LARNet; The Cyber Journal of Applied Leisure and Recreation Research 
Building Problem-Based Learning into the Recreation Curriculum:
 A Case Study Examination of the Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a
 Three Stage Simulation Unit
(October 2001)
Deborah A. Smith and Barbara Masberg

 Deborah A. Smith, Ph.D.
 Assistant Professor
 Southern Illinois University
 Department of Health Education and Recreation
 Mailcode 4632
 Carbondale, Illinois 62901-4632
 Phone: (618) 453-4331

 Barbara Masberg, PhD.
 Associate Professor
 Central Washington University
 Recreation and Tourism Program
 400 East 8th Avenue
 Ellensburg, Washington 98926-7572
 Phone: (509) 963-1969

Problem-based learning refers to a variety of educational methods that use problems as a context for student learning. This paper describes the efforts of the authors to create and develop a problem-based simulation unit of instruction for a recreation course. The context for creating a problem-based unit is described. The four phases of the design process used to organize the simulation development are outlined and explained. Evaluation findings related to cognitive and affective outcomes associated with the simulation are discussed as are issues related to simulation design mechanisms and the facilitation of the simulation process. The paper concludes with implications  for creating problem-based learning in the recreation curriculum.

Keywords: problem-based learning, simulation


Problem-based learning (PBL) refers to a variety of educational methods that have at their core the use of problems as a context for student learning (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Barrows, 1998, 1986; Barrows & Tambling, 1980; Berkson, 1993; Camp, 1999; Dolmans, Gijselaers, Schmidt, & VanDerMeer, 1993; Jervis & Morris, 1996; Smith, Powell, & Wood , 1995; Vernon & Blake, 1993). PBL dates back to the mid 1960's where it had its beginnings in the medical education curriculum at McMaster University in Canada (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Camp, 1999; Smith, Powell, & Wood, 1995). Problem-based learning was developed as a response to questions being raised at that time in the medical community about the efficacy of traditional lecture based teaching formats for training physicians (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Camp, 1999). PBL continued to grow as a teaching methodology throughout the 1970's and 1980's (Camp, 1999). Most medical schools in the United States today have implemented PBL into their curricula in varying degrees, and many other disciplines as well as individual teachers at both K-12 and college levels are adapting courses to a PBL format (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Camp, 1999).

There are a wide variety of educational methods and objectives associated with problem-based learning making the term hard to conceptualize and meaningful evaluation of the method difficult (Barrows, 1998; Barrows, 1986; Vernon & Blake 1993);  however, at its most fundamental PBL has the following characteristics: it  is student-centered with students taking responsibility for the learning that they do; the curriculum is problem-based with problems being authentic or simulation formats and those that students can expect to face in their professional dealings; the application and development of problem-solving skills and process is an important component of the student learning; students engage in self-directed learning because the format allows for free inquiry; student collaboration and the acquisition of team skills is emphasized; the integration of information across disciplines is expected; and finally, reiteration and re-application of  problem decisions as well as reflection about and self-assessment of what was learned while solving the problem are built into the class format (Barrows, 1998).

There is much debate about whether or not there is improved student learning with PBL versus more conventional teaching methods ( Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Smith, Powell, & Wood, 1995). Studies of PBL curricula are still very limited and weaknesses associated with determining and measuring outcome criteria as well as general study design make it difficult to draw definite conclusions (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993). However, problem-based learning is perceived to be very effective by many of the faculty and students who have been involved in its use (Camp, 1999). Proponents stress that PBL improves thinking, learning, and reasoning skills because of the application and integration of knowledge required by a PBL format (Case, 1999; Smith, Powell, & Wood, 1995). Proponents point out that PBL reinforces tenets of adult learning  theory which emphasize that student control of the learning process, the opportunity to build on previous knowledge and experiences,  and immediate application of materials introduced in class, all greatly facilitate student learning (Camp, 1999). Students enjoy the active involvement in learning stressed by the PBL format and as a consequence, tend to be more motivated to learn (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Jervis & Morris, 1996). Additionally, problem-based learning provides the benefit of a cooperative team learning experience. Evidence indicates that cooperative learning environments tend to foster higher achievement than that of competitive and individualistic learning experiences (Verduin, 1996). Cooperative team learning also promotes interaction and communication skills (Tholkes & Phipps, 1998).

