines. The courses involved are introductory to mid-level and satisfy the university’s general education (GE) requirements. Four of the five instructors taught two sections of the same course, while the fifth instructor taught the courses with the same general topic (ethics) but with slightly different foci. The courses were

  • Literature and Human Experience—an introductory-level literature course that focuses on racially and culturally diverse writers of texts of multiple genres.
  • American Dilemmas—an interdisciplinary sophomore-level course that utilizes concepts and methodologies from the social sciences to analyze current social problems in the United States.
  • Understanding and Appreciating the Arts—an introductory-level arts course in which instructors focus on one art form but provide a brief introduction to two other art forms.
  • Ethics—a course that covers major ethical theories, principles and strategies and examines a number of contemporary issues. The second and intervention course is a variant of Ethics, titled Environmental Ethics. The course employs ethical theories, principles, and strategies to examine environmental issues such as climate change.
  • Mathematics for the Liberal Arts—a course on general quantitative literacy with an aim to develop the ability to recognize, appreciate, and confidently participate in the mathematics of daily life.

Assignment Redesign to Elicit Problem-Based Learning

Each instructor redesigned two assignments or portions thereof to reflect a problem-based and problem-solving approach to learning. The team took inspiration from the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric in developing the nature and purpose of the assignments. Each team member encountered his or her own unique challenge during the design stage, but one common issue was the dearth of existing practical models. Therefore, the team is deliberately sharing adaptations specific to the courses involved.

In Mathematics for the Liberal Arts, the essay portion of two existing assignments was modified as to ask the students to suggest solutions to hypothetical problem scenarios. In one assignment, students, acting as life consultants, were asked to determine an optimal city to which the client could move based on parameters important to the client. In the other assignment, students were directed to suggest approaches to the problem of gender inequality in a particular country using a bank of statistical information about gender policies that are specific to their assigned country as the primary source of information.

For the American Dilemmas course, students were asked to select a contemporary social problem and analyze it over the course of the semester in the form of two research papers. In previous iterations of the class, students would choose their research paper topic from a predetermined list of social problems provided by the instructor. According to AAC&U project leaders, allowing students to choose their topics created a more authentic problem-based assignment. Another assignment modification was in terms of potential solutions to the problem. In previous semesters, students presented arguments for and against a specific policy solution, but this time students were encouraged to generate a variety of possible policy alternatives.

The ethics courses instructed students to consider how an ethical principle or policy applies to the resolution of a problem. Specifically, the assignments required the students to anticipate real-world challenges in resolving the problem and to minimize the unworkable or impractical dimensions of the implementation of the policy or practice and the ethical assessment of the practice.

The Literature and Human Experience course was framed by historic and contemporary debates related to American identity. In the redesigned course, during the first week of class students selected the “threads” of American identity (such as patriotism, the American Dream, and justice for all) upon which the course would focus for the semester. The instructor then adapted course readings and discussion prompts to better address these threads. For the first assignment, students either examined how a historic literary text engaged with a social problem from its own time period or examined the elements of a contemporary social debate that were addressed in a historic literary text. For the second assignment, students were asked to take a stand on contemporary debates related to literature, such as the inclusion of graphic novels in a college literature classroom or of controversial books in a high school classroom.

In Understanding and Appreciating the Arts, assignments were approached as problems to solve. For example, one assignment required student partners to create and perform a scene using the nine acting ingredients. This was framed as the problem of “how to create a good scenario.” The assignment also included a “strategies” section, asking students to consider where to find information to achieve this. The students then had to generate three potential solutions (or scenarios) and evaluate strengths and weaknesses.

Heightened Intentionality and Transparency in Intervention Courses

The project required instructors to conduct one intervention course with heightened intentionality and transparency, while also teach a control course with no (or far fewer) intentionality or transparency adaptations. As a variety of transparency practices had been shared at the project meeting, many of the instructors used similar approaches. However, the nature and structure of each course necessitated both individual instructor choice and interpretation of some practices. Common to most was the practice of providing detailed assignment instructions and rubrics for grading. In some instances the instructions explicitly linked the course’s essential learning outcomes to the purpose of the assignment. Another common practice was peer review and self-evaluation, with an opportunity for revision. Instructors often increased the amount of informal feedback and check-ins for progress before the assignments were due. One instructor also used preparatory worksheets to guide students. Another instructor took advantage of the classroom’s computer terminals to encourage the students to begin the otherwise out-of-class assignments during the last few minutes of the class period, providing the students an opportunity to ask questions.

