A Practice-Based Learning (PBL) Model for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters
Below you will find information that articulates the Practice-Based Learning model that Dean Hershock introduced last semester. His primary focus is on identifying and articulating an identity that captures a pedagogical approach to teaching, learning, and knowledge creation that is focused, first and foremost, on student success and the creation of students who embody the values and skills that we believe important for them to have. This must drive every other consideration.
This information offers a summary of what prompted the Fall 2020 conversation, the steps taken to date, and the plan forward.
Practice-Based Learning (PBL) Document prepared by Dean Hershock, January 2021
In recent years, American higher education, though faced with the reality of a grim demographic trajectory, declining state support (and thus rapidly rising tuition and increased tuition dependence) and growing public skepticism about the value of a college education, has generally steered clear of dramatic structural changes and/or a radical reimagining of how it conducts its primary business—teaching, learning, and knowledge production. The COVID pandemic of 2020, however, is forcing a great many institutions of higher learning into the position of having to react to a sudden shift of the ground underfoot as classroom instruction moves sharply toward asynchronous, remote, delivery, as student numbers plummet, and as university finances are thrown into disarray https://www.u3advisors.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/U3Advisors_DistressedColleges.pdf. Particularly hard hit in this crisis have been colleges of arts and letters, most of which already struggled with declining enrollments and growing public doubt about their relevance/utility. Across the nation, universities of all sizes (Adrian College, University of Vermont, University of Akron, University of Evansville, Ohio Wesleyan University, University of South Florida; Marquette University, University of Alaska, College of St. Rose, Ithaca College, Elmira College, Hiram College, Guilford College, etc.) have shuttered poorly enrolled academic programs in the humanities, arts, sciences, mathematics, and social sciences and have laid off faculty and staff in an effort to curb expenses and reorient spending priorities to areas of study aligned with student demand, market forces, and/or prevalent public narratives regarding workplace needs (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/26/us/colleges-coronavirus-budget-cuts.html ).
The College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters at the University of Michigan-Dearborn has not, of course, been exempt from these pressures and has responded over the last 5-7 years by curtailing course offerings, adhering more closely to minimum course enrollments, phasing out small academic programs that lack tenure track lines, restructuring staff assets, adjusting summer teaching compensation, curbing expenses and implementing more efficient practices, increasing its fundraising efforts, and generally finding ways of making do with less. In doing so, the college has, in the main, been able to preserve its academic programs, though in more austere form than in the past. This effort was made, as referenced in the Fall CASL State of the College address, in the hope of promoting an identity for the college as a publicly funded version of a small liberal arts college where students could obtain a first-rate, broad-based, education in small classes taught by skilled professors deeply engaged in scholarship. This was, in the minds of many within the college (and reflected in the college’s Strategic Plan and Mission and Vision statements), an identity that aligned with the overall view of who we are as both a college and as a university. It is also, however, as is evident by visiting the websites of any other similar college within the public education galaxy here in Michigan, the same story being told by all of our peers (though I would contend that many such claims are inaccurate). In short, we are mired in an identity that is virtually identical to that of every other liberal arts college in the state university system; an identity that, frankly, is not working for anyone.
Certainly, we, as a college, could continue to promote our work in this way, trying to distinguish what we do from others on the basis of the scholarly contributions of our faculty, the overall size of our campus, the community feel of UM-Dearborn, our connection to the University of Michigan, and our student academic profile. But doing so, in my view, wastes an outstanding opportunity available to us; the opportunity to redefine ourselves and to do to so in a way that sets us apart from our peers. Staying the course is also a risky proposition as the demographic picture for our traditional student pool is not pretty and thus our future financial prospects and, relatedly, our ability to sustain such a model, are bleak. Holding to this course of action has not reversed (nor even staunched) the hemorrhaging of students from CASL and we now find ourselves with disciplines across the college (such as my own) with too many faculty and not enough students to fill classes. Without timely action I fear the college is on the brink of losing entire disciplines and programs. I don’t want that to happen. I want us to work together to find a way to protect the faculty and staff that we have and position ourselves for future growth.
