The PBL Journey Into Higher Ed


Confidence, curiosity and collaboration: the three-cornered hat of developing lifelong learners from K-12 and into higher education. And, when you have choices of what hat to grab, this is the one to wear proudly.

How do you build the confidence needed to keep curiosity alive, highlighted by self discovery and student collaboration? The answer: by introducing PBL early on and selecting a college or university that continues that model with experiential learning exercises no matter the subject choice. Those involved in higher education are realizing the important learning gained from using PBL—and that the students who come from that learning environment are primed and ready for experiential learning in college. It becomes a natural progression for students to own their learning and remain confident and curious while doing so.

Making a Lecture More Experiential
At Berkeley Haas the emphasis on experiential exercises coupled with a lively debrief and design thinking questions, such as ‘How might we…?’ are the bedrock of developing relevant coursework. By “relevant” I mean coursework students can use right now in their personal or professional world to make a difference or produce a different and/or better outcome. The relevant piece is oftentimes dismissed for pure lecture, book reading, and antiquated thought. Yet, if given dedicated space and time to prepare, I have seen professors encouraged and enthused to bring their coursework to life with current business dilemmas and provocative questions the graduates will face early on in their careers.

Case in point: An experienced professor asked how to engage her class with the topic of gender equity in the workplace. I worked with her to change up the typical lecture format by chunking the topics and weaving in experiential exercises every 15 minutes or so. By dividing the class of 60 into four quadrants and posing pertinent and timely questions to each section with a five-minute answer period, a myriad of ideas were scribed. A five-minute debrief ensued, leading to further questions with the prompt: “How might you address gender inequity when you experience it real time?” Another five minutes was spent on facilitating the students around a strategy to address this topic. By doing this, the professor utilized a 15 minute block of time wisely and efficiently to develop real time skills (generated by the students) to head out into their worlds. Even the simple statement, “Let’s get on our feet and figure this out…” gives students the confidence to collaborate in a learning environment where their ideas are requested, noted, and valued.

Making Coursework More Relevant
Here are some questions to ask yourself regarding the “relevance” piece in designing a course for higher ed:

  • Why do they need to know this material? 
  • What should they do with the knowledge? Often caught up in the discipline that we specialize in, we forget why we are teaching the subject in the first place.
  • How does the topic I’m teaching tie in to their lives, either personal, professional or both? 
  • What is a current event that drives home a learning outcome I’ve developed for the class? 
  • When in their busy lives can they draw on this material and why will they? 
  • Where can I insert an experiential exercise to weave together the learnings from class to class, thus building to, and highlighting each learning outcome? In compiling the answers, the answer to a student’s question “Why do I need this class?” becomes crystal clear. When designing exercises, the goal is to lead students in their own discovery of the subject matter—those “aha” moments when the learning happens.

The Beauty of “Facili-teaching”
You as the educator have now become what I like to call a “facili-teacher.” Even in the syllabus development stages you can create space for experiential exercises, on average one every 15 minutes. If students arrive from a K-12 PBL environment, the experiential learning component is a natural fit and expected.  It is a seamless transition from developing and learning from a well crafted project, to now thinking, speaking and collaborating real time in the college classroom.  And, this is when true learning occurs.

The beauty of this facili-teaching is you, as the educator and facilitator, get to see the learning happen, the students are genuinely engaged and yes, it truly is rewarding.  With the addition of debriefs, the learning is in the doing and the discovery of the outcomes. By engaging the students from the start, acknowledging their concerns and making the information particularly relevant to their world, you now have them hooked and the learning comes naturally.

Everybody wins and everybody learns!

Janet Watson
Senior Faculty Advisor
The Center for Teaching Excellence
Haas School of Business, U.C. Berkeley

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