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Enlighten Me: Problem-based learning and beyond at the University of Delaware

The University of Delaware was an early pioneer of a movement in the 1990s called PBL – or problem-based learning.


And since then, many of the campus’s classrooms and workspaces have also been re-designed to reflect this more collaborative teaching style – replacing desks with moveable pod chairs and blackboards with glass walls.


For this week’s Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s Megan Pauly got a tour of some recent updates – and a peek at what may be on the horizon.





I met Paul Hyde in a unique space on the University of Delaware campus called Faculty Commons. Several of the walls are bright blue, and there’s a variety of modular chairs – some occupied by faculty huddled around monitors.


There’s even a partially complete puzzle spread out across one table that Hyde says is a trademark of the space.


It’s a hub for faculty to gather and learn about new tech features, some of which have made their way into classrooms in recent years. Hyde works with faculty members to update and redesign classrooms.

Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The Faculty Commons was founded in 2014 to support tech upgrades for University of Delaware faculty members.


But he says the innovations aren’t limited to classroom settings.  


He took me on a tour of some learning spaces, starting in the Design Studio – a traditional laboratory re-envisioned.


“It’s interesting to notice – as we’re going through all of these spaces: I haven’t seen any professors," Hyde said.


That’s because the space is designed for group work – outside of class time.


“You know, the university is realizing that there are so many ways to engage students in the classes and only so much learning takes place during the scheduled class time," Hyde said. "So if you’re only meeting with your students three hours a week, only so much can happen at that time.”


Hyde describes places like the Design Studio – with wide tables for multiple students to work on at the same time – as an ecosystem of informal learning spaces to complement the formal ones, like lecture halls.


And these Design Studio rooms even have informal names, too, like the Hive, Hactorium and the Pit.


While the Design Studio is just four years old, some of the first steps towards traditional classroom redesign started in the 1990s – part of an international movement called problem-based learning (PBL).


“And that’s basically where students have to work in groups of up to six people solving problems during class as opposed to some of the other classrooms we see where they’re taking notes and receiving information, they’re given problems, they’re given questions and they have to come up with information to solve those," Hyde said.


Some faculty members wrote a book called the Power of Problem-Based Learning and received a National Science Foundation grant to teaching more faculty members about it.


“It was very much a faculty grassroots effort, and it grew from there," Hyde said.


I talked with Steve Bernhardt, who was part of that grassroots effort. He recently retired, but was at the forefront of the Problem-Based Learning initiative on the University of Delaware campus.


“The direction of change is to de-center the teacher as the font of knowledge and as someone who delivers everything the students needs to know and to create classrooms that support social activity, interaction, team-based learning and problem solving," Bernhardt said.


Hyde took me to a classroom with the traditional set-up for PBL: the setup included circular tables with six chairs around each.


But something was still missing.


“The chairs are flexible, but that’s not enough," Hyde said.


The tables in the Problem-Based Learning rooms probably weigh about 70 pounds.


Bernhardt says in the early 2000s, several classrooms were designed as design laboratories – used to pilot different classroom arrangements and technology. A handful of teachers volunteered as guinea pigs to test out the new designs.


They got rid of the traditional desk – or fixed-seating – arrangements, and put in pod-like chairs instead.


“The shelf or the desktop space swivels and you can swivel it out of the way if you want, or four or six people can kind of swivel their desktops together and create a larger table surface," Bernhardt said.


It worked well, and remains popular. I even got to try one out on my tour around campus.


“It’s not just a chair on wheels, it has such low resistance, there’s no friction," Hyde said.


Hyde says these classrooms are popular with faculty who want to transform the room back and forth between group work and lectures quickly.


“So what we wanted to do was be able to have a faculty member say, ok work together now in pairs and in five seconds have two chairs be able to spin next to each other," Hyde said.


But there are some classes – like economics and other data-intensive classes – where a different approach was necessary.

“There’s not enough desk real estate for the student," Hyde said. "By the time you sit in that chair and they set up their laptop and they take out a notepad, that’s it – if you wanted to say, here’s some handouts to work with, or share something with your student next to you, you’d have a hard time configuring that.”

For these classes,  high-tech features were added to the traditional PBL model.

Instead of circular tables with six chairs, one side of each table was leveled off to accommodate a TV screen for each group to sit around.

“As classes become more interactive, you need more ways for people to record what they’ve done and show their work," Hyde said. "There’s a book out – I think it’s Make Learning  Visible. The idea is as more people are showing what they’re doing, they’re thinking about, sketching things, writing questions and answers, the better chance a faculty  member has of seeing how well they’re doing with that particular subject they’re teaching.”


Some classes on the University of Delaware campus now even have tiny recording devices hanging from the ceiling that will record entire lessons and send the recordings to students, if faculty members opt into the system.


Others have walls entirely covered with glass where students can scrawl ideas.


Hyde also walked me through lab spaces connected to classrooms with a big window, instead of just doors.


“We talk about making learning visible," Hyde said. "That’s another way of making it visible. You can see, ok there’s going to be a connection between when you come in here as a student you just visually connect – ok this isn’t going to just be a place to sit down and take notes, I’m going to have to make a connection in the lab in a little bit, and faculty members can  look back and forth to see how students are doing across the different spaces.”


Next on the list? Envisioning how a 200-seat lecture hall can be updated with high-tech features.


“It’s very early on," Hyde said. "We’re just starting to ask ourselves those questions.”


Hyde notes that classrooms are updated with new technology about once every seven years, and they’re just over halfway through a seven-year period now.


In the next three years, all classrooms should have these new features. Then he says it’ll then be time to start the process over again.


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