The impact of problem-based learning in interdisciplinary graduate studies: Some thought-provoking appreciations

The potential impact of problem-based learning (PBL) in interdisciplinary graduate studies is indicated by these statements written as part of the student evaluations of a 2009 offering of a PBL course on “Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology” [GRST].  The statements are included here not primarily to boast about the course but rather to stimulate thinking about what might aim to be doing when we teach graduate students.

• About PBL: I do think that for STS [science and technology studies], creativity is very important. PBL entitles students the right to create their own research without too much limitation. Students may become narrow minded, however how to balance lectures with PBL may be a good question to explore. About the class: I love this class. Presentations and discussion let everyone get the equal opportunity to participate in this class. We have diverse students in our classroom, and this is important to build an inclusive classroom. About the teaching: This course teaches students how to learn the learning and how to change what they know into what they are wondering.

• The course provided a space to think about issues both in an academic way and in an applied way. Critical questions about our social worlds were brought up. Opportunities to do work rather than just absorb information. The strengths of the course are that instructors really created a space for us to develop our own line of inquiry. This is a huge challenge – allowing yourself to follow important questions.

• This course was challenging, inspiring, and fulfilling in many ways. The pedagogy, diversity of students and their strengths and interests and their professors’ expertise and day-to-day support was invaluable.

• I would highly recommend GRST to any student, regardless of STS background. The self-steering nature of the course is an ideal setting for the knowledge seeking graduate student. The diversity of topics, professors, and a refreshing course made a great experience!

• I was given the space to pursue my own interests without being nervous about quality. (This allowed us to take risks!) I was introduced to research, scholars, books, materials, and ideas that I was not aware of. And this allowed me to find connections with my own innate interests. I was challenged to do better work all the time, as we were asked to do revise and resubmits. Having individualized, evolving bibliographies was the best part, and the professors worked with each of us on these throughout the week.

• Breaking apart the typical format and rhythm of most graduate learning environments is hard. Knowledge in core disciplines must be gained and “standards” of an academic profession imparted. But where is the joy and love of learning that made us all want to be students for as long as we can be? This class brings the exploration and inquiry back. It feels messy at times and frustrating and stressful, but what gets produced is amazing and deep and diverse and makes you want to know – “What’s next?” Who committed to higher learning wouldn’t want to participate in a course like this?

• During this course I have been challenged in ways that I thought were impossible, but that I had been craving in my home graduate program. People often talk about grad school being a place where you really begin to produce your own knowledge, but I had yet to do that apart from initial work I had begun (outside of classes and under no supervision) on my thesis. This class opened the door for me to be a producer and a thinker of my own knowledge that I had sought out. It has really changed me as a “student”, and I’m so grateful I was given the opportunity to work with [the instructors] to do it.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

One Response to The impact of problem-based learning in interdisciplinary graduate studies: Some thought-provoking appreciations

  1. Pingback: The impact of problem-based learning in interdisciplinary graduate studies: Some thought-provoking appreciations II « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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