The purpose of this article is to describe the efforts of the authors to build a problem-based unit of instruction into a recreation course. This article will explain the context for creating a problem-based unit, describe the development and implementation process, discuss evaluation efforts and findings, and offer final observations for those considering similar efforts.

Context for Creating a Problem-based Unit of Instruction

Many of the emerging trends and issues in the recreation/leisure literature related to the function and focus of recreation education and the building of specific student skills and aware nesses, parallel concerns found in applied curriculum discussions at large. These topics include the following: (1) debate on the need to facilitate a macro perspective of the field concerned with political processes, economic forces, and community development (Goodale, 1995; Henderson, 1995); (2) the awareness of developmental instruction and different learning styles in the classroom (Rothschadl & Russell, 1992; Russell & Rothschadl, 1991; Moore, Riggins, & Sylvester, 1986); (3) the use of collaborative learning (Norman & McGuire, 1992) and cooperative learning (Williams, 1995) as alternatives to traditional instructional techniques; (4) the necessity to reshape curriculums focused on “narrow vocationalism” (O’Neil, 1989) into ones focused on the development of entrepreneurial skills in students such as decision-making, problem solving, risk-taking, and adaptation to change (Edginton, Carpenter, & Chenery, 1987; Sheffield & Reichle, 1986); and (5) the importance of nurturing various critical thinking skills in students (Decker, 1986; Murphy & Weissinger, 1992; Silverman, 1995).

The project described in this article emerged as a response to these issues and their manifestation in R340 Leisure in Modern Society. The course is a required course for all recreation majors. It is intended to be a transition between the required course R160: Leisure and Recreation, which introduces students to the roles and meanings of recreation and leisure primarily from an individual perspective, and four hundred level capstone courses which specifically focus on developing the technical skills required in subspecialty areas such as management or tourism. The purpose of R340 is to facilitate a holistic understanding of the significance of leisure and embed leisure in the context of larger social, economic, political and cultural relationships. It had been the opinion of many of the instructors responsible for teaching a section of R340 that new methods of instruction were necessary to help students bring together in a meaningful way, the theoretical constructs and process elements of the macro-level focus of R340, with the individual and practical approaches to recreation and leisure that many students were bringing into the classroom. Because most recreation students in R340 had as yet little experience in recreation settings and limited exposure to the complex dynamics of social process, they had difficulty understanding why it was important for them to be concerned about how and why leisure is embedded in our social and cultural institutions. An instructional bridge was needed to not only help students experience the connections between themselves as leisure practitioners and larger segments of society, but also to help them begin to be able to critically analyze and assess these connections.

The authors of this article utilize Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy as a general framework for organizing learning experience objectives. In this hierarchical taxonomy of cognitive skills, six levels of thinking from simple to complex (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) are identified as the basis for developing curricula and designing classroom activity. In a one hundred level course, these authors typically develop course structure with the assumption that most students just out of high school are operating at the knowledge and comprehension level. In a 300 level course; however, students are usually at a junior level and it is felt that a course curriculum shaped to give students experience dealing with at least application and analysis levels of learning is appropriate. Course objectives developed around application and analysis levels of learning are also very compatible with a course content focused on the examination of macro level processes and contexts.

Problem-based learning was deemed to be an appropriate response for addressing the above stated issues and learning objectives. The authors decided to create and develop a simulation format unit for R340.  Simulations are problem-based units of learning that are very suited to course objectives directed at higher levels of learning (Verduin, 1996). They are also considered to be effective not only in transitioning students into higher levels of learning, but also in using investigative processing and problem solving for new learning (Verduin, 1996).

Simulation consists of placing an individual in a “comparatively complex social model of an actual or hypothetical social process” (Stadsklev, 1974, p.9) where the individual is confronted by a problematic situation that requires a sequence of inquiries, decisions, and actions. “Each of these activities triggers appropriate feedback, which may or may not modify the situation but which can, in any case, be utilized for subsequent decisions about pending action that, in turn, may change the nature of the problem” (McGuire, Solomon, & Bashook, 1976, p.1). In most simulations, therefore, the learning experience is a dynamic one in which a series of problems are presented and must be resolved (Thatcher, 1990). Frequently . . .

these situations have some evaluation and reflection built into them, which may be different for each player but which form an important part of the dynamic of the exercise. The aftermath of each decision point is a new situation with a new problem to be resolved or decisions to be taken. Thus in many of these exercises, the total experience is a series of micro-experiences followed by speedy evaluation and reflection and the application of the reflective in a new situation as the game or simulation develops (Thatcher, 1990, p. 268).

