Posted by William Nunnelley on 2000-04-28

Samford University has received a $750,000 grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to develop reliable ways to document the scholarship that goes into creating certain college courses and to measure their effectiveness.

The Samford study will look at what goes into designing and teaching courses that use the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) technique. In PBL, teams of students dig out information that helps them find the best solution to given problems, applying the knowledge gained in a course to reach practical outcomes.

As a result of the Pew grant, Samford will become an international clearinghouse for the peer review of PBL courses. Samford will set up a network of teaching scholars and experts to assess the effectiveness of PBL courses. Professors from other universities will be able to send course information (called "portfolios") to Samford, which will forward the portfolios to appropriate peer review teams at other universities for assessment.

One result of the study could be elevation of the design and teaching of college courses to a status usually accorded only research and writing, believes Dr. John W. Harris, Samford Associate Provost for Quality Assessment.

"The term 'scholarship of teaching,' which became popular in the '90s, simply means that the definition of scholarship should be broadened from discovery (research and writing) to include integration, application and teaching," says Dr. Harris.

But this can occur, he adds, only when educators can effectively document the scholarship that goes into designing and teaching a course. "And no commonly accepted genre yet exists for doing so," he says.

While the study to be funded by the Pew grant deals specifically with PBL courses, "it could wind up documenting techniques that ultimately could be applied to courses in any type of teaching," said Harris, who directs Samford's PBL Initiative.

Samford has moved to the forefront of PBL study at the undergraduate level since receiving a $1 million grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts in 1998. Under that grant, Samford was to develop 35 new undergraduate PBL courses and to set up a national clearinghouse of information on undergraduate PBL.

Since the fall of 1998, Samford faculty have developed more than 50 courses using the PBL approach in its arts and sciences, business, education, nursing and pharmacy schools. All have been subjected to peer review by teaching scholars at other institutions and national experts.

Samford already publishes an international newsletter, PBL Insight, which goes to 22,000 educators around the globe. With the new grant, it will share PBL information through a web site, an international registry of PBL course portfolios, other publications and professional meetings.

Samford "pioneered new methods of problem-based teaching," noted Dr. Russell Edgerton, Director of the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning located at the Education Trust, Washington, D.C. "Now, it will attempt to invent ways to document and display these methods for peer review."

As part of the new grant, Samford will offer guidance to faculty members at other institutions in writing course portfolios, which are scholarly documentations of what goes on in a course explaining what, how and why students learn (or do not learn) in a course. Samford then will locate qualified peer reviewers for the portfolios.

The Pew Charitable Trusts-one of the nation's top 10 foundations-support nonprofit activities in culture, education, the environment, health and human services, public policy and religion. Based in Philadelphia, the Trusts make strategic investments to help organizations and citizens develop practical solutions to difficult problems.


Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.