Accordingly, I called upon the CASL community to participate in a conversation around building a new identity for the college; one that will resonate with students and ensure their academic and career success, one that fosters adaptive learning, one that speaks to who we are and what we value, one that ensures the continued viability of the college as something more than a service unit to the university’s “professional” schools, and one that informs/guides the campus conversation that is emerging about a broader, university wide, identity. It also positions the college well vis-à-vis the upcoming capital campaign (the university is crafting messaging to potential donors as I write) as it provides us with a new story to tell to inspire potential donors. That is the opportunity in front of us now.
I recognize that the timing of this call to action is less than ideal. The pandemic is wreaking havoc on all of our lives (as well as those of our students) and is challenging all of us in myriad ways. Likewise, the shrinking number of faculty and staff remaining in the college makes it difficult to find the time necessary to engage in such a weighty conversation on top of our already substantial obligations. The college’s finances also loom large—how could we possibly envision any sort of change in such a constrained financial environment? All of these things are certainly true but, as I have shared in numerous ways throughout the fall academic term, the risk of doing nothing, of simply standing pat, is significant as it leaves the college susceptible to the ideas generated by others; others who may not share our values or who may lack a deep understanding of the work that we do and its true value.
At last fall’s “State of the College” gathering I introduced the idea of CASL playing upon its existing strengths and becoming a “Laboratory School” focused on addressing a set of needs/problems confronting the Detroit metropolitan region (https://umdearborn.edu/casl/about/casl-faculty-and-staff-resources/state-college-charting-our-course-9172020 ). In presenting this concept I argued that “such an experiential model would allow us to organize around particular themes/problems and to bring together expertise from a vast array of disciplines and programs. It would expose students to a plethora of disciplinary perspectives, play to our strengths, and set us apart from all of our state peers.” The presentation was necessarily general as I wanted to share with you all a possible identity (albeit one that I think would fit us very nicely) to prompt further conversation and consideration.
Subsequent to that presentation, college leadership engaged in a number of listening sessions and collected your ideas using a myriad of different pathways (the Formstack survey, departmental meetings, direct emails, etc.) to gauge your thinking on this idea and to hear about other ideas that you might have.
What follows are some general takeaways from that feedback:
- A significant number of you expressed enthusiasm for the idea but also asked for more clarity around what this might mean for the college and/or for their particular disciplines
- I was asked for examples of successful models employing this teaching/learning modality
- The term, “Laboratory School” did not resonate with you. Project Based or Problem Based Learning were more resonant
- Those who are drawn to this model offered a number of interesting ideas about how we might tangibly implement it
- Some expressed skepticism about the applicability of this approach to their individual programs/disciplines and/or are concerned about what they fear might be the abandonment of the teaching of disciplinary content knowledge
- A great many asked the question, “is this what students want?”
- Others asked whether such a change was actually necessary, especially given that many within the college are already doing this
- There are still some among you who believe that the timing of this discussion and of the effort to reconceptualize the college is problematic
- Questions about funding for this shift were also raised by many
- Some believe that all of our challenges could be solved if Ann Arbor would simply provide greater financial support to our campus
In casting about for a clearer articulation of the model that I had in mind I have gravitated toward the concept of a Practice Based Curriculum. I believe that the term “Practice” captures the broad, more applied, approach to teaching and learning, where students put classroom learning and their individual skills/talents into practice, better than “Laboratory School.” This “Practice” focused modality (or whatever it is that we choose to call it) assumes a wide array of available means of applying “practice.” It would not be the case that every course offered by the college would necessarily have to operate according to this model. It is imperative to note here that our primary focus must be on an identity that has impact on our students’ lives.
The case for a Practice Based identity for CASL:
- First, such a model is consistent with the history of our campus. Practice Based teaching/learning is deeply embedded in the DNA of UM-Dearborn. The campus owes its origins to Henry Ford and the Ford family. One would be hard pressed to identify another individual more associated with a Practice Based mindset than Henry Ford, the man who (while certainly problematic on many levels) revolutionized mass production and global transportation. Moreover, when the Ford family gifted the property that now makes up our campus to the University of Michigan, they did so with a particular model of education in mind, a practice-based model that emphasized applied learning through internships designed to produce engineers and managers for Ford. This sort of work is, in short, in our DNA. Of course, this early vision did not include CASL. My call was designed to spur us all to engage in a conversation about how to create a CASL version of this approach where we produce citizens of the region primed to participate not in a corporate bureaucracy but in the multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder teamwork that is needed to address the broad problems and issues we now face.
