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Using Project-Based Learning to Promote College Student Understanding of Strength and Conditioning Coaching

Gearity, Brian PhD, CSCS1; Hudson, Geoffrey PhD, CSCS2; Murray, Melissa PhD, CSCS1

Strength & Conditioning Journal: February 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 1 - p 70–81
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000024


1School of Human Performance and Recreation, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and

2Department of Exercise Science, George Washington University, Washington, DC

Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding: The authors report no conflicts of interest and no source of funding.

Brian Gearity is an assistant professor in the School of Human Performance and Recreation at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Geoffrey Hudson is an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science at George Washington University.

Melissa Murray is an assistant professor in the School of Human Performance and Recreation at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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Research and related literature in the field of sport coach education has drastically grown over the past 20 years (17). In contrast, research on the education of health and fitness practitioners or strength and conditioning coaches (SCCs) has seen modest advancements (23,26). SCCs, like sport coaches, require multiple and diverse forms of knowledge to effectively and ethically improve athletic performance (8,10,15). Coaching, be that as a sport coach or SCC, is increasingly being described as a complex and not fully rational social act (9,16,18,19). The need to educate SCCs to manage the complex, contextual, and ethical demands of practice is obvious.

A college degree is normally required to obtain a job in a strength and conditioning (S&C) setting (22). Therefore, institutions of higher learning are in part responsible for educating these preprofessionals. Unfortunately, little instructional design theory, empirical research, or other literature (e.g., practitioner articles, commentary) exists to help inform university instructors and coach educators. To address this gap in the literature, this article proposes one way (i.e., project-based learning [PBL]) to educate university students of the dynamic principles of S&C.

The purpose of this article is to introduce PBL as an effective instructional strategy to promote college student learning of the dynamic principles of S&C. After defining and identifying potential benefits of PBL, we detail a systematic approach to implementing PBL in the university setting. We conclude by offering suggestions for future research and dialogue on the effectiveness of PBL in S&C.

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Markham et al. (21) provide a formal definition of PBL as, “a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks” (p. 4). Breaking down the multiple concepts in this definition is important to understand PBL.

A systematic teaching method means that instructors implementing PBL adhere to its tenets in an organized process. PBL theorists do not see PBL as merely a culminating project, although a finished project and possibly a presentation would be required (2,21). As a systematic teaching method, PBL is integrated throughout a course or a curriculum as one of the (if not the only) major instructional strategies. As it relates to S&C courses, such as “Developing Strength and Conditioning Programs” or “Principles of Fitness Training,” instructors using PBL would methodically plan for students to learn content matter through a challenging project(s).

PBL theorists posit that students develop a deep understanding of complex phenomenon by developing (process) answers (projects) to real-life questions or problems (2). Students’ understanding of course content and thinking skills are improved through the creation process involved in each project. For example, students of S&C courses could develop projects around program design and implementation. A project such as this should help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed for planning to improve athletic performance within a particular context. Research demonstrates that a coach’s ability to plan and adjust to specific contexts is an essential skill for effective coaching (7,13).

Although students are often required to memorize content to pass standardized, multiple-choice tests or national certifications, questions on these exams tend to assess memory rather than critical thinking, interpersonal, or intrapersonal skills. Research in coach education suggests that these latter skills are necessary for effective coaching (7,15,18,19,20). PBL offers one possibility at beginning to prepare and evaluate pre-service practitioners on these knowledge and skills. Furthermore, PBL, when designed effectively, should challenge students to develop an understanding of the task and ethical demands of S&C coaching. For example, how a SCC negotiates components of program design, such as exercise selection, frequency and volume, with an athlete is complicated with issues of power and care (5,8).

Although a cursory definition of PBL has been provided, PBL is often defined in multiple ways and some of its concepts overlap with other instructional strategies. Given this lack of precision, a review of research on PBL identified its 5 essential criteria as centrality, driving question, constructive investigations, autonomy, and realism (2). The explanation provided earlier showed the importance of using PBL as the instructional strategy (centrality) for a real-life (realism) challenge (driving question). Additionally, PBL empowers students (autonomy) to construct their own knowledge and skills throughout the PBL process (constructive investigations).

With a PBL strategy, university instructors become facilitators of students’ unique understandings rather than dictators directing or coercing them into a predetermined “right” answer. Because of increased student autonomy and the ambiguity in there not being a “right” answer, instructors may experience some trepidation to implement PBL. A likely question may then be, “Does anything go?” We do not believe anything goes, but as stated earlier, coaching is not a fully rational process and a practitioner’s understandings are constantly changing, hopefully improving. However, many teachers chide the use of multiple-choice or standardized tests (27). In summary, while the latter (standardized tests) offers comfortable, concrete answers with limited effects on critical thinking, PBL may be uncomfortable in its ambiguity but superior in eliciting gains in critical thinking and preparing coaches for complex, uncertain problems in the field.

