Extended Problem-Based Learning Improves Scientific Communication in Senior Biology Students

Article excerpt

There is a general consensus in the science-education community that traditional lecture-based teaching is insufficient to prepare undergraduate students for careers in science (Dehaan 2005; Knight and Wood 2005). To supplement lecture, a variety of alternative-teaching techniques, including cooperative-learning and problem-based learning (PBL) approaches, have been developed (Prince and Felder 2007). Students working in a cooperative environment outperform lectured students (Crouch and Mazur 2001; Knight and Wood 2005; Prince and Felder 2006) and gain additional skills that are useful in careers in science (Oliver-Hoyo and Allen 2004). An alternative teaching technique that has a long history of success is the PBL model originally developed in the 1960s (Barrows and Tamblyn 1980).

In courses with PBL, students encounter problems that require critical analysis, in-depth research, and solution development. PBL has been successfully used to teach students in a variety of areas including physics, chemistry, and biology (Dahlgren 2003; Prince and Felder 2006). Interestingly, although PBL students do not perform better on exams compared with lectured students, the PBL students do have longer-term retention of the material, have a better ability to apply the material, and develop additional problem-solving skills (Prince 2004). The success of the PBL approach has led to experimentation with longer-term PBL models (Wankat 1993, 2002; Palmer 1998). These "super" PBL models involve only a single problem that is developed over the course of the entire semester through writing assignments. In the past, most students in science did not receive formal instruction in written and oral communication of science. Universities and colleges relied on general education requirements to prepare their students for professional communication (McDonald and McDonald 1993), which because of the specialized nature of scientific discourse was insufficient for science majors. A growing trend in science education is the incorporation of writing-intensive courses (Moore 1992; Yore, Bisanz, and Hand 2003; Greene 2010) designed specifically for formal training in scientific writing. Courses dedicated to experiential learning provide students with additional access to scientific knowledge, strengthen traditional approaches, and provide training in scientific discourse (Debburman 2002).

To further develop the communication skills of students, a "super" PBL model (called extended PBL in this article) was developed for use with upper-level undergraduates. This extended PBL model was based on a previously described approach (Wankat 1993, 2002) with a number of notable differences. This new course was conducted with undergraduate students, and the course incorporated oral presentations and a proposal-writing assignment. Student performance on oral presentations, written assignments, and surveys undertaken across the semester suggest that this model was effective in achieving these stated goals.

Course format

This new course included six fourth-year undergraduate students (all premed/predental) and met once per week in the spring of 2010. Stated course goals were to introduce students to the scientific process through research-based problem solving, develop students' reading skills for primary-scientific literature, improve students' scientific-presentation (oral and written) skills, and develop cooperative-work skills. Briefly, students were organized into two teams of three during the second week of class. Each group was tasked with becoming experts in a unique neurobiological problem and was assessed with attitudinal surveys, peer evaluation, graded-oral presentations, and graded-written assignments (see Table 1 for syllabus and the Assessment Tools section for evaluation details; see Figure 1 and the Appendix (which is available online at www.nsta.org/college/connections.aspx) for examples of neurobiological problems). The semester was divided into a discovery phase and a subsequent analysis phase. …