Problem-Based Learning

PBL Course Portfolios


An emphasis of the Center for Problem-Based Learning (now CTLS) was to obtain, evaluate and publish course portfolios that display both the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL), and the best models of problem-based learning (PBL) practice from a variety of disciplines. In conjunction with a four-year grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Samford University and the PBL Center's Problem-Based LearningPeer Review (PBL-PR) project established a cost effective system for the documentation and peer review of PBL course portfolios.

The course portfolio project evolved during the initiation of PBL at Samford. Faculty desired an alternative method of documenting their experiences in using PBL. With assistance by experts in scholarship of teaching, portfolios and PBL, the Samford course portfolio was developed. Now, faculty using PBL can be mentored and recognized for their course and curricular designs, materials, and student assessment.

Course Portfolio Contents

  1. Introductory Information
  2. Course Design
    1. Rationale
    2. Reflective essay on course content
    3. Reflective essay on instructional practice
    4. PBL context and application
  3. Student Understanding
  4. Reflective Summary of the Course

Course Portfolio Definition

The course portfolio is not an omnibus collection of all materials related to a course, but a focused look at one aspect of the course design. In general, one should think of the portfolio as a qualitative study of the course. Be clear of the purpose of the investigation and include any material relevant and supportive of the endeavors. A good course portfolio will adhere to the same guidelines as a good scholarly article: clarity of purpose, original ideas, appropriate use of evidence and significant conclusions. Additional information on the components of a course portfolio may be found in the guide below.

Compared to a "teaching" or "professional" portfolio, a course portfolio examines a particular teaching/learning experience. Although it is assumed most faculty employ a variety of instructional methods in a course, the review board is particularly interested in the PBL activities whether they constitute a complete course or in learning situations not formally designated as "course."

Why write a course portfolio?

Preparing a course portfolio is an intellectually demanding and time consuming activity. Faculty should seriously consider the commitment necessary to complete the writing of the portfolio. On the other hand, a portfolio provides an excellent means of communicating publicly the labor behind good teaching. The course portfolio also allows for possible external review of the scholarship of teaching; similar to a journal article making possible the review of traditional research. Increasing numbers of faculty are using course portfolios during performance reviews for tenure, promotion and merit-based raises. For this project, exemplary PBL portfolios will be registered on the project Web site and acknowledged as a scholarly document that withstood the scrutiny of peer review.

The PBL-PR course portfolio project was one of several national initiatives used to validate the scholarship of teaching. Building upon Ernest Boyer's work, Lee Shulman and Pat Hutchings, respectively the President and Senior Scholar of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CASTL), have delineated the scholarship of teaching as being public, open to assessment and forming a basis for others to foster lifelong learning for students and enhance the practice of teaching (Hutchings & Shulman, 1999). An important component of a document displaying the scholarship of teaching is the reflective piece. Reflection details the faculty's thoughts and experiences as to what worked and what did not work in the course.

How were the course portfolios reviewed?

Each portfolio had a preliminary review to ensure that it met the minimum standards of the project. If these standards were met, the portfolio was sent out for review by a specialist in the discipline and a specialist in teaching/learning strategies. Results of the reviews, which remained confidential, were returned to the faculty member submitting the portfolio. The faculty member then had the opportunity to revise and re-submit the portfolio for electronic publication on the project Web site. Portfolios exemplifying the best models of PBL practice are published on the project's course portfolio peer registry.

Step-by-Step Course Portfolio Development Guide

Part I: Introductory Information

Directions: Participants were to include all the following information. Knowing the context for the course facilitated the course portfolio's review.

  • Institutional name of college or university
  • Total enrollment
  • University private or public?
  • Carnegie Classification
  • Individual school (e.g. arts & sciences, business etc.)
  • Department or division
  • Faculty rank
  • Highest degree earned
  • Number of years teaching at the college level
  • Awards received for excellence in teaching
  • Course name (e.g. Molecular Biology)
  • Course abbreviation & number (e.g. BIOL 3399)
  • Number of semester/quarter (circle one) credit hours
  • Catalog description
  • Number of students typically taught in this course
  • Level of student enrolled in the course (e.g. seniors)
  • Course could be best described at (select one):
    • Required general education course
    • Elective general education course
    • Required course for major
    • Elective course for major
    • Pre-professional course for various majors
    • Other (briefly describe)
  • Problem-Based Learning
    • What percent of this course uses PBL?
    • How long have you been teaching the course using PBL?
    • Is the course designated as PBL in an official capacity (e.g. school catalog)?

