Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter   2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  4

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Problem-based Learning in the Study of Literature 

Tamara Yohannes, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 

Yohannes, Ph.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at the University of Louisville 


Problem-based learning can be effective in teaching entry-level students to interpret literature by presenting those students with an authentic and in-depth case study of one author so that they can explore that author from all the angles traditionally used in interpreting literature.  The following article details the results of a two-semester trial using a problem-based case study focused on Thomas Hardy in four sections of a gateway course to the English major at a medium-sized urban university. 


I have been intrigued by the challenges of problem-based learning for years and have struggled over how to provide an authentic case as a strategy for teaching literary interpretation where there are no obvious concrete problems or policy issues at stake.  Because I frequently teach Writing about Literature, the gateway course to the English major at a medium-sized urban university, I determined to try providing an authentic case-study to the students in four sections of twenty students each over a two-semester period. 

Specifically, I was inspired by recent literature in college pedagogy which has emphasized the need for college teaching to learn something from professional education which is now reversing the long-held strategy of first immersing students in theory and then giving them clinical experience where they are expected to draw from their previous learning.  For example, medical educators are now finding success in immersing their students in the clinical situation first and requiring the students to make connections, ask their own questions, initiate their own research in responding to the real-life situations they encounter in their early clinical training.  Afterwards the students undergo intensive theoretical and analytical study during which they can draw from their earlier clinical experiences.  Lee Shulman advocates broadly that applying the new strategy to undergraduate majors will energize undergraduate education.  Dee Fink suggests that students in subject areas such as geography or business with relevance to policy-making or civic planning be introduced to decision-making opportunities early in their undergraduate careers with the expectation that students will then use these early professional experiences as benchmarks for further study in their fields (112-114).   

From the mid-1990s, problem-based learning seemed a natural match for the more scientific and policy-oriented fields (Duch).  However, some work has recently been published providing insights into how problem-based learning can be applied to the field of literary studies, and that work is insightful and helpful.  For example, Jeffrey Sommers details his findings as he carefully followed the workings of his permanent learning groups over an entire semester as they were challenged with the problem of developing their own reading lists for answering the open-ended final exam essay question.  Bill Hutchings and Karen O’Rourke explain how their strategy of gradually moving from small, relatively straightforward tasks to more open problems helped students in problem-based learning groups use their existing knowledge to form a base from which to develop new knowledge in their study of Eighteenth-Century British Literature.   These ideas are inspiring and show that problem-based strategies can be adapted to the needs of the literature and/or humanities classroom.

In applying problem-based learning strategies to the entry-to-the-major Writing about Literature course, my goal was to provide my students with as professional an experience of problem-solving as I could.  I hoped that they would learn the process and vocabulary of literary interpretation and improve their skills in writing personalized, creative, and relevant readings of literary texts.  I wanted to replicate for them the experience we as professional literary critics enjoy in which the more we study an area, the more we love it, the more confident we become about connecting that area to others within and outside the field, the more effectively we write and teach in that area of expertise. 

I chose to focus the course around the works of a single author, requiring students to read the wide range of genres and styles practiced by that author over the course of a career.  My purpose was to give them the time and space they would need to gain the expertise in the conventions of literary criticism as practiced by that author and to understand how that author dealt with form, issues and themes in the diversity of texts we read.  My goal was that they engage that author deeply and significantly with the expectation that as a result they would gain in confidence so that their writing would improve dramatically. 

Strategically, my approach differed from the standard problem-based learning assumptions about the use of classtime by permanent small groups working together to develop answers to the open-ended questions or case put before them (Duch, White).  Because the course sections in Writing about Literature were really quite small (capped at 20 students), I did not break the students into permanent small groups, but rather tried to make the entire class a research community.  Every student was responsible for his or her own papers, but the entire class worked on texts-in-common, and the students wrote only on those texts we had studied as a class. During class, we would sometimes break into small groups to collaborate in deciding how the author seemed to be using a particular literary element, sometimes we used synchronous on-line chats to brainstorm on possibilities, sometimes whole-class discussions.  In that way, I hoped that students would learn the research and writing process involved in literary criticism to the extent that they would be empowered in their own analysis and writing.    

