According to a number of contemporary theories of learning bundled under the umbrella term “constructivism,” learners don’t acquire knowledge through a process of transmission or osmosis assumed by traditional teaching practices such as the lecture. Instead they construct new ideas and concepts through an active process of engagement. Further, knowledge is highly context dependent, acquired through experience and involvement in real-world situations (1).
In many schools serving professions such as law, business, engineering, and medicine, teaching practices such as the case study method and problem-based learning are becoming increasingly common, replacing traditional teaching methods. Over time experts in these fields have found that novices often struggle to translate knowledge acquired through lectures and memorization into the useable forms required by practice. And research in medicine, for example, has found that experienced doctors store their clinical knowledge in the form of specific cases with accompanying scripts about the relevant illness (2). The same is true in education and other professions where expertise involves in-depth knowledge, a significant repertoire of experiences under a variety of conditions, and sets of strategies available as responses to this variety of situations (3, 4). More and more undergraduate instructors, regardless of discipline, are catching on and using similar methods with their students (5). Students in turn are reporting that they enjoy these experiences and learn from them (6). Finally, as more and more institutions aspire to higher-level learning outcomes such as critical thinking and problem-solving, engaging students in hands-on projects becomes increasingly important. Well-designed activities and assignments not only require students to acquire foundational knowledge, they also ask students to think like professionals, asking questions such as: “What does the particular context require?”; “Who is my audience?”; “What can I assume about it?”; “What form of presentation is most appropriate for this situation?”; and “What is the best solution to this problem, and why?” (7).
Most students like learning this way and learn more as a result; it’s also more challenging for instructors, often rekindling an excitement in teaching. Motivational research (8, 9) has repeatedly demonstrated that establishing the relevance of class and outside work increases interest, persistence, and the deliberate expenditure of effort to achieve goals. Other investigation of assigned work supports this research, showing that if students value assigned work and understand its relevance to classroom instruction and its application to real-life situations, they not only invest time and effort in that work, they also recognize that their teachers are providing useful experiences. Improved student ratings are the result (10).