A Problem-Based Approach to Teaching Exercise Physiology: Gender Differences in Athletic Performance

By Dollman, James | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview

A Problem-Based Approach to Teaching Exercise Physiology: Gender Differences in Athletic Performance


Dollman, James, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


My early teaching of exercise physiology revolved around the traditional lectures and laboratories on central principles and the related topics within the discipline. More recently, during a lecture on the physiology of the female athlete, I realized that I was just reworking the basic principles of exercise physiology within this particular context, and that this and other topics could be taught more creatively in a way that would evoke a deeper level of student engagement. I sensed that valuable opportunities were being ignored. Since then, I have adapted my course to consist of traditional lectures on the "grand principles" of exercise physiology, upon which I have layered topics delivered through a problem-based learning (PBL) approach.

Problem--based learning originated in the McMaster University School of Medicine, in 1969, and has since been adopted in a growing number of medical and nursing schools, as well as within the disciplines of architecture, business, and teacher education (Rideout, 2001). Advocates of this approach highlight its emphasis on critical thinking, independent decision-making, team-building, and promotion of lifelong learning, and the importance of these attributes in tomorrow's workplace. While PBL has particular uses in each learning situation, there are six stages that typify this strategy (Rideout, 2001).

1. In the initial meeting, a group of usually five to ten learners is presented with a problem, after which unfamiliar terms are clarified and hypotheses proposed. A skilled facilitator prompts but does not direct the discussion.

2. Learning issues, knowledge gaps, and appropriate resources are identified. Tasks arising from this discussion are distributed among the group members.

3. Students gather and study information independently. During this stage, using online discussion lists, both synchronous and asynchronous, is effective in facilitating regular contact between group members, especially given the complex study and work schedules of the modern-day student and the growing prevalence of part-time study.

4. The group then reconvenes to integrate, discuss, and debate the information. At this stage, further learning issues may become evident and require more information to be gathered.

5. The accumulated knowledge is then applied to the problem. During this and the previous stage, it is critical that the group facilitator resists the temptation to assume a leadership role.

6. Finally, the group reflects on the acquired knowledge and skills, as well as the aspects of the learning process and group functioning that assisted or hindered their progress.

The PBL approach contrasts with the traditional tertiary teaching practice in that the process for PBL is student-focused, with a strong emphasis on self-directed learning and collaboration with fellow learners. In addition, the starting point of the PBL approach is when a problem that needs to be solved is presented. As explained by Ross (1991), "This approach turns the normal approach found in university or college programs on its head. In the normal approach, it is assumed that learners have to have the knowledge required to approach a problem before they can start to work on the problem; here, the knowledge arises from the work on the problem" (p. 36).

Problem--based learning is consistent with Bruner's theory of intrinsic motivation (Bruner, 1977), which proposes that learning is enhanced when the learner actively participates in the process and when learning is organized around a problem. This approach also has similarities to the constructivist paradigm, in which learning takes place through active participation in a social environment. Studies of student perceptions of the learning environment (e.g., emotional climate, professional relevance, stimulation of interest, personal interaction) have been consistently supportive of PBL, when compared with conventional teaching modes (Clarke, Feletti, & Engel, 1984; Moore-West, Harrington, Mennin, Kaufman, & Skipper, 1989).

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