Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.1, 62-70
Published Online January 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Using Problem Based Learning to Develop Class Projects in
Upper Level Social Science Courses: A Case Study with
Dani V. McMay1*, Kathleen Gradel2, Christopher Scott1
1Department of Psychology, SUNY-Fredonia, Fredonia, USA
2Department of Language, Learning & Leadership, College of Education, SUNY-Fredonia, Fredonia, USA
Email: *
Received October 27th, 2012; revised November 29th, 2012; accepted December 13th, 2012
Problem Based Learning is often used as the pedagogy for an entire course. However, instructors wanting
to try PBL for the first time may find this intimidating. An alternative is to use this pedagogy for a class
project and not the entire class. Students in an upper level psychology course used Problem Based Learn-
ing to create a transitional facility for ex-offenders in a rural county where currently none exists. Students
gained insight into community services, the needs of the target population, and how to match clients’ need
with services in the community. This project can be used as a model for instructors in the fields of psy-
chology, sociology and social work.
Keywords: Problem Based Learning; Class Projects; PBL; Social Science Education; Group Projects;
Grading Rubrics
Pairing field-based and service-learning experiences with
traditional campus-based courses is becoming more typical in
professional preparation programs (Academy of Criminal Jus-
tice Sciences, 2005; Davidson, Petersen, Hankins, & Winslow,
2010; Harvey & Mitchell, 2006; Kenny, Simon, Kiley-Brabeck,
& Lerner, 2002; Kezar & Rhoads, 2001). However, there are
often a great many challenges to setting up service learning
opportunities for an entire class in the short span of a semester
(e.g., Kretchmar, 2001; Tapp & Macke, 2001) An alternative
non-field-based instructional model for courses that intention-
ally combines campus-based pedagogy with authentic, real
world-referenced work is Problem Based Learning (hereafter,
PBL). PBL is a pedagogy model in which students work to
solve real-life problems, engaging in critical thinking and deep
learning through an instructor-supported but largely stu-
dent-driven inquiry experience (e.g., Thomas, 2000; Thomas,
Mergendoller, & Michaelson, 1999; Woolfolk, 2010).
Typically conducted in student groups, PBL offers relevant
opportunities for course instructors to embed authentic learning
experiences in their college coursework (e.g., Murray & Sum-
merlee, 2007). In PBL, real-world problems are used to stimu-
late deeper engagement in course content, hopefully resulting in
deeper understanding of concepts and practices used in the
discipline (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Marx, Blumenfeld, Krajcik,
& Soloway, 1997). Core to PBL is the instructor’s facilitation
of student-driven constructive investigation through inquiry,
knowledge gathering, and generation of solutions (Grant, 2002).
Typically, problem investigation is pursued over a period of
time, culminating in final products that address authentic prob-
lems and/or that mimic products such as those that would be
generated in the field (Jones, Rasmussen, & Moffitt, 1997;
Thomas, Mergendoller, & Michaelson, 1999).
Using this pedagogy, content material that is normally dis-
seminated in lecture form during class instead is learned as the
students go through the process of solving problem cases pre-
sented by the instructor. Class meeting time is devoted to
working on the presented problem case, typically in small
groups, with the instructor serving as a facilitator for the stu-
dents’ efforts rather than as the lecturer regarding course con-
tent. The problem case may take several class sessions to solve,
or new problem cases may be presented at each class session.
The activities that students experience in PBL are similar to
those skills required of most people in the workplace: develop-
ing and using novel solutions to problems encountered, effec-
tively working with others to solve the problems under consid-
eration, and adjusting activities based on feedback from super-
According to Barron et al. (1998), there is ongoing commit-
ment among educators, standards-producing organizations, and
accreditation bodies to “push the envelope” on connecting
knowledge to application; PBL has been cited as a model that
can, indeed, do that. Additionally, Barron et al. (1998) reported
that students experiencing PBL instruction demonstrated better
understanding of interrelated concepts. Beyond traditional
knowledge and skills outcomes, PBL is associated with higher
expectations for student ownership of learning, as well as
meaningful opportunities for students to self-assess (Brown,
Bransford, Ferrara, & Campione, 1983; Stiggins, 1995).
