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In Problem-Based Learning (PBL), one presents students with a complex, real-world problem that can be solved within a specifically designated time frame. To meet my learning outcomes (which include demonstrating to students that they can create new knowledge) and to keep students motivated in what is for them an unfamiliar learning experience, I create problems for which neither I, nor anyone else, has a ready answer. That way, students avoid the sense that they are “going through the motions” or being tricked into doing old work in new ways.

The context for the problems I develop is our college campus. This way, the solution to the problem will have a palpable effect on the local community, and the participants can sense that they have made a contribution to the good of others, something that the current generation of undergraduates particularly values. Since my first project concerning art in the science center, students have created, conducted, and evaluated a survey on student spirituality for the college’s mission division, challenged the president and trustees on how best to create effective engagement of students in the college’s Catholic heritage, and created an ecospiritual religion from scratch for students uninterested in traditional religious traditions.

The students approach the problem in stages: first, they reflect on what they know about the situation and the problem; next, they figure out what they need to know in order to solve the problem; then, they make a plan to fill out their knowledge and skills; and lastly, they integrate new knowledge with old and present a solution to the problem. In the process, students accept ownership for their own learning, they assess their own and each others’ work, and they figure out how to work in groups (delegating tasks, making and keeping scheduled meetings, and challenging one another to keep commitments). Most importantly for students of religion, informed by the readings I provide, they spend a great deal of time in and outside of class thinking and talking to people about religious issues — especially the topic for the course — at deeper levels than they can in a regular seminar. In my experience, this higher-order learning, which involves analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, is learning that lasts; more than once I have encountered students a year or more after their PBL experience, and they can point to specific ideas that they encountered and skills they learned as a result of the experience.

Such higher-order learning was well revealed by the students’ achievements in my popular religion course. When the semester began, we hit the ground running. I interspersed a few preliminary readings on the nature of religion and modern approaches to Western spirituality with other texts introducing the students to the concept of installation art. As the students articulated the kind of spiritual approach they thought should be represented in the art, they invited guests to help them with the project, beginning with the faculty member in charge of “shepherding” the project to completion — whom they grilled at length about the architectural plans — and several members of the fine arts department to anchor a discussion of the role and nature of public art.

My role quickly evolved from professor to project manager and facilitator. On the first day of class, I had challenged the students to decide how to proceed, whom to contact, and how to develop the project, and they responded with enthusiasm; soon they were running the seminar. I assigned the readings for the first third of the course; after that, they told me the areas they needed more information about, and I sent them to appropriate sources to find what they needed. They divided into groups to tackle various aspects of the project: researching what other colleges had done with art in their science centers; interviewing faculty who would work in the building; learning more about the nature of installation art; and working with the development office to explore ways of funding the art project. I assigned reflection papers on the readings we did, met with students individually throughout the semester to discuss their work, and collected weekly logs of the work they had done. I monitored the blog they set up as a forum for discussion outside of class and developed rubrics for self- and peer-evaluations.

By the end of the semester, the project was not quite complete, but their proposal — for an endowed student committee that would curate a series of arts installations in the science center — was in good enough shape for some of them to pick up the project on their own in subsequent semesters. 


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