Several of the instructors provided samples of exemplary work as models, usually through the university’s online course management system. One instructor also included an annotated example, incorporating his comments as to why such work is exemplary. In a particularly unique approach, the theater instructor wrote a sample monologue and employed a theater major to perform it for the intervention class as the students themselves were preparing their own monologues.

Challenges and Benefits

Instructors confronted some challenges implementing problem-based learning, and many faced questions about the extent to which to they should utilize the VALUE rubric. Some instructors struggled to get started due to the lack of assignment examples specific to their discipline. Another struggle was developing problem-based assignments so as not to conflict with (or come at the expense of) other existing and important course outcomes. All of the courses involved were required GE courses, and some had required student learning outcomes with assessments focused on skills other than problem solving. These instructors at times felt that time spent on problem solving sometimes took away time spent on student learning outcomes-related activities. One challenge to fully applying the Problem Solving VALUE rubric was that in some cases the existing course organization, particularly where individual assignments were components of a larger assignment and built on one another throughout the semester, did not lend itself to addressing every dimension of the rubric. Some of the course instructors, particularly those from the humanities, found it difficult to translate or apply the specific vocabulary of the VALUE rubric to their fields.

The primary challenge encountered in implementing intentionality and transparency practices in the intervention was the dilemma posed by withholding such practices from the control courses. The difficulty had two aspects. The primary one was ethical, as the instructors generally recognized that intentionality and transparency help students learn more and produce better work. Instructors struggled with how to fairly provide all those benefits to one section while not providing them all to another. The other was the fact that instructors all had some intentionality and transparency practices imbedded in their teaching philosophies and practices before the start of the project, so not using them went against their already established habit of mind and practice.

Team members dealt with these dilemmas in different ways. One instructor fully committed to providing his intervention course with stark intentionality and transparency, but was prepared to curve course grades for the control course to fall in line with those of the intervention course if the scores on the relevant assignments were significantly lower in the control. Others added additional layers of transparency to their intervention courses, while maintaining already established practices in both the intervention and control sections. All decided that they would not deliberately refuse any student from any of the sections when they asked for assistance. A few decided to focus on intentionality and transparency in direct and person-to-person interaction with the students, while keeping all written instructions and communication common to both control and intervention courses.

One unforeseen complication of transparency practices in the theater course arose when such practices conflicted with the student learning outcomes for the course. Some assignments required students to harness their creativity through their own experiences and without the instructor’s influence and suggestion. The purpose was to elicit a variety of potentially new and innovative responses. Therefore, providing specific examples for student success was at odds with the intended outcome of the assignment, and the instructor for the course found the student work to be less creative when sample work had been provided. One resolution to this conflict is to approach transparency practices as a toolkit, from which to choose tools only when appropriate.

The primary benefit of this project was the instructors’ heightened sense of awareness in the process of assignment and course design. Despite having several transparency practices already in their bank, the team members found the sample interventions shared at project meetings and webinars helpful for suggesting new ways to increase course transparency—for example, making the goals and purpose of an assignment even more explicit to the students. Some instructors have already taken major steps to incorporate additional transparency practices in their other courses. The project also influenced teaching approaches during the class session, especially those that made use of recent student experiences. Some team members conveyed that their participation in the project and incorporation of problem-based learning in assignment design made them deliberate more deeply about the assignments’ overall purpose and about all the skills, problem solving or otherwise, that such learning is supposed to help students develop or practice.

Concluding Remarks

Concerns about not engaging in transparent practices with control groups and the practical challenges of implementing problem-based design in some courses or fields that have other goals at odds with such approaches still remain as obstacles to continued adaptation of such practices. If the research suggests that problem-based design does improve student learning and academic performance, that may help allay the ethical and practical concerns. However, at this time the data from the team’s transparency experiments has yet to be fully collected and examined, so determining the empirical merits will have to wait for another day.

The team members believe that incorporating problem-based learning in their classrooms provided them another opportunity to examine the design and implementation of course instruction, apart from the usual professional pedagogical reasons to do so, and for that reason alone the exercise was worthwhile. Apart from the need of instructors to re-examine class instruction and assignments to achieve course goals, this experiment with problem-based learning provided a reason to engage in a rich and robust collaborative examination of course assignments and goals. And this is both intrinsically interesting and potentially useful for improving student learning. 

Jack Green Musselman, associate professor, philosophy, and director, the Center for Ethics and Leadership; Cory Lock, associate professor, university studies and director of general education; Chad Long, associate professor, political science; Susan Loughran, professor and chair, Department of University Studies; Michael P. Saclolo, associate professor, mathematics—all of St. Edward’s University

Previous Issues