- To further this point, I would add that a PBL identity is consistent with, and further highlights an existing strength within the college. To a large extent, a PBL approach to teaching/learning is already well entrenched in CASL (an inventory of current PBL work indicates that over 2/3rds of CASL classes contain some PBL elements. Clearly, our faculty are deeply engaged in Problem-based local research and our students have broad exposure to Project-based work in the form of classroom assignments, mentored/independent research, academic service learning, internships, etc.
- PBL is a recognized and very effective High Impact Practice (HIPs are Strategic Priority for both the college https://umdearborn.edu/casl/about/strategic-plan and the campus https://drive.google.com/file/d/1oHieEAlD3Hf4r21bD3UZ-nH4efbuvzhG/view ). This is a teaching/learning modality that requires planning, assessment and reflection, adjustment, and change on the part of both the faculty and the student. To be more specific, the PBL approach requires: constructivist/active learning as problems need to be identified/defined and/or projects need to be planned/implemented; a cyclical process of assessment, revision, and self-evaluation; and a shifting of the Instructor as a Mentor/Facilitator (a model that more accurately mimics the real world where we all face problems and need to figure out how to solve them).
- PBL promotes student success in that it facilitates Adaptive Learning (increasingly viewed by professional schools as a key consideration in student admissions—see Curtrer, Pusic, et al., The Master Adaptive Learner, 2020) and a Growth mindset (Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2007). These are the very traits that we have long argued to be the hallmarks of a broad, liberal arts education. Frontloading PBL as the college’s identity makes clear to the outside world the value that we know to be embedded in the work that we engage in and it tells the world that our students are ready and able to deal with whatever problems/issues they may face. Career preparation is the primary goal of many UM-Dearborn students. A CASL education provides students with professional skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, diversity and inclusion, and ethical responsibility. The addition of PBL may further strengthen those skills and aid in the development of additional career skills (e.g., leadership, communication, initiative, collaboration). In sum, PBL could enhance what we are already doing in CASL - preparing students to develop as human beings, citizens, community members, and employees.
- A PBL orientation also allows us to connect more strongly faculty research with students. This approach will provide faculty with new opportunities to bring students into their research; a collaboration that is mutually beneficial.
- One of the hallmarks of a CASL education are the deep connections forged between our faculty and our students. PBL will allow us to further strengthen these connections thus enhancing student success and also offering a strong draw for new students.
- The demographic realities facing the college (we are competing for a rapidly diminishing pool of students) necessitates a fresh approach to what we do if we have any hope of holding our current market share let alone expanding it. Claiming to do the same things that everyone else does, only better, has not been a successful model for us and the college is experiencing dramatic enrollment declines across the board but especially in more humanities-based disciplines. The lack of a distinct identity puts CASL at further risk of perpetuating this decline and puts the college at risk of becoming merely a service unit to the professional schools.
- I cannot say with any certainty that this is what students want (more work would have to be done here) but I do know that they increasingly are not drawn to what we are currently offering. It is clear that students and parents want a clear path to employment; this is an area where CASL struggles; to the extent that CASL can show that it is developing employment skills in students this would help with recruitment. We need to do as much as possible to build student resumes and to get them real world experience. PBL is one way to do this using CASL curriculum. Jobs are why most students are in college. We have to show them that we will make it worth their while, we will work with them to facilitate their career development, as well as their personal growth goals. Additionally, in thinking about what it is that we as faculty hope for our students as they graduate from CASL, the PBL identity does, in my view, capture our goals/dreams for our students—that we have prepared them to be creative, flexible, learners who can work well with others, who appreciate that the world’s big questions are messy and complex, and who recognize that there is not always a simple answer. These competencies ensure that our students will be successful.
- There are other successful models of the PBL approach out there. Beyond those I’ve offered in the past (Kalamazoo College-- http://www.kzoo.edu/k-plan/ , the University of Michigan’s History Lab-- https://lsa.umich.edu/history/history-at-work/u-m-historylabs.html , etc.), I’d also point to Worcester Polytechnic Institute as a wonderful example of a university organized around the principles of PBL-- https://www.wpi.edu/project-based-learning . While perhaps most evident in WPI’s Center for Project Based Learning, the PBL concept is deeply embedded in the university’s curriculum and its overall identity. Indeed, a number of CASL faculty have participated in WPI run PBL seminars offered on our campus in past years. CASL PBL will embrace our specific community—our right-sized campus, easy access to faculty, diversity, first generation students, etc. While these other programs offer useful ideas, ours must be a distinct program that reflects the strengths of our campus and our student needs.