Much of the research on PBL describes using this pedagogy
as the structure for an entire course, with all class sessions be-
ing comprised of problem solving work by students, and all
content being acquired through the problem solving process
(e.g. Murray & Summerlee, 2007; Searight & Searight, 2009;
Thomas, 2000; Woolfolk, 2010). However, this type of com-
plete and radical change in the way a course is organized can be
*Corresponding author.
off-putting for an instructor wanting to try PBL for the very
first time. One way to incorporate the key aspects of (and the
benefits associated with) PBL into a course initially is to use
PBL for completion of a large class project rather than for the
entire term. The project may be worked on throughout the en-
tire course as one part of each class meeting, or during a set
number of class sessions. All work on the project is done using
PBL, but the instructor can still provide much of the content for
the course through lectures.
Courses in the social sciences (e.g., social work, criminal
justice, and psychology) lend themselves particularly well to
exploring the use of PBL. First, the subject matter of these dis-
ciplines often focuses on problems within society where only
limited success has been achieved in finding good solutions.
Second, many students in these disciplines will become li-
censed practitioners with required competencies in specific skill
sets needed to qualify for licensure. PBL helps students develop
skills that are in line with the skills and knowledge required by
these disciplines for board certification. Finally, students enter-
ing these professions will most often be required to assess the
needs of clients and help ensure those clients receive services.
This component of assessing a current problem state and find-
ing an effective solution is at the heart of PBL.
The project described here was one component of an up-
per-level forensic psychology course on incarceration and
community reentry. The project gave the students the opportu-
nity to work on the real-world problem of matching service
providers in the community with needs of ex-offenders transi-
tioning from prison back into the community. Other than the
work on this class project, class sessions were comprised of
lectures by the instructor and guest speakers and did not use the
PBL pedagogy. The specifics of our project are only used to
illustrate the principles of designing such a class project and
can serve as a template for an instructor wanting to include
PBL as one component of a course. Our example can be
adapted for any upper level social science course where the
instructor desires the students to work on a real world problem
in the discipline.
Designing the PBL Project
When using PBL to develop a class project, there are several
things to consider: construction of the problem case, determin-
ing how group assignments will be made, and determining how
the final project will be assessed. The instructor should spend
time completely developing each of these elements prior to
assigning the project to the students. In this section, we will
discuss the development of each of these elements and provide
templates from our own experience.
Problem Case Construction
Following the definition of PBL developed by Thomas
(2000), the problem case used for the project should focus stu-
dents on central concepts within the discipline, and should be
based on a real problem in the area of inquiry. The instructor
should pick one or more of the learning objectives for the
course and develop a good problem case that is not more than
one paragraph in length (For an overview of steps to creating
good PBL problem cases please see Searight & Searight, 2009).
Our project was designed to give students a way to identify the
full scope of services needed by ex-offenders upon their release
from incarceration, and to evaluate the accessibility of these
services in a rural setting. The full problem case statement for
our project was: “Can you create a facility that can provide
transitional services for criminal offenders being released into
our county? You will need to find a potential building space to
rent, decide which services to provide inside the facility (and
which to access elsewhere), and organize your facility to effec-
tively provide services and information between the hours of 8
am and 6 pm. You may provide any service at the facility you
desire, but for all services, there must be a likely source of
funding (e.g., grants, allocation of current funding streams).
Although your facility is entirely imaginary, your facility must
be viable in the real world; running a facility and providing
services costs money, thus you are required to find a potential
source of funding for every service provided.”
The example problem case statement above includes several
tenets of good problem case construction (Searight & Searight,
2009). First, the problem case should have a pre-determined
scope of enquiry. If a problem case statement is too vague,
students’ inquiries may expand in ways that make it difficult for
them to actually come up with a good solution to the problem.
If the problem case statement is too strict, students may not
discover enough of the content material that makes PBL a good
alternative to lecture-based instruction. In our example, the
scope was limited to creating a non-residential facility and re-
quiring a potential course of funding for each service provided.
