As an MBA, you will have to be an accomplished problem-solver of organizational design and change situations. You will also have to be a self-directed learner your entire professional life, as knowledge in the field of management will change, and you will continuously be meeting new and unexpected challenges.

The consideration of these factors such as these dictates the wisdom of a problem-based, student-centered, self-directed program that will allow you, the student, in collaboration with your group and instructor, to design an experience tailor-made to your individual needs.

What Is Problem-Based Learning (PBL)?

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an approach that challenges students to learn through engagement in a real problem. It is a format that simultaneously develops both problem solving strategies and disciplinary knowledge bases and skills by placing students in the active role of problem-solvers confronted with an ill-structured situation that simulates the kind of problems they are likely to face as future managers in complex organizations.

Problem-based learning is student-centered. PBL makes a fundamental shift--from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning. The process is aimed at using the power of authentic problem solving to engage students and enhance their learning and motivation. There are several unique aspects that define the PBL approach:

  • Learning takes place within the contexts of authentic tasks, issues, and problems--that are aligned with real-world concerns.
  • In a PBL course, students and the instructor become colearners, coplanners, coproducers, and coevaluators as they design, implement, and continually refine their curricula.
  • The PBL approach is grounded in solid academic research on learning and on the best practices that promote it. This approach stimulates students to take responsibility for their own learning, since there are few lectures, no structured sequence of assigned readings, and so on.
  • PBL is unique in that it fosters collaboration among students, stresses the development of problem solving skills within the context of professional practice, promotes effective reasoning and self-directed learning, and is aimed at increasing motivation for life-long learning.

Problem-based learning begins with the introduction of an ill-structured problem on which all learning is centered. The problem is one that MBA students are likely to face as future professionals. Expertise is developed by engaging in progressive problem solving. Thus, problems drive the organization and dynamics of the course. MBA students, individually and collectively, assume major responsibility for their own learning and instruction. Most of the learning occurs in small groups rather than in lectures. As teacher, my role changes from "sage on stage" to a "guide by the side." My role is more like that of a facilitator and coach of student learning, acting at times as a resource person, rather than as knowledge-holder and disseminator. Similarly, your role, as a student, is more active, as you are engaged as a problem-solver, decision-maker, and meaning-maker, rather than being merely a passive listener and note-taker.

Where Did PBL Come From and Who Else is Using It?

PBL originated from a curriculum reform by medical faculty at Case Western Reserve University in the late 1950s. Innovative medical and health science programs continued to evolve the practice of PBL, particularly the specific small group learning and tutorial process that was developed by medical faculty at McMaster University in Canada. These innovative and forward-looking medical school programs considered the intensive pattern of basic science lectures followed by an equally exhausting clinical teaching program to be an ineffective and dehumanizing way to prepare future physicians. Given the explosion of medical information and new technology, as well as the rapidly changing demands of future medical practice, a new mode and strategy of learning was developed that would better prepare students for professional practice. PBL has spread to over 50 medical schools, and has diffused into many other professional fields including law, economics, architecture, mechanical and civil engineering, as well as in K-12 curricula. And the entire MBA program at Ohio University has been designed as an integrated curriculum using the PBL approach.

Why PBL?

Traditional education practices, starting from kindergarten through college, tend to produce students who are often disenchanted and bored with their education. They are faced with a vast amount of information to memorize, much of which seems irrelevant to the world as it exists outside of school. Students often forget much of what they learned, and that which they remember cannot often be applied to the problems and tasks they later face in the business world. Traditional classrooms also do not prepare students to work with others in collaborative team situations. The result: students tend to view MBA education as simply a "right of passage," a necessary "union card," and an imposed set of hurdles with little relevance to the real world. Education is reduced to acquiring a diploma (merely another commodity to be purchased in the marketplace), and the final grade becomes the overriding concern (rather than learning).

Research in educational psychology has found that traditional educational approaches (e.g., lectures) do not lead to a high rate of knowledge retention. Despite intense efforts on the part of both students and teachers, most material learned through lectures is soon forgotten, and natural problem solving abilities may actually be impaired. In fact, studies have shown that in 90 days students forget 90% of everything they have been told (Smilovitz, 1996). Motivation in such traditional classroom environments is also usually low.

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of PBL is that students genuinely enjoy the process of learning. PBL is a challenging program which makes the study of organization design and change intriguing for students because they are motivated to learn by a need to understand and solve real managerial problems. The relevance of information learned is readily apparent; students become aware of a need for knowledge as they work to resolve the problems.

