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Jul 2002 Vol. 6   No. 2

........   PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING  ........
Re-writing Problem-based Learning for Literary Studies
Dr Bill Hutchings & Ms Karen O'Rourke
Department of English & American Studies
University of Manchester, England

As a self-directed method that prioritises group- management of tasks, Problem-based Learning (PBL) seems ideally suited to a discipline such as literary studies that works so much through discussion and debate, with a relative lack of clear target responses to questions. It might even be argued that the current dominance of tutor-directed models within literary studies actually runs counter to the true nature of the subject. A literary text seldom, if ever, has a single issue or problem as its concern, even when a critic or even the author claims that it does. There will always be a diversity of potential response generated among diverse readers. It is arguably in the apprehension of this diversity that the real creativity of the subject lies. A PBL method, in which it is the group itself that defines the learning objectives, tasks and methods of inquiry, is particularly appropriate.

In order to investigate how PBL could be aligned to our own context and environment, Karen O’Rourke, a graduate of this Department, was appointed Research Assistant (PBL) in October 2000. Since then her work has focused on:

  • identification and evaluation of models of good practice (building on the existing bibliography and archive produced by a previous institutionally-funded research project), and assessment and transferability of PBL methods
  • testing of models for their validity for literary studies teaching
  • assessing the appropriateness of PBL at particular levels of study and for different student groups
  • observation of PBL sessions and gathering of feedback from students and tutors/facilitators
  • examination of the changing role of the tutor/facilitator
  • problem design
  • assessment of human and material resource implications (e.g. library provision, staff/student training and development, finding space for multiple small-group meetings)
  • development of specific materials to support the delivery of PBL in literary studies
  • investigation of appropriate monitoring and assessment techniques in line with departmental requirements and PBL objectives
  • networking, training and dissemination activities

The first semester of 2001–2002 saw us working with seminar groups taking a second-year course in eighteenth-century literature. Each week, we held four two-hour seminars, each of 15 students, supplemented by a weekly one-hour plenary lecture. Each seminar group was organised into three sub-groups of five students for the PBL work. Some students were already familiar with forms of group work, and most had experience of oral presentations. New to all, however, was the idea that they should take increasing responsibility for their learning objectives, research methods and presentation procedures—and that they should do so while being filmed and observed by the Research Assistant. The videotaping of seminars proved to be no hindrance at all. We reassured students that the filming would have no effect on their assessment and would not be kept for any purposes other than those of the project. The students quite simply ‘forgot’ about the camera (and Karen!) in the corner of the room.

Our initial strategy for encouraging students’ defining of their learning objectives and methods of inquiry was to move gradually from small, contained tasks close to ‘problem-solving’ in method, to more open problems with less defined outcomes. Thus, an early session presented students with Samuel Johnson’s elegy, ‘On the Death of Dr. Robert Levett’, and asked them to discuss specific questions, such as ‘Does the poem imply any belief system?’ and ‘What level(s) of language does the poem employ?’ These questions were ‘problem-solving’ in the sense that the accompanying lectures had provided some information about religious belief and attitudes to language in the eighteenth century. To an extent, then, students were being asked to apply existing knowledge to a new text. But the investigative nature of their group discussions soon opened up new areas of exploration, such as the nature of poetic diction and the appropriate register for such a solemn topic, which transcended the limits of lecture material and transformed the nature of the learning process. In only a few weeks, students were confidently undertaking tasks of a broad and open-ended nature, addressing issues of genre and reader-response by defining their own research needs and proposing their own methods of inquiry.

Student evaluations of the process were extremely positive and have encouraged us in our next stage, the implementation of a full PBL pattern, involving problems extending over three-week spans, in third-year courses during the second semester of 2001–2002. Student comments included:

“It’s good that we are encouraged to learn for ourselves because that’s what life is like. Makes a change from being spoonfed information…”

“I particularly enjoyed the way that we were learning for ourselves rather than a passive process.”

“I have found these seminars a lot more beneficial than other tutorials where no-one interacts and the tutor just speaks.”

“I felt we had a real sense of direction and purpose—individually and as a group.” “It really made us think for ourselves with the constant awareness of an invaluable support network behind us.” “Every contribution is valued and encouraged.” “…got a lot of feedback and inspiration from other students.” “…actually want to attend seminars…” “It felt more like learning and contribution than dictation…” “…I do still hate elegiac poetry…”

We shall be analysing student evaluations and our written and visual records of the group work procedures with a view to the publication of the outcomes. An unanticipated early (and continuing) demand for information on the project has led to the development of a stand-alone web site to act as a forum for the exchange of ideas within the Arts and Humanities nationally and internationally. This year, building on papers already delivered and published in the UK and Australia, we have been asked to speak at the PBL2002 conference in Baltimore, the joint SEDA/AISHE conference in Dublin, the 2nd UK/Carnegie Fellows Scholarship of Teaching Conference in London and the 2nd ILT Conference in Edinburgh.

To contact Dr Bill Hutchings or Ms Karen O’Rourke for more information, please write to the Department of English and American Studies, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, England.





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