The beneficial role of ambiguity in PBL may actually be warranted, given recent research in coach education. For example, as coaching contexts change are important for coaches to consider when problem solving, it should make sense that there is no fully pre-packaged, correct answer regarding many components in S&C coaching (21). Recent research in coach education also demonstrates how each coach's primary and secondary socialization influences his or her coaching practices (3). This means that a coach’s identity and experiences influence what he does and how he understands the world. Other research in coach education demonstrates negative effects associated with many normal or expected coaching practices, many of them supported by evidenced-based research (6,15). Given the multitude of factors influencing athletic performance and each coach’s practices, the usefulness of PBL may be exactly its capacity to draw upon these factors through an intentionally uncertain goal or driving question. As some of the claims presented here are speculative, we recommend further research and discussion on these topics.

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In this section, we present 5 steps to implementing PBL in the university classroom. Drawing upon Markham et al. (21), the 5 steps are as follows: begin with the end in mind, craft the driving question, map the project, plan the assessment, and manage the process. Following these steps offers a clean and clear starting point. However, instructors should continue to revise the project to fit their own context and to facilitate student learning. To demonstrate how to connect theory with practice, we offer examples from our experiences teaching undergraduate and graduate students.

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The question, “What should students know and be able to do?” has been a driving force to guide student outcomes in educational settings. The significance of this question lies in the understanding that acquiring knowledge and being able “to do” knowledge (commonly called “skills”) are both important. The value of creating course objectives is to identify explicitly what the students should know and be able to do upon completion of a course. Course objectives are also often required for program accreditation. For example, the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs’ standards for personal fitness training requires that instruction be tied to written course objectives (4). The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), which with the National Council for Accreditation of Coaching Education help to oversee coaching education programs, has developed national standards on physical conditioning for sport coaching education programs. NASPE standards 12 through 15 relate to physical conditioning competence (24):

NASPE Standard 12: Design programs of training, conditioning, and recovery that properly use exercise physiology and biomechanical principles.

NASPE Standard 13: Teach and encourage proper nutrition for optimal physical and mental performance and overall good health.

NASPE Standard 14: Be an advocate for drug-free sport participation and provide accurate information about drugs and supplements.

NASPE Standard 15: Plan conditioning programs to help athletes return to full participation following injury. (p. 11–13).

The NSCA’s Education Recognition Program provides further support for these standards because it too requires students receive formal instruction in exercise technique, program design, and nutrition, among other content areas (25). These standards may help instructors determine appropriate course projects.

Another way to develop a project idea is to consider research in coach education. For example, ample research demonstrates that SCCs implement numerous training methods, such as weightlifting and plyometrics, and use numerous pieces of equipment such as dumbbells and barbells (11,12). SCCs also engage in a complex, value-laden decision-making process when deciding what and how to design and implement S&C programs, or what Gearity (14) has termed “thinking philosophically.” Research also shows that SCCs and sport coaches spend considerable time planning, designing, and problem solving (6,8). Potential projects could involve designing an athlete profile; a needs analysis; microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle; and handouts or checklists of proper exercise technique. Drawing upon what coaches actually do will help to bring authentic learning activities into the classroom.

In our experience in the university setting, we have found it highly effective to incorporate projects to help students learn how to design S&C programs. PBL theorists believe projects inherently lend themselves to multidisciplinary tasks, such as designing and implementing S&C programs (21). Although engaged in the project, students should learn to draw upon science and evidence-based research. Projects also help students to develop knowledge of the multiple demands and tensions involved in coaching. As coaching and athlete development are not fully rational or exact sciences, the ambiguity in both the design and implementation of S&C programs challenges students to think and critique all forms of knowledge, such as popular beliefs, research, and commonly used coaching practices.

Rather than only memorizing discrete facts in preparation for a standardized test or a national certification, projects such as those listed motivate and engage students in realistic challenges to future workplace demands. In our courses, we have taught students enrolled across multiple academic programs, such as athletic training, exercise science, physical education, kinesiotherapy, and sport coaching. What we believe to be a successful strategy has been to ask our students to select a sport or athletic position of interest and one they are likely to work with in the future. We initially describe the purpose of the project to students with simple directions. For example, we state 2 key criteria: that the finished project should be useable and professional. Keeping the end in mind, we want students to have a project that is useable beyond the classroom and of such high quality that it is professional. We have found that these rather simple directions address a host of commonly asked student questions related to the appearance and content of such a project. In fact, the efficacy of PBL lies in putting the onus on students to work through an intentionally vague question, which is what the next section will detail.