The Simulation Design Process

The simulation was researched and developed the fall of 1996 and pilot tested the spring of 1997 in four sections of R340 totaling one hundred sixty-four (164) students. The simulation design process outlined by Duke (1975) was used to frame and organize the simulation development. According to Duke (1975) there are four distinct phases to simulation design: the initiation phase, the design stage, the construction phase, and use of the simulation. An explanation of each of these design phases follows.

In the initiation phase the simulation designer conducts a needs assessment and determines who the audience will be, the intended use of the product, the subject of the exercise, and what purpose is to be served (Duke, 1975). The audience for this simulation was students with the intended use being that of a problem-based unit of instruction for the R340 curriculum. The subject of the exercise was the interaction and impact of social, political, cultural, and economic relationships on a leisure related issue . The purpose of the simulation was fourfold: (1) to use a problem-based teaching format as a stimulus for students to develop more appreciation of the relationships between leisure and social, economic, political, and cultural processes; (2) to motivate student interest in learning course materials through collaborative effort and active student involvement in and ownership of the learning process; (3) to focus class effort on application and analysis levels of learning; and finally (4) to create an iterative learning process where students start with existing knowledge and experience, apply materials learned in class, have the opportunity to reflect on problem decisions, and then reapply hopefully expanded knowledge and experience to situations that are the consequence of their prior decisions.

In the design stage of simulation development a concept map and general statement of the ideas to be conveyed in the simulation must be articulated, a review of existing gaming techniques is conducted to help determine the form and structure of the simulation being designed, and components of the simulation such as the scenario and procedures are outlined (Duke, 1975).

Tourism policy in a third world setting was identified as the subject area of the simulation because it is a fertile setting for investigating the impact and interaction of social, cultural, political, and economic relationships on a leisure related issue. A fictitious Caribbean Island country called Pajaro Oro was created as the backdrop from which roles and issues emerged. A development called “The Underwater Shipwreck Exploratorium” was the catalyst for the problem-solving introduced into the simulation. A three stage hierarchical simulation design evolved out of three clusters of objectives identified for the simulation exercise. These three stages were designed to take students from a known situation to an unknown dynamic. Figure 1 visually depicts the goals and processes involved in the simulation.

Figure 1 Goals and processes of simulation
Goals and processes of simulation
 The first cluster of objectives in stage one were centered around orientation to role, rules, and intricacies of the issue; development of a working relationship with fellow group members; examination of values and vested interests of various social, cultural, political, and economic interest groups; the development of associations with interests groups who stand to win or lose as a consequence of decisions made in the simulation; and a first round opportunity to analyze and strategize how best to shape outcomes in the game. This stage was intended to be the most linear, concrete part of the simulation with students starting from what they know and engaging in processes familiar to them such as creating an institution of like minded individuals.
Stage two and three were designed to add several dimensions to the simulation - those of interpersonal dynamics and dealing with consequential problems The second and third clusters of objectives were focused on the multi-dimensionality that results from the interaction of social and cultural institutions.

The second stage concentrated on exposing students to the interpersonal dynamics involved in a complex decision process centered around multiple interest groups, competing values, and the unfair conduct of persons with economic and political advantage. A wide range of opinions and tensions existed among created roles regarding the function of local versus central government, the relationship between the private and public sectors, the importance of economic versus cultural interests, and the distribution of power between class factions. Participants were required to form coalitions with other groups, identify potential adversaries, and deal with the dynamics of power. The goal of this stage was to imitate the real world with its issues of power and economics.

The third stage focused on the processes of development and their consequences, with variables and scenarios derived from relevant case studies and development models outlined by McIntyre (1993), Butler (1990), and Ziffer (1989). Particular attention was paid to key variables involved in economic development decisions and issues related to sustain ability.
Each stage of the simulation was comprised of three components: general knowledge acquisition through the reading of relevant articles, gaming, and debriefing. Debriefing was accomplished through group discussion at the end of every stage, and a number of written individual and group exercises that were incorporated into the process to facilitate student reflection, strategizing, and assessment. Grading was based on satisfactory completion of individual and group exercises.