How the problem-based approach changed the course

Writing about Literature is traditionally taught from an anthology of literary works designed specifically for this type of course in which works are chosen to highlight various literary elements considered essential to the analysis of literature.  In such an anthology there might be a poem by the nineteenth-century British poet William Blake chosen to elucidate meter followed in the next section by a poem by the contemporary American poet Cathy Song chosen to illuminate symbolism.  Each work studied is introduced with detailed explanation of the literary element demonstrated and is usually accompanied by a short introduction to the author.  With such a method, every class period, students read and analyze works by wildly disparate authors, all chosen because the works are fine examples of the genres and techniques studied. Even though these anthologies often have sections variously marked “Case Studies” or “Authors in Depth,” even these sections are mere slices of representative texts and critical articles on selected authors.  The entire enterprise of these anthologies, and of the entry-level courses based on them, is to choose the “best works” for the activities of literary analysis and to lay those works before the students.  Inadvertently, students get the idea that all authors and poets always write beautiful works of literature and that the various elements of literature are fairly easy to spot and critique.   

We as literary critics, however, know that such is not the case.  Even the most highly esteemed authors write poorly constructed and/or uninteresting works and most of the time in order to analyze a piece, the critic must take time and creative thought to determine what is actually going on in a work.  Once we acquire a deep understanding of a genre or an author or a literary movement, however, we are able to analyze even the most opaque pieces to find exciting meanings and connections in them. 

For the problem-based learning case-study, I chose Thomas Hardy because he published in all four genres we are expected to expose our students to in this course:  short stories, poetry, novels, and plays.  Because Hardy sets almost all of his prose fiction in the fictional world of Wessex, I thought his works might have an interconnectedness that could capture the imaginations of the students.  But to be honest, I also selected Thomas Hardy because my own area of expertise is Nineteenth Century Literature in English.  However, I could have chosen any number of authors or literary movements and in the future plan to use Edgar Allan Poe, Langston Hughes, and Willa Cather as the focus authors; really the options are limitless.  

We began by reading a representative selection of Hardy’s short stories, exploring implications of setting, theme, character development, diction, and other literary elements in those stories.  Impressions were nearly unanimous; the students hated those short stories and thought that Hardy (and perhaps by implication Nineteenth Century literature) was and is a waste of time.  They really had to work at figuring out what those texts meant for them.  There was no “headnote” at the beginning of each section explaining Hardy’s methods or guiding the students in connecting the literary elements to specific examples in his works.  In true problem-based learning fashion, I was there to prod and question the students, to guide them in using a handbook assigned to explain the concepts, but not to feed them answers.  Their task was to work through the case themselves, and the first set of papers was not very good. 

But then we moved on to reading Hardy’s poetry.  Students began to see themes repeated, they began to be able to articulate what they hated (and a few began to like) about Hardy’s works, and class discussions became animated as students began to help each other with the problems they were having with the texts.  By the time we studied his drama and one of his novels, students began to appreciate Hardy as an author and to become confident in making assertions about the works we were reading.  During peer review workshops, when students read each others’ papers and gave suggestions for revision, their group discussions went well beyond the usual questions of organization and tone and citations into instead detailing the merits and implications of the arguments student authors were making in their papers.   

The results

Of course, one of the advantages of the anthology-based approach to this course is that students read texts from many authors from diverse backgrounds and get exposed to the variety and richness of literature.  An assumption I initially had when I began teaching this course a few years ago was that it would be preferable to engage students who themselves have diverse backgrounds by reading the works of authors from diverse backgrounds, and the anthologies provide that opportunity.  So, in developing this case study approach, I worried that I would lose students right from the beginning when I chose a dead white man for our study.  In the end, it worked out that nearly every student had difficulty with Hardy at first and almost no student was immediately interested in studying a British author from a hundred years ago.  But in four classes, I lost only one student who immediately chose to drop the class for whatever reason.  Over the course of the terms, fewer students than usual actually dropped the class.  My conclusion is that by providing a very deep, though admittedly narrow foundation, students, no matter what their ethnic background, learned to engage the subject and because the material was a true, authentic challenge, they bought in to the project in ways that they usually do not in the traditional method of providing a shallow but very broad foundation.  