- Given the existing strengths that we have in PBL (inventories taken by the college’s academic units indicate a significant amount of this work goes on throughout the college) and the willingness of those who are familiar with this model to share their experiences/know how, embracing a PBL identity can be implemented largely with existing resources. Moreover, a shift toward such a new identity would demonstrate both proactive and creative thinking on the part of the college and would thus make the case for additional resources in support of the shift easier to make—CASL recognizes the issues that it faces and is working hard to change things up and to attract new students and ensure their academic and professional success. A new identity would, in my view, dramatically elevate CASL’s profile at the university.
- This conversation parallels a broader, campus-level, discussion that is currently underway regarding the articulation of an identity for the UM-Dearborn campus. We have both the opportunity to shape that discussion in a way that mirrors the work that we are considering and to lead the campus forward in implementing/highlighting this new PBL identity.
A number of you asked me what a PBL-oriented CASL might look like? Would it mean a restructuring of the college? Would it mean the end to traditional disciplines? How would we support this new identity organizationally? How do we dialog with students about this idea? Would every course have to be a PBL course? How do we preserve necessary content-based knowledge under this new model?
These are all important questions and, indeed, they offer us an opportunity to model PBL. I do not have a particular model for a PBL-based college in mind. Indeed, I do not want to prescribe anything by suggesting my definitions or structural vision. Rather, my plan is to organize a faculty work group charged with articulating:
- What form(s) of practice/project-based learning seem best suited to CASL? In this definition I would ask the faculty group to come up with objectives. What specifically are we trying to accomplish for our students? What would a CASL grad look like and be able to do as a result of this different approach?
- What training would be necessary for our faculty?
- How best to embed PBL into the college’s curriculum to ensure that every CASL student is exposed to PBL?
- An implementation plan for moving the college toward this identity
- What would a timeline look like?
- What would the necessary component pieces look like?
- How would we assess a PBL oriented college identity? What would success look like?
- What structural/financial supports would be necessary to implement such an identity?
- How to work with Admissions to articulate and market this identity
To focus this work, I will ask those involved to consider what large-scale models would work best for us in terms of articulating/advancing a new identity. Do we consider, for instance, the organization of the college and shifting the curriculum so that it centers around issues/themes/problems? Do we employ the Kalamazoo-style approach that centers around stages or participation in a senior team-based project? Etc. The task force could identify a few large-scale models that they think would work, then offer levels of how and how rapidly and at what scale we would need to operate in order to get there, along with what resources/actions would be needed to do so.
The work of this group will commence February 1 and end on March 31 and result in a White Paper to be shared with the CASL community.
A second, student populated working group, will also be convened to address the above issues from the perspective of current and prospective students.
Thank you for reading through this lengthy document. I look forward to our conversation!
PBL Task Force Communications to Faculty and Staff and Final White Paper
FAQs from CASL Faculty and Responses from the PBL Task Force
- Natalia Czap
- Mike Dabkowski
- Daniel Davis
- Antonios Koumpias
- Terri Laws
- Simona Marincean
- Anna Muller
- Francia Martinez Valencia
- Marie Waung (chair)
Consider what students will expect when we eventually return to face-to-face courses. We have shown students that discipline content is deliverable remotely with much of it already recorded for them to use at their convenience. Given this new easy access to course content, what will motivate students to attend in-person classes? Perhaps a sense of belonging; of forming connections with faculty and peers; the chance to engage in problem solving, in connecting different ideas, and perspectives, in applying course content. We must consider how our classroom teaching may need to change post-pandemic away from an emphasis on content delivery and toward content application.
We plan to add several general survey items about PBL to a larger campus survey for distribution this semester. As the PBL initiative begins to take shape, CASL will eventually need to consider conducting student focus groups to assess interests, needs, and challenges in relation to PBL.