By requiring students to find funding for all services provided it
was less likely students would dream beyond a truly feasible
real-world solution. Second, the problem case statement should
include specific “clues” to areas and places the students should
explore to find solutions to the problem. In our example, it was
indicated that some services could be provided outside the fa-
cility, hinting that students should explore service providers in
the surrounding community. In addition, by specifically requir-
ing funding sources for services proposed, students should be
alerted to explore sources of funding in the government and the
community as part of their project. Finally, the problem case
statement should leave plenty of room for novel solutions to the
problem. For projects in the social sciences, part of the interest
for the students will lie in coming up with a solution to a cur-
rent real-world problem that has not already been solved. In our
example, there is no such transitional facility in the county the
college is located so there is no concrete model to follow
nearby. Making the facility non-residential and requiring poten-
tial funding put real world limits on the scope of their informa-
tion search, but the design, location, and choice of services
provided at their facility was entirely up to the students in the
course. The balance between limiting the scope too much
(which can dampen creativity) and having too few constraints
(which can end with the students overwhelmed by choices well
beyond a feasible end product) is a delicate one. Keeping with
the three tenets of problem case construction listed above
should help the instructor to strike the right balance.
Group Assignments
There are always challenges when determining working
groups for large class projects and these can be even more dif-
ficult when attempting to follow a PBL approach. The first
challenge is determining who will choose the categories or
topics each working group will focus on. The instructor may
predetermine group topics based on desired learning outcomes,
or the instructor can allow students to determine the exact
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 63
groupings from a larger list of choices. The latter is more in line
with the PBL approach, but there is risk of not having the right
working groups to achieve the desired learning outcomes. Thus,
even if the instructor allows the students to self-select group
topics, the instructor should provide guidance to help ensure
each group has a separate part of the whole project, with no one
grouping having too large a workload.
A second challenge is deciding how individual students will
be assigned into each working group. Students may be ran-
domly assigned to working groups, the instructor may assign
students to working groups based on a predetermined criterion,
or students may be allowed to self-select their working group.
Again, the latter is most in line with the PBL approach. In addi-
tion, research indicates that when students self-select their
group for assignments they are more invested in the projects
and achieve better learning outcomes (Myers, 2012; Papado-
poulos, Lagkas, & Demetriadis, 2012). It is best to have each
group have the same number of participants, if possible, and if
the working groups are to coordinate with each other to produce
a single final outcome, it is best to limit the number of individ-
ual working groups.
In determining groups for our class project, we used some-
what of a hybrid of the approaches listed above. For ease of
working on such a large project, as the course had 30 students
enrolled, the instructor pre-determined that the class would be
divided into five working groups of six students each. The stu-
dents were told that each working group should focus on pro-
viding one service area to the ex-offender. The instructor led a
discussion of the various service areas that might be provided,
writing them on the board in a list as students suggested them.
However, students were not told which of the areas on the list
to include in their facility; instead, they were to determine this
as a class through discussion. Students were told to first deter-
mine the five areas of service provision for the facility, and then
assign themselves to the group that most interested them per-
sonally. It was stressed that there were to be exactly six stu-
dents in each group, and that compromises might need to be
made so that every student could find a group that was satis-
factory to them. If there was insufficient interest in one service
area, perhaps another service area would be a better choice for
the facility. The instructor left the room, and the students were
given 30 minutes to decide their groupings.
Project Ass essment
The last major component of designing a class project using
PBL is to determine how the learning objectives will be as-
sessed. There are many ways of assessing student performance
and learning efficacy. The most common way is having all
assessment of the project done solely by the instructor. The
instructor can assess progress at various stages of project com-
pletion, or can do one summative evaluation of the final com-
pleted project. If the instructor desires a more complete picture
of the problem solving process inside the working groups, we
also recommend including peer reviews and self-assessment. A
growing body of research indicates that including these other
types of assessment are useful for improving student learning
outcomes, especially in group work (e.g., Crack, 2007; Saito &
Fujita, 2009; Scott, Van der Merwe, & Smith, 2005; Topping,
1998, 2009)
For our project, students presented their solution to the prob-
lem case in one large oral presentation with each working group
presenting individually as one section of the whole. Instead of
presenting solely to the instructor, the oral presentation was
given to a group of approximately 60 stakeholders from the
rural community surrounding the college (e.g., social workers,
parole officers, correctional officers, court appointees, and law
enforcement). Each working group was to present their groups’
contribution to the whole solution. We included the three types
of assessment mentioned above: summative assessment by the
instructor, peer review by working group members and
self-assessment. We will cover each of these assessment types
in turn.
