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Using Problem-Based Learning (PBL) with an undergraduate class in religious studies is not without its challenges. The role of the faculty shifts dramatically in the direction of facilitator or support staff, and with that shift comes a cluster of boundary and power issues that one must negotiate anew with each experience (see McManus; Weimer). Experience indicates that the best problems are those that are the least sharply defined; this, combined with the decline of professorial control may lead to procedural chaos and eventual failure to solve the problem (Amador). But that is the point: in this exercise, as in their future careers, students might fail at what they set out to do. We have to give them the right to learn that difficult lesson early on.

There are other challenges as well. Though one may employ traditional forms of assessment in PBL, how does one assess learning if examinations and term papers would not contribute to solving the problem (Major)? What does one do with the ever-present “free rider,” the student who just does not do the work? And what of other forms of resistance? Some of our best students got to be our best students by learning how to perform in traditional ways, and they sometimes resist new forms of engagement; as one honors student complained on his course evaluation — he wanted more lectures and more guidance than I was willing to provide — “You’re the one with the PhD. Use it!” More commonly, students’ early excitement at this novel approach to learning can fade, especially about mid-semester, when they realize how much more responsibility (and work!) they still have to grapple with, and how much of it will have to be accomplished outside of scheduled class time. 

There is little doubt that engaged active forms of pedagogy promote deep learning (Bransford, et al.; Meyers and Jones). Yet, admittedly, if student learning in one’s class must involve predominantly the appropriation of “facts,” one would have to modify one’s approach to PBL; for instance, the problem presented might be solvable in a shorter period of time, in as little as a week, and it might involve the application of the material the students have just studied. My teaching context is a small liberal arts college, but faculty in humanities at large institutions have also employed PBL effectively by modifying the format of the process (Duch, et al.). 

In traditional forms of undergraduate research (UR), one typically works with a few students over a period of a semester. Active learning pedagogies can introduce an entire class to undergraduate research, as well as to the excitement of going where no one has gone before in the creation of new knowledge. In addition, it offers an opportunity for faculty to spot especially gifted students who can then be approached for more focused UR work in the future. Indeed, this is what happened with my “Art and the Science Center” course. One student — Kendra McKinnon — distinguished herself with her commitment to the project, and I subsequently invited her to work with me as an independent researcher. Much of what appears in this article resulted from our collaborative work.

At the end of one recent PBL experience, a student complained to me about the amount of work the participants had had to do. Asked if it was worth it, he shrugged. “Well, it was cool, the way we all got the job done,” he said.

I took that as a yes.


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