Part II: Design of the Course

A. Rationale

The rationale was to be a brief statement of the reasons for using PBL in the course. This corresponded to the "thesis" or "argument" section of a research paper.

B. Reflective Essay on the Content of the Course

This section focused on those aspects of the course content chosen and based upon scholarly research and personal judgment. If the participant had taught the course repeatedly, they could have chosen to describe the evolution of the course.

C. Reflective Essay on Instructional Practice

Good teaching should be guided by an understanding of student learning needs and should utilize appropriate instructional practices. Methods of instruction were discussed including the decision to use PBL, and how they related to the course goals. Similar to content issues, participants may have discussed the evolution of the participant's teaching methods over time.

D. PBL Context and Application

Included the statements as to how specifically PBL was used in the course. Participants were to include the nature of the problem(s) selected, the manner in which problems were facilitated in class, the use of student groups for problem-solving, and the outcome of the PBL

Part III: Student Understanding

A. Evidence of Students Meeting the Learning Objectives

In this section, an example (or examples) of student products created in the course were presented. Some examples to consider were descriptions of a student's performance or a summary of group responses to a particular PBL stimulus, etc). Along with the example(s), participants were to provide a context for the example(s). Was it exceptional work or typical of what all students produced? What directions were given to guide the student performance? What interaction did students have with faculty, tutors or other students during the process?

B. Reflection on the Evidence of Student Learning

How did the examples confirm (or refute) the validity of the approach being used? What standards of judgment were used to evaluate student work? How successful were students in meeting the learning objectives? What were the limitations of this evidence? As a result of this analysis, what was changed (or has been changed) to improve student performance? Was the student outcome information used to modify the course design?

Part IV: Reflective Summary of the Course

The synopsis of the course portfolio briefly reviewed the purpose of the portfolio and the outcomes of the study. This section was written so that it could be read independently of the overall portfolio.

Course Portfolio Registry

The PBL registry included two sets of course portfolios. The first set included those documents developed by Samford undergraduate faculty who participated in the PBL Initiative of 1998 and 1999. Although these portfolios used a different set of guidelines that those with the Problem-Based Learning-Peer Review (PBL-PR) project, the portfolios underwent a peer review process. Portfolios that received a high rating were transferred to this website.

The second set of PBL course portfolios underwent a vigorous PBL and content peer review process. Those portfolios judged to exhibit the best practices of PBL and/or exemplify the scholarship of teaching within a particular discipline were published on this site. A challenge to this project has been various differences in authors' and reviewers' definitions and inherent characteristics of PBL. This issue was recognized and subsequently addressed in the final report.

Samford PBL Course Portfolio Registry

Course Title Discipline
Community Health Nursing Nursing
Human Resource Management Pharmacy
Issues in Education Education
Parenting Human Sciences & Design
Pathophysiology Nursing
Therapeutics Pharmacy

PBL-PR Course Portfolio Registry

Course Title Discipline
Case Studies 1B Physical Therapy
Childbearing Families Nursing
Current Topics in Pediatric Pharmacotherapy Pharmacy
Health Education Concepts Kinesiology
The Inclusion Classroom Problem Education
Information Technology in Primary Schools Education
Introduction to Environmental Chemistry Chemistry
Introduction to Nursing Nursing
Introduction to Pharmacy Pharmacy
Introduction to Philosophy Philosophy
Leadership Skills Business
Mental Health Nursing Nursing
Middle School Organization Education
Nursing Administration Nursing
Nursing in Context Nursing
Pharmacology Pharmacy
Pharmacy Dispensing Pharmacy
Politics and Government Political Science
Problem-Based Learning Workshop Education
Scientific Methods for Computer-Based Instrumentation Physics
The Scientific Basis of Nursing Nursing

Final Report on PBL-Peer Review Course Portfolios

References and Resources

  • Boyer, E. I. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, N.J.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
  • Cerbin, W. (1994). The course portfolio as a tool for continuous improvement of teaching and learning. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 5, 95-105.
  • Hutchings, P., & Shulman, L. S. (1999). The scholarship of teaching. Change, 31(5), 11-15).

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