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Projects can vary considerably on items such as duration, complexity, and peer-to-peer interaction. One consistent thread, however, is the need for a driving question or purpose. As projects need to reflect life-like problems or issues, clear-cut answers or leading questions are to be avoided. Rather, a good driving question sparks students’ interest on a topic and encourages them to think through multiple factors, practices, and ethics.

A driving question could also touch on contemporary issues such as, “How does rhabdomyolysis occur?” Unfortunately, the wording of this question leads to a rather simplistic answer and might as well appear as an essay question on an exam. A better question for PBL would be, “When you are a coach, how will you implement a safe and effective S&C program? Design a sample program and explain how you intend to avoid health complications associated with, but not limited to, rhabdomyolysis, sickle cell trait, and cardiac irregularities.” A question such as this would require students to understand multiple risks and consider physiological and social-psychological research and practices that contribute to improved outcomes.

For an undergraduate course that we taught, the driving question for the primary project was, “How would you lead a S&C program? Construct your own Philosophy of Strength and Conditioning” (Figure 1).

The required components of this project included an athlete profile, a needs analysis, a macrocycle, and 36–48 microcyles (3–4 × week frequency). Students also had to include 4 peer-reviewed articles (2 original research articles such as Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research articles and 2 practitioner articles such as Strength and Conditioning Journal articles). Two final products due at the end of the project were a presentation and a training manual. Although students’ understanding of these concepts could have been assessed on a surface level with a multiple-choice exam, the project allows the educator to assess the knowledge and the ability to apply the knowledge to a specific setting. More on this assignment will be described in the next section.

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Once the goals of the project and the driving questions have been determined, it becomes time to map the project. A myriad of concerns confront the instructor regarding how to manage PBL, such as the length of the semester, the duration of each class, selection and size of project groups, student’s existing knowledge and preparation, and effective ways to layer learning activities. Research and literature shows that a SCC’s primary responsibilities involve: designing long- and short-term plans; providing safe and effective instruction on exercise, speed, and agility technique; and counseling athletes on sound nutrition strategies (10–12). In addition to identifying key characteristics of an athlete profile, the NSCA’s Essentials of Strength and Conditioning recognizes 7 fundamental components of program design: needs analysis, exercise selection, training frequency, exercise order, training load and repetitions, volume, and rest period (1). These day-to-day life experiences of SCCs can help instructors begin to map the project.

Effective delivery of course content helps to achieve the goals of the project. Instructors could create worksheets (i.e., Microsoft Excel) to establish a course calendar, sequence-learning activities, and identify a student’s current knowledge and additional resources to complete the project. For example, students in our courses are instructed on the key elements of a needs analysis. A subsequent assignment is for them to review a completed needs analysis and highlight the areas they believe need to be addressed. Throughout the semester, instructors can then progress or scaffold (i.e., increase complexity of tasks while reducing assistance of instructor) learning activities that lead to the culminating project. This means starting with simpler learning activities such as having students demonstrate proper exercise technique or create an athlete profile. A more complex activity would then be to design a 1-day or weekly microcycle to achieve a specific training goal (e.g., muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength, or power). A mesocycle builds upon the microcycle and helps the student to apply the principles of variation and progressive overload. Next, a needs analysis and then a macrocycle could be created (Table 1).

The sample annual planning form is completed by students to help them plan a general overview of the essential components of S&C. Under the given heading, for example, students can select the training frequency for resistance training, speed training, anaerobic conditioning, and agilities. Likewise, students can assign an appropriate training volume (i.e., reps, sets, load) to a corresponding mesocycle focus (e.g., muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength, power).

We have found that practicing these activities in the classroom enables the instructor to provide immediate feedback and foster group discussion. By providing formative feedback during the project processes, instructors help students to develop experience, confidence, and knowledge. Instructors could use additional learning activities as the students’ understanding grows. At times, we have used the following activities to challenge students: observe an SCC, locate programs used at varying competitive levels, debate or duels between groups, and a brief presentation of a sample program (Figure 2).

As students work on their project, and perhaps smaller, “mini-projects” associated with the main project, they frequently ask questions related to how to plan and adjust to sport coaches, sport practice plans, school calendars, a governing body’s (i.e., NCAA, high school association) rules, multi-sport athletes, and the interaction of physiological and psychological effects. Becoming aware of and thinking about these issues reflects students’ emerging understanding of the complexities of coaching. Rather than simply telling students that S&C coaching is complex, they reach this conclusion on their own through engaging in PBL. Consistent with other coach educators, we concur that this is a more mature and authentic way to understand coaching (21).