How Does PBL Work?

A PBL course is designed into a series of real-world, hands-on, PBL investigations. You will be working in small groups/teams with other students on problems that you are likely to encounter as a professional manager. You will begin a PBL investigation by being presented with an ill-structured organizational problem or scenario. Such a presentation may be in the form of a written statement, a video clip of a real manager at a company, or a guest speaker. Every PBL team will appoint a chairperson/leader and sometimes a recorder/secretary. Your PBL team will be guided in the use of a reiterative problem-solving process. Your team will applyy this problem solving process to find, analyze, and solve the presenting problem. Some PBL investigations may culminate in a student-created project/product, exhibitions, or other artifacts that address the driving questions. In some cases, the PBL investigation will culminate in an oral performance with managers from the business community in attendance.

As you work with each problem you can:

  1. Develop your diagnostic reasoning and analytical problem-solving skills.
  2. Determine what knowledge you need to acquire to understand the problem, and others like it.
  3. Discover the best resources for acquiring that information.
  4. Carry out your own personalized study using a wide range of resources.
  5. Apply the information you have learned back to the problem.
  6. Integrate this newly acquired knowledge with your existing understanding.

In short, you will be learning in a highly relevant and exciting manner to problem-solve and to develop self-directed study skills that build toward the skills and knowledge that you will need as a practicing manager.

The problem-solving process can be summarized according to three broad and reiterative phases.

Phase 1. First, your group will gather information and list it under a heading entitled: "What do we already know?" In this phase, you will entertain the problem in light of the knowledge that you already have from your own experience. Your group will discuss the current situation surrounding the problem as it has been presented. This analysis requires discussion and agreement on the working definitions of the problems, and sorting out which issues and aspects of the situation are worthy of further investigation. This initial analysis should yield a problem statement that serves as a starting point for the investigation, and it may be revised as assumptions are questioned and new information comes to light.

Phase 2. Next, you will engage with the problem by also identifying under a second heading, "What do we need to know (to solve this problem)?" Here you will list questions or learning issues that must be answered to address missing knowledge, or to shed light on the problem. It is in this phase that your group will be analyzing the problem into components, discussing implications, entertaining possible explanations or solutions, and developing working hypotheses. This activity is like a "brainstorming" phase with evaluation suspended while explanations or solutions are written on a flipchart or chalkboard. Your group will need to formulate learning goals, outlining what further information is needed, and how this information can best be obtained.

Phase 3. The above list should inform your group in what to do in order to solve the problem. In this phase your group will discuss, evaluate, and organize hypotheses and tentative hypotheses. Your group will make a "What should we do?" list that formulates keeps track of such issues as what resources to consult, people to interview, articles to read, and what specific actions team members need to perform. It is in this phase that your group will identify and allocate learning tasks, develop study plans to discover needed information. You will be gathering information from the classroom, resource readings, texts, library sources, videos, and from external experts on the subject. As new information is acquired, your group will need to meet to analyze and evaluate it for its reliability and usefulness in applying it to the problem.

In short, you will be spending a great deal of time discussing the problem, generating hypotheses, identifying relevant facts, searching for information, and defining their own learning issues. Unlike traditional and standard classes, learning objectives are not stated up front. Rather, you and members of your group will be responsible for generating your own learning issues or objectives based on your group's analysis of the problem.

All during this process, as a student, you will be actively defining and constructing potential solutions. As an instructor, my role is primarily to model, guide, coach--to support you and your team through the learning and assessment process.

The majority of class time will be devoted to working in self-directed, PBL small group tutorials. A portion of class time will be allocated to "Resource Sessions," which may include simulations, case studies, and brief discussions to further explore concepts and issues which arise out of the PBL projects.

Transitioning to a PBL Classroom Environment

Students who are new to a PBL classroom environment may find it initially unsettling. This is because you are being asked to take responsibility for your own learning, to work on ill-structured problems where there isn't a pre-established "right answer," and where you are expected to structure your own approach to acquiring and using information to solve problems. In many respects, this environment mimics the "real-world." In business settings, there are no standardized objective tests, lectures, or routine and well defined assignments. Entering this new type of learning environment requires you a willingness on your part to accept risk and uncertainty, and to become a self-directed learner.

Establishing an Open Climate for PBL

Establishing an open climate is essential for problem-based learning. Every student should feel free to say whatever comes to mind, any ideas or comments, no matter how unsophisticated or inappropriate they might seem, without being put down or criticized. Most students have learned in their prior educational experiences not to speak up or volunteer their thoughts unless they are absolutely sure of the answer. Any show of ignorance was held against them.