Assessment by the Instruct or
When the instructor is assessing the project, using rubrics al-
lows for more uniformity in grading and, if given to the stu-
dents at the project’s start, serves to solidify the instructor’s
expectations for the final product (for an overview of creating
and using rubrics for assessing learning, please see Burke, 2011;
Quinlan, 2011; Stevens & Levi, 2004). Research indicates that
students generally favor the use of rubrics in grading (e.g.
Holmes & Smith, 2003; Reddy & Andrade, 2010). Students
perceive that rubrics increase their understanding of instructors’
expectations and rationale for point deductions (Gezie, Khaja,
Chan, Adamek, & Johnsen, 2012), however, rubrics are re-
garded most useful when given to the students at the time the
assignment is made (e.g., Petkov & Petkova, 2006; Reitmeier,
Svendsen, & Vrchota, 2004). In addition, simply handing out
the rubric is not enough; many students need instruction on
how to use the rubric as a tool toward increased performance
(Green & Bowser, 2006; Reddy & Andrade, 2010).
For our project, the rubric used to grade the oral presentation
was distributed at the same time as the assignment was given.
A copy of the rubric used can be found in Appendix B. Stu-
dents were shown that there were two parts to the rubric: one
part evaluated the cohesiveness and content of their working
group’s presentation, and the second part evaluated their per-
sonal performance during their group’s presentation. The ma-
jority of the criterion for individual student performance was
focused on their oral presentation skills. Individual students
were required to orally present at least two minutes of their
working group’s entire presentation. This ensured that each
student contributed to the actual oral presentation, not just to
research and problem solving strategy for the final project. The
majority of criterion for grading the performance of each
working group was focused on content. Each working group
was required to turn in copies of all materials used during their
presentation (e.g., handouts, copies of Powerpoint slides) to
assist in accurate grading. Our rubric used a 4-point Likert-type
scale with point values corresponding to Exceptional 4), Ade-
quate 3), Marginal 2) and Unacceptable 1). As mentioned ear-
lier, there are many resources to assist instructors with making
assignment-specific rubrics. (Several well respected online sites
that offer assistance with creating rubrics for specific assign-
ments and disciplines are:,, and
Peer Re vi ew
A common complaint students express regarding group pro-
jects is the worry that someone in their group will not perform
well and this will affect the final grade for the others. A typical
desired learning outcome for group projects is for individual
students to successfully work together as one unit. When per-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
sonality and strategy conflicts arise between students, the PBL
pedagogy encourages the instructor to direct the student(s) to
go back to the group and work it out without interference. Re-
solving individual conflicts within the group is, indeed, part of
the project. However, simply encouraging the students to work
out individual conflicts themselves within the structure of the
working group (much as they would have to in the work envi-
ronment), often does little to ease frustration when conflict is
already evident. One way to diminish this type of frustration is
for instructors to be very clear about their expectations for the
group work process beforehand (Burdett, 2007). The use of
grading rubrics can help all students in the group be equally
aware of the performance expectations and should help to di-
minish conflict regarding what the students should do in order
to receive high marks. An additional way to ease the frustration
of group conflict is to give the students in each working group a
chance to assess their fellow group members using peer review.
Research by Yining and Hao (2004) showed that students’ fa-
vor peer review as a way to reduce group conflict and social
loafing on the part of individual group members. The same
study also indicated that to be most effective, students should
be told how the peer evaluations will be used. Students primar-
ily take the assessments seriously when their feedback is in-
corporated into their peers’ final grades. If the peer reviews are
merely a way to inform the professor of social loafing or group
conflict, and are not incorporated into the final grading scheme
for each student, the motivation to take the review seriously is
greatly decreased (Yining & Hao, 2004). In order to be most
beneficial, students should be trained on how to complete fair
and consistent peer reviews (e.g., Khabiri, Sabbaghan, & Sab-
baghan, 2011).
