Problem and Experience Based Learning


It was less than 25 years ago that the shift in emphasis from teaching to learning was dubbed “a new paradigm” for higher education by Barr and Tagg in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning.  Yet the paradigm shift did not merely codify a new normal.  Instead, learning-centered models have served as fertile ground in the development of new methods of fostering, measuring, and assessing learning in the changing landscape of higher ed.  Many of us are aware of “flipped classroom” techniques—where the dissemination of information is done (often via video) outside of class and hands-on exercises (i.e. “homework”) take place in class.  But the “flipped” approach only scratches the surface. Today, experiential and problem-based learning are gaining momentum.

A significant impetus for these ideas comes from outside of academia.  The following chart, taken from the Hanover Research April 2014 publication Trends in Undergraduate Education in the Humanities (2014), is sobering to college faculty members, but it reflects current realities regarding the bifurcation of “experience” and “academics”:

The AAC&U’s “LEAP Challenge” (2015) makes a similar point: “91 percent of employers say that critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving abilities are more important than a potential employee’s undergraduate major.”  Internships, where students actually use the skills we strive to teach, are what open doors to employment.

Not all skills-related competencies come from extracurricular employment, but bringing those experiences into the classroom requires a deliberate approach.  How can NWC position itself to respond to these labor market demands while still staying true to its academic mission?  One way is to embrace experiential and problem-based learning at strategic points within the majors we offer.  Dan Sarofian-Butin argues that such innovations must involve not only the individual student and the classroom, but also the institutional approach to education.  Project- and problem-based methods offer a way to get beyond the traditional classroom and view the world outside our walls as integral to the learning experience:

Ideas from Other Institutions

Some faculty and some programs at NWC have already embraced project- and problem-based learning techniques—please run an Nspire search for examples (and if you have an assignment that might inspire someone else, please submit a new Nspire entry).  But if you’re looking for ideas, consider the following:

  • For a basic introduction to problem-based learning, consult Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation.  Their succinct and helpful webpage offers suggestions on how to get started.
  • Bennington College offers “pop-up courses”—one-off classes on a topic that is current in the news or culture. (e.g. “Am I Charlie?”, a course about the Charlie Hebdo attacks).  Rather than fixed outcomes (virtually impossible in such a format), such courses embrace core skills:  research, analysis, collaboration, creativity.
  • At Indiana University – Bloomington, Fritz Breithaupt, professor of German Studies, started a “humanities lab”on narrative ethics that rather quickly expanded beyond the enrollment of the course itself.  While the term “lab” is borrowed from the sciences, Breithaupt makes clear that “the goal is not to imitate the sciences, but to reclaim what the humanities have always done: Ask questions, observe, question our world, and, yes, experiment and gather data.”  You can see what the lab has been investigating here.
  • In a similar vein, the Discovery Learning Model pioneered by Jerome Bruner back in the 1960s builds on the following five principles:  1) problem solving; 2) learner management; 3) integrating and connecting; 4) information analysis and interpretation; 5) failure and feedback.

The Hanover Report cited above argues that humanities internships are on the rise, because employers cite internships as the single most important factor when considering a new hire.  For a plethora of ideas on problem-based learning techniques across all departments and divisions, consult the University of Delaware’s problem-based learning “clearinghouse.”

Suggestions for Northwestern

Northwestern should consider implementing at least one project-based or problem-based course in each major.  Upper level courses (300 or above) would likely be the best landing spot; students must first have the solid knowledge base and theoretical foundation laid by earlier courses. Guidelines for what constitutes such a course should include a) faculty-as-catalyst as opposed to faculty-as-expert; b) course objectives expressed in terms of skills needed for success in the field.

Additionally, NWC should consider ways to integrate internships into all of our academic programs, even in the humanities.  This may require an approach that views internships as integral to, not an appendage of, a Northwestern degree.  An externally focused center focused on entrepreneurship would ideally provide the structure and resources for departments looking to create new internship opportunities.

Strategic Plan

Strategic Goal 1.4—Advance the quality and reputation of the academic programRaise the reputation of Northwestern as a leader in Christian thought, scholarship, practice, and artistic expression.

Strategic Goal 2.1—Prepare students for meaningful work and flourishing livesEstablish a center for meaningful work where students are equipped for navigating the journey from college to calling.

Strategic Goal 3.3—Pursue strategic enrollment growthDevelop and resource an integrated marketing strategy that enhances Northwestern College’s reputation for intellectual rigor, vocational success, and select programs of strength.

Additional Resources

AAC&U.  “The Leap Challenge:  Education for a World of Unscripted Problems”(2015).

Hanover Research. “Trends in Undergraduate Education in the Humanities” (2014).

Sarofian-Butin, Dan.  “The Engaged Campus:  Key Models for Powerful Teaching, Learning and Research,”Keynote Address at Washburn University (January 30, 2017).

Idem. “It’s Actually Not About the Student,” Inside Higher Ed(April 27, 2017):