Learning can never occur unless you can bring out their ideas and thoughts, and openly admit to confusion, lack of understanding, or ignorance…"I don't know" is a powerful first step to learning. The same is true for myself as the instructor. The instructor doesn't have all the answers or know everything; no one person can be an authority in everything, and no one should be expected to have all the answers. We can ALL learn in this course.

It is your responsibility, as a student, TO SPEAK UP when you are doubtful, unsure, or uncomfortable with comments or ideas made by others in the group. You also must be willing to speak up when you feel that another member of your group is making statements that you feel are incorrect.

Students must also develop the ability to openly and constructively express their opinions about the comments or ideas of others, or about the quality of other students' performance in the group. It is your responsibility to offer opinions in a friendly and constructive manner. Every student must learn to both give and accept constructive criticism.

PBL Assessment Philosophy

To Assess. The Latin origin of this term, assidere, literally means to sit down beside. Another way of thinking of assessment is to use careful judgment based on the kind of close observation that comes from "sitting down beside."

With PBL, assessment is not separate from instruction. Rather, assessment is integral to learning. The focus and purpose of assessment is on learning, on how it is done, and how it can be better, not on normative comparisons. Assessment is a continuous process that drives instruction. Further, assessment does not bring an end to learning; it provides information about how to continue to develop your skills, knowledge and abilities with respect to the course learning objectives. Having said this, it is important for you to think of assessment as an active demonstration of your understanding and ability to apply this understanding.

Words like "tests" and "examinations" have well established connotations of evalutating a student's possession of knowledge. We need a different process, and a new language, to identify how to assess a student's capability for using and applying knowledge. Education of an individual, understood in terms of developing a capbility for using and applying one's knowledge, cannot be adequately assessed by traditional testing. Grading on a curve, which sorts students into groups for administrative purposes, says nothing about how each student is using his or her talents or growing toward their potential.

With PBL, the instructor is no longer the sole yardstick by which your progress will be measured. Rather, my role as instructor is to help students monitor themselves, to monitor your own progress, to establish criteria for learning and quality work, and to help you devise your own goals for improvement. This means that I will not be the only judge of student work; students will learn to evaluate the work of their peers, as well as their own. In addition, your work may also be monitored and evaluated by real-world assessors--managers and executives from companies in the Bay Area.

Students will codevelop with the instructor relevant and meaningful assessments, and play an active role in developing criteria and setting standards of performance for high quality work. Assessments must have meaning for the learner. For assessments to be meaningful, they must have some connection to the real world, difficult enough to be interesting but not totally frustrating, and generative, where a real product, service, or valued information is being evaluated. This concept of assessment-as-learning focuses on what learners achieve--not what teachers provide.

Therefore, in this course, student assessment is a multidimensional process, integral to learning, that involves observing performances of individual learners in action and judging them on the basis of collaboratively determined developmental criteria, with resulting feedback to that learner. Assessments may involve a performance or demonstration, usually for a real audience (i.e., managers from the business community) and useful purpose (e.g., as part of student exhibition or learning conference). Assessment must be seamless and ongoing; it must be part of the PBL process. Students must also learn during assessment; it is not simpy a "grade" that is tacked on at the end of a paper or transcript.

In general, and at minimum, students will be assessed in three broad areas:

  1. Applied Competence. Demonstrate the ability to use organizational design and change management concepts and frameworks to identify and anaylze variables that can influence an organization's overall effectiveness.
  2. Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving and Communicative Competence. Identify problems and/or opportunities in organizational contexts and make specific recommendations, supported by theory, to improve the situation. Accurately and competently using theoretical frameworks from organization design and change literature to interpret and solve business problems, and effectively communicating your analyses to others in a variety of professional contexts. Implementing your problem solving activities with a commitment to quality.
  3. Collaborative and Leadership Competence. Collaborates as a member of a project team, taking the initiative in identifying and solving problems or pursuing opportunities for learning and improvement within your group.


Assessment must also be seen as fair and equitable. In the early part of the semester, a voluntary "student assessment task force" will be formed. This task force will consists of student representatives from each of the three sections of MGMT 842 and will work with the instructor in developing an overall assessment plan for all three sections. After every PBL project, group-based assessments will be conducted. These assessments are to help facilitate reflection on what you learned during the PBL project, and to receive direct feedback from your team members on your performance, contributions, and intellectual achievements.