Problem-Based Learning: It Doesn’t Have to Be High Tech

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Before I get into the topic at hand, let me apologize for the hiatus in our blog posts. As the fall semester and preparations for the annual Association for Business Communication conference got underway, Paula and I were both pulled under in a torrent of work.

But we’re back! And we’ve been collecting interesting topics and useful ideas for you.

Today’s topic, problem-based learning, was sparked by a session at the ABC conference that featured past winners of ABC’s Outstanding Teacher Award.

What Is It?

It’s all the rage, and it’s something we’ve been doing in bcomm for decades. It’s essentially using most of your class time for interactive problem-solving rather than lecture (click here to read just one of many available definitions).

Why Do It?

The short answer is that it generates better learning—certainly in an area such as bcomm, where being able to analyze and solve messy problems with indeterminate borders/participants is central. A less obvious but also compelling answer is that it encourages the weaker, less prepared, and/or shy students to participate more in class, as a recent opinion piece in The New York Times pointed out.

How Should We Do It?

Probably the most elaborate, time-intensive method is to use what people refer to as “the flipped classroom,” which involves posting learning material online and testing students on it, and then using class time for actual work on a communication problem. Paula gets great results with this method–and her online materials are awesome.

You don’t have to go all out, though, to reap the advantages of problem-based learning. Maybe someday I’ll have cool online activities like Paula’s, but for now, I quiz students on the assigned readings and, in going over the quiz, quickly review the key concepts for the chapter. That makes the students responsible for getting prepared for class, and it leaves about three-fourths of our class time for working on the current problem-based assignment.

But don’t underestimate the value of impromptu discussion of real bcomm problems that have come up in the news or in your own life. Early this semester, I was at my wits end trying to get a shoe store to return my phone calls about a pair of shoes that I’d paid for but had never received. Because this was on my mind when I went in to teach my Writing for Business class, I started the class by sharing my problem and asking the students what I should do. Their first thought was that I should just go to the shoe store, but since it’s about 30 miles away, I said I was looking for another solution. How about writing the corporate office? That sounded promising. But what medium should I use? Should I copy the store on the message? Should I mention in the message that the store needs a better system for keeping track of back orders that have been paid for?

Even the more lackadaisical students perked up when we were considering these questions about this real problem. So, since then, I’ve come in a few more times with communication situations that are good fodder for analysis. (P.S. The manager of the shoe store finally called me and gave me my refund—but I was right on the verge of writing that letter!)

In the session on problem-based learning at ABC, David Victor shared a group project that involves feedback from working professionals. He divides students into groups and has them analyze a cross-cultural communication problem. They generate possible solutions and then discuss/compare them. But the extra twist is that David sends the proposed solutions to several executives to evaluate. The most eye-opening part of the project is that the executives don’t agree, either, on any one best solution. It’s a great lesson on the roles that wisdom, judgment, and perspective play in the problem-solving process.

You probably already base your course largely on problem solving. Go even further in that direction! It’ll promote better learning and engagement for everyone—even the instructor.

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