In the construction stage of the simulation the game is created, appropriate details are identified, and the simulation is prepared for operation (Duke, 1975). The Pajaro Oro simulation was designed to be played for a period of six to nine sessions with each session lasting approximately sixty to seventy-five minutes. The simulation was developed for a class size of approximately forty students although the simulation was functional with as few as twenty one students and as many as fifty students. Eight groups such as government, economic and political elites, and villagers were created with descriptions of each. Individual roles within each group such as minister of labor in government, president of the largest sugar cane plantation in economic and political elites, and village elder in villages were also created with descriptions of each. A facilitator manual was written which contained detailed instructions on roles, decision rules, interaction sequences, materials needed, a time schedule for the simulation, and guidelines for preparing and conducting each stage. A participant manual was also written which contained a detailed description of the simulation and each of its stages, readings to help inform students at each stage, and exercises to be completed as part of the simulation debriefing process. A slide presentation was developed for each facilitator to use as an introduction to the simulation and as a way of initially making the simulation setting more real to the students.

This final stage of the design process involves being sure a precise set of operating procedures and specifications exists for the implementation of the simulation as well as procedures for evaluation (Duke, 1975). Each class of R340 was taught by two doctoral students who were teaching R340 as part of an advanced pedagogy seminar. These doctoral students served as simulation facilitators. Training sessions were conducted for the facilitators the week prior to the start of the simulation and each week that the simulation was conducted. Training sessions were focused on orienting facilitators to simulation content and purposes,  the mechanics of organizing and operating the simulation, various implementation dimensions such as role assignment and introducing students to the simulation, and debriefing suggestions.
The simulation was evaluated by a number of methods. First, students were given one minute evaluations to complete at the end of each class period in which they listed the three most meaningful things they learned that day, the two things that were the most confusing part of that day’s class, and one suggestion for improving the day’s simulation. Second, students completed an evaluation at the end of each stage in which they were asked to comment about their role, the functioning of their group, and dynamics of the class during that stage of the simulation. Third, students were also asked to complete a final evaluation at the end of the simulation in which they discussed what they liked best about the simulation and its strong points, what they liked least about the simulation and its weak points, facilitation problems, and suggestions for improving the simulation and its facilitation. Students were additionally asked to complete a twenty-eight item five point likert scale questionnaire probing outcomes related to content, problem solving, communication, mechanics of the simulation, and group dynamics. Fourth, facilitators completed an evaluation at the end of each stage as well as a final evaluation at the completion of the simulation in which they discussed adequacy of manuals and resources, what was perceived to be major cognitive and affective outcomes of the unit, classroom management and facilitation issues, student motivation, and the flow of the simulation. Finally, each of the four R340 classes that participated in the simulation was video-taped once. 

 Evaluation Findings

Most of the qualitative data and descriptive statistics obtained about the simulation were concerned with one of two dimensions: (1) cognitive and affective outcomes associated with the simulation and (2) mechanics of design and issues related to facilitation of the simulation process.. This section will highlight major findings.

Cognitive and Affective Outcomes Associated with the Simulation
Many of the comments about the learning that occurred during the simulation corroborate perceptions of problem-based learning. Students were most positive about the interactive components of the simulation process. They felt that the simulation promoted student involvement, participation, and discussion; and increased their enthusiasm for being involved. Many of the students also felt that the simulation promoted better understanding of concepts such as power and collaboration, helped them to become better able to assess situations from multiple perspectives, and helped them to better understand the implications of alternatives available in a particular situation.. Students were undecided about whether or not participation in the simulation helped to make the material covered in the prior R340 units more meaningful. They felt that there was a need to integrate the simulation with other materials, topics, and activities in the course. Students were also uncomfortable with what they perceived to be a lack of structure and purpose once they left the first stage of the simulation: they felt confused about what the simulation was trying to accomplish. Such comments suggest that need to rewrite the second and third stages so that objectives are clearer. They also suggest the possibility that students are not comfortable with application and analysis levels of learning and need more development of these levels of cognitive skills.

