Year after year, William Cerbin noticed a disturbing pattern among the undergraduates taking his educational psychology course. Often these teachers-to-be would cling to preconceived ideas about education, such as the belief that all you need to do to get students to learn is to boost their self-esteem.

The problem, theorized Cerbin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, was that students never fully absorbed the new theories he taught--they'd memorize and promptly forget them. As with most college students, their thinking tended toward the concrete, rather than the abstract. And when he asked them to tackle complex classroom problems, they'd often guess at solutions, using intuition rather than facts and theory.

Last year, as a funded scholar of the Carnegie Foundation's Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Cerbin set out to break that pattern. He overhauled his educational psychology course based on "problem-based learning," an increasingly popular approach whereby students analyze authentic scenarios, applying disciplinary theories as an expert would. The approach goes beyond the vignettes professors typically use by centering entire courses on such scenarios--true-to-life problems of the classroom in Cerbin's case.

His undergraduates consider, for example, why students' grades are slipping in a middle-school science class. At first glance, most students guess that the problem is dry teaching that needs to be enlivened. But after carefully considering a set of the students' test results, many come to see the real problem: The students have misconceptions about scientific material. It's sort of a mirror lesson showing that false impressions hinder learning.

Critics of problem-based learning say, however, that such teaching might be too abstract for concrete-thinking undergraduates who have yet to grasp basic theories. But, Cerbin claims, at least so far, the method has bolstered his students' understanding of material.

"By the end of the course, students are better at putting aside intuitive thinking and really analyzing problems," says Cerbin. "They leave with a deeper understanding."

How it's done

Certainly, medical schools swear by the problem-based approach. For more than 50 years, they've used it to demonstrate the complexities and ambiguities of disease diagnosis and treatment.

The approach works according to several fundamentals: The class moves from problem to problem, rather than textbook topic to textbook topic; all assessment of students is written; and the problems drive the lectures and readings, rather than vice versa.

Instead of introducing new topics through lectures, Cerbin requires students to first grapple with complex, open-ended problems. These include why one science student comprehends textbook reading better than another; how a teacher can maximize the benefits of group-oriented reading instruction; and the factors that may underlie a science class's poor performance.

Cerbin's students take an uneducated guess at some reasons, which he hopes sheds light on the futility of their intuitions. Then he feeds them more facts, including raw test scores, grades and details about how the instructor teaches the class and how students attempt to learn. He also directs his students to such educational psychology theories as motivation, group learning and monitoring their own learning to help find solutions.

Working in groups and on their own, students rework the problems throughout the course, and submit their results to Cerbin in a final portfolio. Ultimately, he hopes they realize that beneath many classroom problems are a complex interplay of factors, including students' lack of motivation, lack of confidence with course content and misreading of material.

Who's doing it

Though beginning to catch on in educational psychology instruction, for the most part problem-based learning has yet to infiltrate other areas of undergraduate psychology and the liberal arts in general. That's beginning to change, though, with an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. With funding from Pew, instructors there are promoting and studying problem-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, and using it to teach everything from chemistry and English to psychology.

In a general psychology course taught by health psychologist Sandra Willis, PhD, for example, students work in group "treatment teams" to study the case of an insomniac film director. They brainstorm and research the possible factors causing his sleep and circadian rhythm disorder, propose a diagnosis and suggest a treatment plan.

Willis tried the approach for the first time this fall and says that using a strict version of it in an introductory course is challenging because students lack grounding in basic knowledge of psychology. While the problem-based approach energized some of her students, others waited for cues from her. She believes that, overall, the approach helps students develop critical thinking, cooperative and oral and written skills, but she says a course in applied psychology for upper-level majors may be a better place to apply its techniques.

Offering yet another prognosis is psychologist John Bransford, PhD, a Vanderbilt University professor who researches problem-based learning's effectiveness in grade school. He says the approach does belong in undergraduate courses. But he advises professors to use it carefully, cautioning that they run the risk of confusing students if they don't clearly present problems, lecture to explain material and closely guide students' work.

Cerbin agrees that it will take time for professors, and students, to become proficient with an approach that's still unfamiliar to most. But he says that so far his students' response to the approach has been overwhelmingly positive.

Robert Young, a senior, says that before he took Cerbin's class last spring, he was "pretty much memorizing the textbook."

"But with Cerbin, we were putting theory into practice," Young says. "Now I feel like I can actually go into a high school and use this."

This article is part of the Monitor's "Learning Strategies" series, which explores new ways of teaching. For more information on Cerbin's course, go to kml.carnegiefoundation.org/gallery/bcerbin/index.html.