For the peer review for our project, we designed a rubric for
the students to use that addressed three areas of group work:
quality of work, team membership and communications (A
copy of this grading rubric used can be found Appendix C). For
each area addressed, the rubric included a letter grade and a
detailed description of the level of performance that was re-
quired to earn that grade. Students were specifically told that
the rubric provided was to increase assessment consistencies
between working groups as well as within each working group.
In our case, the peer review rubric was the same rubric used for
self-assessment, which we will turn to next.
Student Self-Assessment
Including student self-assessment is useful for gaining fur-
ther understanding into the group process and dynamics during
completion of the project (e.g., Falchikov, 2004; Li, 2001). This
form of assessment affords the student a chance to reflect on
the entirety of the group process and their personal contribution
to the final product. It is also a good window for the instructor
to view the contrasts between group-mates’ perceptions of each
other and a student’s perception of their own efforts and con-
tributions. The scoring grid used in our project can be found in
Appendix A. It was our choice to use the same rubric for
self-assessment as for peer review. The advantage of this ap-
proach is that students will be grading themselves on the same
criterion as they graded their peers. The disadvantage of this
approach is that it is more limiting in the types of self-reflection
the instructor is able to ask the student to complete. Although
we did not choose to do this, it may be preferable to add several
questions to the self-assessment that are solely focused on
self-reflection. (Our project chose instead to have all students
rate their experience with the PBL process).
Consideration of Target Audience
An interesting opportunity presents itself when asking stu-
dents to work on a real-world problem. If the problem case used
in the project is relevant to stakeholders in the community sur-
rounding the campus, the instructor should consider inviting
interested stakeholders to the final presentation. Inviting com-
munity members to attend the students’ presentation of their
solution to the problem case adds a level of realism to the stu-
dents’ efforts often rare in class assignments. The instructor
will want to monitor the progress of the project very carefully
to ensure that the presentation will warrant the time investment
of the community members.
In the case of our project, the stakeholders included people in
law enforcement, probation/parole, social services, and local
volunteer and faith-based organizations involved with reentry.
Many of the stakeholders were already known to the instructor
through their work in their primary area of research. However,
contact information for people in these agencies and organiza-
tions is readily available online. Approximately five weeks
prior to the presentation date (which was during final exam
week at the college), the instructor informed the students in the
course that the results of their group effort on this project might
be of interest to stakeholders in the community and that stake-
holders in the area of reentry would be invited to their presenta-
tion. The instructor shared a list of all the agencies and organi-
zations that an invitation would be sent and asked the students
to indicate any omissions. Once the invitation list was finalized,
the instructor sent out a brief synopsis of the class project along
with an invitation to attend the presentation. In addition, the
letter indicated that the addressee should feel free to invite any
other interested parties in their organization. The invitations
were sent on letterhead through the postal service as well as
through email. The instructor invited approximately 100 stake-
holders and the night of the presentation more than 60 were in
Managing Progress of the PBL Project
Once the class project is assigned, the instructor’s role during
class sessions should move into one of support and away from
one of direct leadership. The instructor should refrain from
structuring the work time for groups or leading the groups’
pursuit of background information, solutions, or design. The
primary assistance provided during the work sessions should be
to remind students of the pre-set scope of the project. In our
example, students were reminded that they needed to have a
viable source of funding for each element of their programming
or service offered in their transitional facility.
It is important to note that during in-class work sessions,
students often will ask questions such as, “Can we do X?” or
“How should we accomplish Y?” In order to make PBL effec-
tive, the instructor should turn these questions back over to the
students. In order for students to learn how to solve problems in
their own manner, they are the ones who need to find answers
to questions they encounter along the way (Thomas, 2000).
Even if the instructor knows the answer to the question asked,
the instructor should reply along the lines of, “I don’t know,
can you?” or “How long is typical for appointments with clients
to last?” For example, when our students asked which social
service agencies they should contact for information, the in-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 65
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
structor guided students to explore the county’s online phone
book and determine the agency that best fit their needs, but did
not answer the question directly.