Mechanics of Design and Facilitation Issues
A number of issues were identified related to the design and implementation of the simulation process.
The problem of roles. One of the major dissatisfactions of students was their simulation role. Many of them either did not like their role or had trouble identifying with the decisions that their role forced them to take in the simulation process. The following quote is very representative:

I found it extremely hard to get into my role especially because it was not my voice. I think this makes it hard because my personal opinions were conflicting with my role and it was hard to make decisions
Facilitators in each class had a different method for assigning roles, some methods were more democratic than others; however, it is almost impossible to assure all students the role that they want. The inability of students to get into role can compromise the effectiveness of the simulation exercise.

Grading and paperwork. The other major complaint of students was the amount of paperwork and writing that they had to do to complete the requirements of the simulation. The authors did not want to tie grades to performance during the simulation and so, they used writing exercises to satisfy both debriefing and grading purposes. The unintended consequence was that the amount of writing both inhibited the creative and spontaneous nature of the gaming process, and created a tremendous amount of grading requirements for simulation facilitators who had to also put  a lot of time into staging the simulation events. Writing was an intentional device that was supposed to facilitate reflection and reiteration of problem decisions. Student dissatisfaction with the degree of writing makes it difficult to know what kind of learning was promoted by the exercises.

Time frame of the simulation. Planning each simulation session for a certain length of time is a tricky process. Two of the classes that used the simulation meet three times a week for fifty minutes a period. The other two classes meet twice a week for seventy five minutes. The simulation was written for a seventy-five minute period with the assumption that it could be adapted to a three times a week format. Facilitators found that adaptation difficult to do. Additionally, it didn’t matter what the time length of the class was, all class periods artificially constrained the dynamics of the simulation and facilitators often found themselves unable to debrief classes sufficiently at the end of a period. Several facilitators attempted to start the next class with a debriefing of the previous session. These efforts were deemed inadequate because the momentum from the previous session was gone and student interest was no longer heightened.

Length of simulation. Many students commented that three weeks of the same simulation was too long. Student feedback indicated that they enjoyed the first few sessions but then began to get bored. The literature is divided on how to handle lengthy simulations. Some suggest periodic breaks from the gaming are good (Feldt & Goodman, 1975). Others suggest that involvement in hard to regain when activity is interrupted (Gamson, 1975). Within the context of Pajaro Oro, each stage of the simulation was interrupted by a section of readings intended to provide students with information for making informed decisions in the next stage of the simulation. Although many of the students enjoyed the readings and the knowledge they obtained from the readings, they had trouble going in and out of roles and simulation momentum was lost at the end of each stage.

Adapting group sizes. The simulation was designed to be adaptable to class size. The four R340 classes that engaged in the simulation had student enrollments that ranged from twenty four to fifty. On paper this variation of group size was accounted for with different combinations of groups and roles that could be selected by facilitators depending upon class size. What was not anticipated was absenteeism and the negative effect of key roles not being in place during gaming periods. In the future, the authors are considering assigning two people to every role. This way, the likelihood of key players being missing is greatly reduced, and students will be able to benefit from collaboratively creating role responses to situations.

Role of facilitator. The role of the facilitator is critical for insuring that the simulation runs smoothly. Both students and facilitators felt that facilitators were not adequately prepared to manage the simulation process. Even though facilitators were trained weekly, they were not the creators of the simulation and did not know it as well as the authors did.. Also, the quantity of work required prior to each class made it difficult for facilitators to do their best job. One facilitator commented:

I am spending so much time on this simulation and I am still unprepared. I feel one step ahead of the hounds. It takes me so much time to read materials and grade exercises that I am barely prepared for class. I go in there and have to wing it.

Implications for Problem-based Learning in the Recreation Curriculum

There are several major lessons learned from this attempt to integrate problem-based learning into the recreation curriculum. First of all, a tremendous amount of time and effort is required to not only convert a curriculum from a traditional format to a problem-based format, but also to manage a problem-based process. Additionally, one must expect that the problem-based unit will not come out perfect the first time and continual modification will be necessary. Secondly, it is difficult to change a whole learning culture immediately. Students are comfortable with the structure and delineation associated with lower levels of cognitive skills. Efforts to place more responsibility for higher levels of learning on students must be a gradual process and reinforced with small successes. Finally, caution must be taken to not view problem-based learning as complete and independent teaching method. Although students and facilitators were very positive about some aspects of learning that took place during the simulation, they did not feel it could stand alone. As with other teaching methods, problem-based learning is probably most effective when used in conjunction with other instructional efforts.


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