Interestingly, most of the examples of PBL that we have found occur at the elementary and secondary school levels. This suggests that in the near future, students may come to expect PBL, arriving on campus with some basic PBL skills. This also suggests the potential for CASL to be forward thinking and to distinguish itself from other similar institutions through PBL.
The task force is composed solely of CASL faculty. Marty has provided us with a charge, but he is leaving the rest to us. Although the initial idea came from the Dean’s office, PBL was already occurring throughout the college. The committee is working to determine several different umbrella structures to support and grow PBL. The white paper that we write will outline these different approaches. Rather than recommending a single approach, we plan to describe several possible approaches along with an assessment of each approach’s strengths and weaknesses. At this point we do not envision the PBL as coming from any one place, rather we see it as growing throughout CASL, strongly supported by the Dean’s office, but very much a faculty driven effort.
It is important that we share some level of agreement on what we value as a college, as these values will drive the PBL effort and eventually student recruitment efforts. Below is a set of student-focused values that the task force is discussing; these are values that as a college we might decide to explicitly embrace regarding teaching.
- an environment where every student belongs
- disciplinary content and its understanding, application, evaluation, and creation
- the exploration and integration of multiple perspectives from across disciplines, sub-disciplines and areas of expertise
- the facilitation of flexible, creative thinking for an unpredictable world
- the development of student career competencies to enhance workplace opportunities
- the advancement of student professional, career, and personal goals
- every student’s potential as a learner, thinker, community member, and citizen
- the mosaic of backgrounds, perspectives, disciplines, and ideas that are CASL
Please click here to provide thoughts, ideas, or suggestions about CASL values.
We need some agreement on what we mean by PBL. Below is an operational definition of PBL being considered by the task force.
PBL Operational Definition:
PBL stands for Practice Based Learning, also known as Problem Based Learning or Project Based Learning. It refers to curricular and co-curricular experiences that require students to apply, analyze, evaluate, or create knowledge in collaboration with others, often across disciplinary boundaries.
PBL objectives are to:
- increase flexible thinking and adaptability;
- deepen connections on campus and in the community;
- develop skills to enhance student professional success; and
- inspire students to actively contribute to the well being of their communities.
Please click here to provide thoughts, ideas, or suggestions about the operational definition of PBL.
Approaches to PBL
The task force has been discussing the following approaches to PBL, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each. We welcome any thoughts, suggestions, or concerns that you may have regarding each approach.
The Scaffolded PBL approach provides a four tiered system to organize existing PBL courses and to strategically develop new ones. This approach addresses faculty/student workload concerns, and maintains flexibility across disciplines. Although the scaffolded approach serves to organize PBL courses, it is unlikely to strongly influence student recruitment or CASL visibility. Thus, this approach may work best in combination with other approaches.
The CASL Value approach focuses on Level 4 PBL courses. These highest level PBL courses center on projects that address problems from an interdisciplinary perspective, span campus academic units, or involve partnerships with nonprofit organizations, local governments, communities, or businesses. To avoid developing a series of disjointed PBL courses, themes would be used to organize courses or to bring together different disciplines. This approach may allow CASL to demonstrate to campus and the community the value of a liberal arts education. It emphasizes student learning and problem-solving within an interdisciplinary team.
The Career Goals approach combines PBL coursework with CASL internships, student research, global learning, study abroad, and other campus opportunities and resources to help students create individualized plans for professional and personal growth. This approach brings together a variety of curricular and co-curricular opportunities available to students with an emphasis on planning one’s time on campus and maximizing campus opportunities to cultivate the skills necessary to develop resumes, prepare for interviews, and enhance employability.
Student survey results regarding PBL
This short report is based on data from a survey collected during winter of 2021 asking students about their experiences. The survey was part of the campus-wide strategic implementation effort.
CASL Practice-Based Learning: Interdisciplinary Themes, Courses, and Affinity Groups
Did anything happen with PBL over the summer?
We spent some of the summer developing PBL themes. The themes are designed to integrate PBL efforts within the college. In addition, they will be used to develop scholarly families or affinity groups for our students.
Watch this 5-minute presentation on the ideas that were generated over the summer regarding PBL, or read a summary of those ideas.
April 8, 2022
This presentation provides a definition of PBL as well as a description of the PBL designation system that CASL will be using as we move it forward in the curriculum.