Example Class Project Outcome
At the end of the semester, more than 60 stakeholders at-
tended a presentation of the students’ class project. Each work-
ing group did an oral presentation that lasted approximately 15
minutes, with five minutes for questions. Each student in a
group was required to contribute at least two minutes to the oral
presentation of their group. Elements of the facility presented
by each group included a list of services that could be provided
by that group, the sources of funding that could be used to pro-
vide these services, and a mock-up schedule of how their group
could put their part of the building space to best use. Each
group presented their service component in isolation, culminat-
ing in a final summation in which one person from each group
presented as a member of a core group of organizers. This last
part of the presentation was completely developed by the stu-
dents themselves, and had not been a part of the project re-
These five core students had served as liaisons among all the
individual groups, determining how all the services could best
work together to help a person in transition or family members
of those still incarcerated. During the presentation, this group
discussed a sample case of one person coming to the facility
with various needs, demonstrating how the facility would coor-
dinate as a whole to help this individual.
It is important to note that in the subsequent semesters this
class project has been assigned, there are always unique ele-
ments developed by the students. When students are required to
solve a problem, they rise to this challenge in surprising ways.
Often the topics chosen for each working group are not the
same categories as previous semesters. Given the changing
availability of funding, the changing nature of community ser-
vice provision, and the specific interests of students from se-
mester to semester, the same problem case statement can result
in dramatically different solutions. This variance contributes to
the excitement for both students and instructors.
Student Evaluations of Experience
In addition to their peer reviews and self-assessment, as part of
the general end-of-course evaluation, the students were asked to
rate the PBL experience. The students overwhelmingly liked
using PBL, and they reported that they benefited from it. When
asked if they would take another course that incorporated PBL,
100% of the students chose ratings from “maybe” to “defi-
nitely”, with 44% saying that they “definitely” would. Students
were also asked to assess their learning experience by respond-
ing to seven statements specific to the nature of the project. A
5-point scale was used with anchor points ranging between
“strongly agree” and “strongly disagree”. Table 1 summarizes
results of this questionnaire. The first three statements asked the
students to rate how well work on the project increased their
ability to find and use resources from a variety of sources.
These statements assessed students’ impressions of their in-
crease in general problem-solving skills after completing the
project. When asked if work on the project had increased their
ability to gather and use information to solve problems, 96% of
the students responded that they “agreed” or “strongly agreed”
with those statements. With regard to increasing the general
ability to find and analyze information, 92% of students an-
swered “strongly agree” or “agree”.
The last four statements on the evaluation asked about disci-
pline-specific skills that students should have developed. For
example, one question asked the student to indicate the extent
to which he/she understood resources and services currently
available in the county; this is information that a person work-
ing in the field of social work and/or mental health services
would be expected to know. Ninety-six percent of the students
indicated they “strongly agreed” or “agreed” with that state-
Discussion and Recommendations
Completing a project of this type can provide students a way
Table 1.
Student perceptions of learning after project completion.
Question: Strongly
agree Agree Neither agree
or disagree Disagree Strongly
The structure of this project helped me learn how to obtain information from a variety of
sources. 73% 23% 4% - -
As a result of work on this project, my ability to use a variety of resources to solve a problem
has increased. 73% 23% 4% - -
As a result of work on this project, my ability to find, read and analyze information has
improved. 46% 46% 8% - -
After developing the reentry facility I have a better understanding of the elements needed in
the first 90 days by a person coming out of prison. 88% 12% - - -
After developing the reentry facility I have a better understanding of the programs and
opportunities currently available in Chautauqua County for men and women coming
out of prison.
69% 27% 4% - -
After developing the reentry facility I have a better understanding of how many different
services available during reentry can be coordinated to help achieve a better result. 65% 27% 8% - -
After developing the reentry facility I have a better understanding of sources of funding
available for reentry from the federal government. 15% 78% 4% 4% -
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
class session.
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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Appendix A
Project Component: _______________________________________________
Honor Pledge: To the best of my recollection and ability, the ratings I give below accurately reflect my performance and the per-
formance of my peers.
