In the April 2015 issue of Access Academics and Research, evidence-based practice was compared with evidence-based education to draw parallels between the work of clinicians and the work of academics in communication sciences and disorders (CSD). Practicing speech-language pathologists and audiologists and those who teach future clinicians all have a specialized literature to draw from in order to adopt a scholarly approach to their work. For those working in higher education, the evidence base for educational practice is drawn from the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). Based on the understanding that academics should not pursue pedagogical change just for the sake of change, SoTL provides evidence that allows classroom instructors to make impactful effective changes to the learning environment. As an example of how SoTL can be used to apply evidence to practices in the classroom, this article focuses on the use of one specific pedagogical practice: problem-based learning (PBL).

What is PBL?

PBL is a student-centered approach to teaching and learning. This teaching method involves active learning that moves the student from the role of passive listener in a lecture-based classroom to the role of active participant, initiator, and responder. Students don’t just sit and listen to facts via lecture; they are expected to take ownership of their learning with scaffolding from faculty. During PBL activities, students work in small, self-directed groups to solve open-ended, practical, and real-life problems (using case studies, real client/patient cases, field experiences, simulations, and other methodologies). Rather than serve as a lecturer/dispenser of information, the professor/instructor functions as a facilitator of learning-mentoring and encouraging active, creative, and critical thinking (Ginsberg, Friberg, & Visconti, 2012). As students collaborate to solve PBL assignments, they explore available research, integrate information, apply theory to practice, and hone their teamwork skills. The PBL approach facilitates not only learning the knowledge and skills specific to the task (domain knowledge), but also learning to analyze and synthesize information (thinking strategies) and to engage in self-assessment of learning (reflection).

Examining the SoTL Evidence for PBL

Is PBL more effective than traditional didactic learning? In the field of speech-language pathology or audiology, there is limited SoTL evidence with which to answer this question, and available evidence from other disciplines is mixed. In general, the evidence suggests that students perceive PBL to be an effective learning approach (Mok, Whitehill, & Dodd, 2008), and they find it a motivating way to learn (e.g., Visconti, 2013). Other findings indicate that PBL promotes the development of leadership and teamwork skills (Kong, Qin, Zhou, Mou, & Gao, 2014), encourages self-directed learning, and stimulates enhanced interest in the subject matter of focus (Norman & Schmidt, 2000).

Although students enjoy PBL, we must ask whether PBL leads to improvements in actual student learning. Available evidence suggests that PBL leads to increased retention of knowledge over time (Norman & Schmidt, 2000); improved student performance on departmental final exams (Nargundkar, Samaddar, & Mukhopadhyay, 2014); improved performance on tests of deeper understanding and patient treatment skills (O’Brien, 2015); and more meaningful integration of theory and practice (Mok et al., 2008). Students also demonstrate higher performance on tasks requiring comprehension, application, analysis, and synthesis skills. As for overall critical thinking, evidence is sparse and inconclusive at this time (O’Brien, 2015). Intuitively, it seems that PBL acts as a positive influence on critical thinking, because it promotes the processes and applications of learning instead of the development of a factual knowledge base that can become outdated.

PBL in the CSD classroom

PBL can be used to address a variety of clinical and/or theoretical topics in speech-language pathology or audiology. Here are just a few ways that PBL could be used in a CSD classroom.

  • In an introductory course: Students create promotional materials for families in the speech and hearing clinic on the most commonly occurring communication disorders.
  • In a language disorders course: Students create a presentation that responds to a statement frequently made by either school administrators or doctors: “All language disorders are the same.”
  • In a voice disorders course: Students create a training CD for a company that provides examples of various voice disorders, with descriptions of the vocal characteristics and a diagnosis for each sample.
  • In a speech and language development course: Students collect and analyze a preschool language sample and then compare their results to samples collected by other groups in the class as well as normative data.
  • In a research methods course: Students design a feasible evidence-based research proposal based on a clinical case provided by the instructor.

In sum, PBL can be utilized in a variety of ways across all courses and all levels of students. Continued research is needed in CSD and across all disciplines to examine the effectiveness of PBL and other pedagogical approaches to build the evidence base for SoTL.

About the Authors

Colleen F. Visconti, PhD, CCC-SLP, is professor and chair of Baldwin Wallace University.

Jennifer C. Friberg, EdD, CCC-SLP, is at Illinios State University.


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Nargundkar, S., Samaddar, S., & Mukhopadhyay, S. (2014). A guided problem-based learning (PBL) approach: Impact on critical thinking. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 12(2), 91–108.

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Visconti, C. F. (2013). Evidence for using problem-based learning: Students perceptions and learning. Poster presented at the annual convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Chicago, IL.


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