In previous classes for which students read the various and diverse works from the anthology, student writing had a flat quality.  Students would gain some mastery in using the vocabulary and in working with the various literary elements we studied, but from the first to the last papers, there was seldom any truly significant change in the quality of papers they wrote.  In contrast, with the problem-based strategy of the single-author case study, the students’ papers improved dramatically and most went back to their early papers for the course and totally revised them as they came to better understand Hardy and how literary criticism itself works.  One student even had one of his class papers accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.   

In addition, student engagement in the course became palpable.  Several students read biographies of Hardy, even though I never assigned one; others researched historical and mythological phenomena operating in the poetry and the novel. Class discussions became dynamic and would flow outside the classroom after class was over. 

In the final evaluations for the course, every student expressed satisfaction with the course and nearly half of the students wrote comments indicating the depth of the experience they had had with their encounter with literature through the lens of Thomas Hardy’s works.  They wrote things like, “This course wasn’t just about literature, it taught us about life,” and “I hated Hardy at the beginning, but now I would read his works for pleasure.”  Most importantly, I think, the students had an authentic experience of what literary analysis truly involves.  They were challenged and rose to that challenge, and they can now take the skills they learned and their knowledge of Hardy as an author to their continued study of literature. For example, as I write this a semester after I finished the Hardy-based Writing about Literature courses, I am teaching a large section of the second half of the American Literature survey in which several of the Hardy-students are enrolled.  We were reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when one of those students wrote a response paper comparing Twain’s presentation of the river setting in that novel to Hardy’s presentation of the moors in his works.  The student commented, “Everything comes back to Hardy, doesn’t it?”  Yes, it does, in fact, because once beginning students have a really strong, deep base from which to continue their studies, that base will serve them well as they construct their major studies.


From this experience, I have learned that beginning students can engage literature at considerable depth when they are given the time and space to think deeply about a narrowly focused theme presented as a professional problem for which they are responsible for finding the answers.  I am also now confident that incoming literature students can learn to appreciate any type of literature when they are allowed to struggle with real interpretive questions and encouraged to revise their thinking about the answers. 

In addition, I believe that this approach has bearing on undergraduate education in other fields besides literature.  My experience in this effort has been that truly beginning students can achieve at remarkably sophisticated levels when they are given a narrow base to use as a touchstone from which they can develop their own thinking.  I feel confident that such a narrow-base approach can be used with good results in any number of general education and even beginning-major courses throughout the college curriculum.  My focus on a single author’s works in the beginning literature course is the functional equivalent of an early philosophy course focusing on a single philosopher.  The immersion into the works of a single author might equate to immersion study in beginning foreign language study.  Whatever the field, the key to the approach is in finding a focus that will allow students to view a narrow subject from a variety of points of view, each of which deepens the students’ understanding of the subject.  As the students then look at the subject from different angles, they learn critical thinking skills that they can then apply to their later studies.

Works Cited

Duch, Barbara J.  “What is Problem-Based Learning?”  About Teaching. 47 (January

            1995).  7 Oct. 2006 <>.

Fink, L. Dee.  Creating Significant learning Experiences.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,


Hutchings, Bill and Karen O’Rourke.  “Re-writing problem-based Learning for Literary

Studies.”  CDTLink. July 2002. 7 Oct. 2006 <>.

Shulman, Lee. “Pedagogies of Uncertainty:  Teaching for Understanding, Judgment and

            Commitment.”  Grawemeyer Award Lecture in Education, University of

            Louisville.  30 November 2005.

Sommers, Jeffrey.  “The Hegemony of the Final Exam:  Problem-Based Learning in the

            Literature Classroom.  Inventio.  7.1 (Spring 2005).  7 Oct. 2006


White, Hal.  “‘Creating Problems’ for PBL.” About Teaching.  47 (January 1995).  7 Oct.

            2006 <>.