My Name: ____________________________ Signature: ______________________________________
My Grade (circle one in each category):
Quality of Work: A A B+ B B C+ C C D F
Team Membership: A A B+ B B C+ C C D F
Communications: A A B+ B B C+ C C D F
Comments: (Print legibly, or type your comments on a separate sheet)
Project Partner: ________________________________________
Partner’s Grade (circle one in each category):
Quality of Work: A A B+ B B C+ C C D F
Team Membership: A A B+ B B C+ C C D F
Communications: A A B+ B B C+ C C D F
Comments: (Print legibly, or type your comments on a separate sheet)
Appendix B
Grading rubric for final presentation
ExceptionalAdequateMarginal Unacceptable
4 3 2 1 NA
Individual Student Dimensions
Verbal skills
Speaks clearly with natural variations in enunciation, volume, speed, and pitch. 4 3 2 1 NA
Uses professional and exact language that is intentional and appropriate for the audience.4 3 2 1 NA
Nonverbal skills
Maintains natural eye contact with audience. 4 3 2 1 NA
Utilizes any notes as a cue and does not read. 4 3 2 1 NA
Dresses and grooms professionally. 4 3 2 1 NA
Moves naturally with a comfortable posture. 4 3 2 1 NA
Whole Group Dimensions
Engages the audience with interesting information. 4 3 2 1 NA
Matches content to the audience. 4 3 2 1 NA
Demonstrates preparation through accurate content, knowledge of content, and ability to
answer questions. 4 3 2 1 NA
Fulfills goals of the assignment (multiple services, potential sources of funding). 4 3 2 1 NA
Provides an introduction that gains attention, and previews the main points. 4 3 2 1 NA
Presents information in a logical order w/distribution of content split among members 4 3 2 1 NA
Provides transitions between speakers w/in group 4 3 2 1 NA
Provides a conclusion that signals the end of the speech, summarizes key points, and
provides a good transition to the next group. 4 3 2 1 NA
Visual aids
Creates visual aids that are clearly visible to all audience members. 4 3 2 1 NA
Connects visual aids to speech content. 4 3 2 1 NA
Creates uniform, professional-looking visual aids. 4 3 2 1 NA
Creates visual aids that contribute to the content of the speech but are not distracting in
appearance or in the amount of material presented. 4 3 2 1 NA
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 69
Appendix C
Group Project Self Assessment/Peer Review Rubric
In nearly all professional jobs you will have regular reviews
with your boss. You will also need to provide reviews of those
on your team and those you supervise. Performance reviews of
your peers can be really hard to do, but it is a necessary part of
professional work.
We are asking you to do a review for yourself and your pro-
ject partners. The letter grades you give to yourself and your
project partners will be confidential. Peer reviews will consti-
tute 30% of your final grade. Self-assessment will constitute
15% of your final grade.
Letter Grade Guidelines
You can decide how to rate yourself and your team members
on a letter grade scale in the following three areas. Here is a
detailed rubric for you to consider as you assess your peers:
Quality of W o rk
A: Does exceptional work consistently and reliably. Exceeds
A/B+: Does very good work; did what was promised.
B: Work and progress on the project was good, but “nothing
to write home about.”
B/C+: Work and accomplishment lagged what was needed.
C/C: Just did the minimum to get by; work was of marginal
D: Has done only minimal work or very poor quality work.
F: Has basically dropped out from the project and is not con-
tributing in any way.
Team Membership
A: Has been an integral and important team member; has
made significant contributions to the overall oral and written
report; attends and participates in all team meetings.
A/B+: Is a helpful team member; contributes time and effort
to solving problems; participates in team meetings.
B: Effective worker; team interaction is adequate.
B/C+: Satisfactory but sporadic team interaction; not very
effective in team results.
C/C: Does not contribute effectively to the overall team ef-
fort; needs frequent prodding.
D: Works with little or no interaction with the team; could
have done without this partner.
F: Has basically dropped out from the project and is not con-
tributing in any way.
A: Writes and prepares documents/their part of slide show
exceptionally well; exceptional communication skills.
A/B+: Writes very well; has good documentation skills;
communicates effectively with team.
B: Writing and communication skills are adequate.
B/C+: Written contribution is somewhat helpful; commu-
nication skills need improvement.
C/C: Documentation and communication skills are below
D: Produces no useful documentation of work finished;
communication skills poor.
F: Has basically dropped out from the project and is not con-
tributing in any way.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.