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As PBL culminates with the creation of a project, an appropriate form of assessment must be used (Tables 2–4). Although useful for assessing student retention of content knowledge, a standardized test or a multiple-choice test would be inappropriate for PBL. Rather, for PBL we recommend the use of rubrics to assess multiple elements of varying quality. Rubrics are often used to assess student’s products, such as papers, presentations, and projects. Rubrics are beneficial as they provide both student and instructor with explicit learner outcomes and a consistent method of scoring. The use of rubrics may also be an asset to instructors who have to report specific student outcomes for University-wide assessments, which may also be used for accreditation purposes.

Three essential elements of rubrics are elements, scales, and criteria (21). Elements refer to what is being assessed. For example, for a project with the goal of designing an exercise program to improve strength, one of the elements of assessment would be “repetitions.” Scales refer to the level of performance such as “below standard” or “above standard.” Criteria are the specific descriptors to measure varying degrees of quality. For example, if an assignment requested students use 2 research articles during the project, the following criteria would assess if this standard were met, “Student uses two peer-reviewed original research articles to support program design.” A lower criteria could be stated as, “Student uses one peer-reviewed …” while a further lower criteria could be, “Student does not use peer-reviewed ….” The use of rubrics helps to provide students with clear and concise expectations of low-to-average to high-quality work.

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Teaching, like motor skill learning, involves a back and forth interaction between the whole and its parts. Managing the process of PBL consists of going back and forth from the project’s goals and objectives to weekly and day-to-day activities. Although coaches plan, macrocycle and mesocycle adjustments will have to be made. Similarly, instructors will rely on experience and reflection to help determine effective processes to achieve high-quality projects. Based on our experiences, we have found the following strategies to help manage the process.

Students benefit from a clear understanding of what the project entails. We introduce the project early in the semester, but put it aside for a couple of weeks while covering necessary basic content. PBL does not mean instructors merely assign the project and let students work on their own through guided discovery. Rather, instructors should continue to draw upon multiple teaching methods when deemed appropriate, but the project maintains centrality to the course. After students get to know each other, and the instructor gets to know the students, we revisit the project description. This helps us all to understand each other’s interests, experiences, and knowledge before delving deeply into the project. We also provide the rubric early in the process so students understand what a high-quality project looks like; and so students can use the rubric as a checklist. We have found it beneficial to have diverse groups of 3 to 4 students. We mix students who have a good understanding of science with those who understand practice. This often means mixing students with a background in athletic or coaching experiences with students who excel in biology, chemistry, or exercise science.

Throughout the semester we continue to illustrate how course content (i.e., anaerobic adaptations, periodization, exercise technique/progression) connects to the goals of the project. As stated earlier, we scaffold learning activities to provide milestones along the way. Keeping students from waiting to the last minute helps to create a higher quality project and a more fulfilling learning experience. Like quality writing, the project is improved through an iterative process involving multiple revisions. Facilitating students’ critical thinking through individual/group reflection, group discussion, and instructor feedback are strategies to manage and improve the process. Seemingly simple questions such as, “What response or adaptation are you trying to solicit?” and “How would the athlete feel following this micro/mesocycle?” and “Do you think you’ve devoted enough time for _____?” encourage higher order thinking skills.

In recent years, we have set aside class time to meet one-on-one with each group. At this meeting, each group brings a draft for an athlete profile, a needs analysis, and a macrocycle. The meetings help students to ask questions that are more direct and help the instructor to provide feedback on contextual, draft-level products. As a culminating part of the project, we require students to present their projects during the final weeks of the semester. We describe the setting as a coaching clinic and the audience as a group of colleagues, such as SCCs, athletic trainers, sport coaches, and athletic directors. Other options include video recording the presentation and making it publicly available via YouTube or by inviting local colleagues to attend. These steps help students to connect the project with life-like opportunities and challenges, which we have found leads to greater student engagement and higher quality projects.

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The purpose of this article has been to introduce PBL as an effective instructional strategy to promote college student understanding of S&C. We presented 5 steps (e.g., begin with the end in mind, craft the driving question, map the project, plan the assessment, and manage the process) from PBL theory, along with our practical experiences, as a guide to doing PBL.

PBL has a relatively short history of about 20 years (21). Future research is needed to better understand what facilitators and barriers exist to student learning and quality projects. Moreover, defining what is a quality project, or at least the essential components of quality projects and the ways these components vary, is also warranted. Although survey research exists that states what methods SCCs implement, an urgent need exists to better understand how and why S&C practitioners design programs as they do, and their accompanying positive and negative effects on athlete/client outcomes. Continuing to research effective S&C theory and practice has important implications for university academic programs and coach educators. Filling this gap could help to create realistic, but high expectations for students completing PBL. Further research could also explore how different instructional practices lead to higher quality projects and changes in students’ understanding of S&C coaching. In closing, we offer PBL as a potential step in the right direction of better educating SCCs to help achieve the goal of effectively and ethically developing athletes or clients.

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