A Newsletter of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness
January 1995

A Student-Centered Model of PBL

Sheella Mierson
School of Life and Health Sciences

Advanced Mammalian Physiology (BISC605/606) is a 2-semester survey of organ-systems physiology taught to seniors and graduate students. For the past 2 1/2 years the course has been taught using small-group, student- centered Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Each small group of 8 students has its own faculty tutor; the groups meet simultaneously in different rooms. This structure is similar to that used in medical schools where much of PBL was developed. I direct the course; the tutors are a mix of basic scientists (from UD and Jefferson Medical College) and clinicians (from the Delaware Medical Center).

I became interested in PBL in 1991 when I saw an article in Advances in Physiology Education (Rangachari, 1991) about it. I attended a workshop at the University of New Mexico Medical School on this method, and returned to UD determined to adapt PBL in my course because I would have liked to learn this way when I was a student. This way of teaching was also attractive because it offered the possibility of reducing the hierarchy between students and professors and creating a community of scholars.

BISC 605 & 606 had in the past been a team-taught course, with a combination of faculty lectures, student seminar presentations, and labs. I talked to my colleagues and got everyone who would be teaching the course to attend a 3-day PBL workshop at UD in the summer of 1992. At the end of that workshop, we decided to adopt a PBL format, and began writing problems.

The students served by this course are from three main groups: (1) graduate students in physiology and related fields, (2) seniors in the Medical Scholars Program (Blacklow and Engel, 1991) for whom the course will take the place of the first year physiology course at Jefferson Medical College, and (3) other interested seniors, some of whom are pre-clinical and some of whom are headed for research careers. To keep the interest of all these students, we use several types of problems: (a) clinical problems, in which the students learn the underlying normal physiology in the process of arriving at a diagnosis; (b) laboratory research-based problems, in which students are presented with experimental findings and asked to design hypotheses and experiments to test them; (c) scenarios for which students are required to explain the relevant physiology, and (d) published articles from physiology journals. (The idea for using published articles as problems came from Hal White in Chemistry and Biochemistry (White, 1991)). Tutorial groups meet twice a week for 2 1/2 hours each time. For the last 10-15 minutes of each meeting, the students and tutor usually discuss how they are functioning as a group. There are presently two groups, although that number will increase in the future.

To reflect the diversity of skills we are attempting to teach in the course, and to give students with different strengths a chance to demonstrate their skills and knowledge, grading is based on several criteria. Students are evaluated on (1) their participation in the tutorial groups, (2) short written summaries of the physiology they learn from each problem, (3) a critical analysis of a published paper (Rangachari and Mierson, 1994), and (4) written essay exams.

Student reception of this course has for the most part been positive, and tutors overall enjoy tutoring as well. One of the greatest satisfactions for me in teaching the course is seeing students gain skills and self- confidence. Talking and writing about science is something many students have not been required to do; explaining their ideas and using scientific terminology accurately require practice. Most of the students get much better at this during the course. In the process many gain confidence in their ability to present their ideas. Another satisfaction for me is watching students excited about learning. It is not unusual for students to look up research papers in a library on a topic related to class discussion, beyond what is minimally required for the course.


Last updated Feb. 20, 1997.
Copyright Sheella Mierson, Univ. of Delaware, 1995.