Our Experience with Problem-Based Learning

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Judith Piggott and Andy Kilmister (Economics Department, Oxford Brookes University Business School) for the Developments in Economics and Business Education conference, September 2005.

Introduction

These thoughts arise from an LTSN (as it then was) funded project, covering the 2004-2005 academic year, carried out jointly between Oxford Brookes University and London Metropolitan University. The project involved introducing elements of problem-based learning (PBL), combined with other approaches in a structured way, into the first year economics curriculum (through a macroeconomics module at Brookes and a microeconomics module at London Met). The details of the rationale for the project, the method adopted and our assessment of the impact of what we did are set out on the accompanying poster and we won't repeat them here. In addition we will be looking at a modified version of one of the three PBL cases used at Brookes in the latter part of this session. At this point what we would like to do is to focus on three issues relating to PBL, which in our view arose in the course of the project, and which we believe might be of more general interest.

1. Where should PBL be placed within a degree programme?

Our initial belief was that students needed to be introduced to PBL as early as possible within their degrees. This was based partly on our reading of the pedagogic literature and partly on discussions with colleagues adopting similar approaches in the area of Business and Management. The reasoning behind this strategy was that the longer students are taught by more traditional means the more comfortable they become with passive and uncritical learning and the less receptive they are to alternative approaches. Introducing PBL in the later stages of a degree programme thus runs into problems.

While this argument has considerable force, our decision to use PBL in the first core module on the Economics degree at Brookes led to a number of problems of its own. In particular it meant using PBL

  • in the context of a large module of more than 100 students.
  • in a situation where differential backgrounds of students had an especially acute impact, since there had been no prior period of university study to establish a common experience. The most important difference here was between those who had studied Economics before and those who had not. The latter group were faced with being introduced simultaneously to a new subject discipline and to a new pedagogic approach.
  • in a situation where student commitment to the subject was quite variable. Most students on the module were Economics degree students but there were a significant number who were simply taking the module as an optional extra first year course.
  • in a module where it was also necessary, in addition to developing knowledge content, to get across a number of key study skills - for example group-working, understanding of assessment criteria, presentation and essay writing skills, quantitative techniques - with the result that the curriculum became rather crowded.

For all these reasons our experience has led us to look more favourably on the idea that PBL may be of most use when introduced later in a degree programme, for example in an optional specialist module. One of us (JP) has had positive experiences of doing just this in an international economics optional module for 2nd and 3rd years. However, our original reasons for trying to introduce different approaches in the first year retain their plausibility in our view and this seems to be an issue for future discussion.

2. PBL and Critical Thinking

Our original motivation for using PBL was not an interest in this method for its own sake but because we saw it as a way of encouraging a more critical approach from students. The hypothesis was that engagement with concrete problems would lead students to adopt a more sceptical and questioning attitude towards economic theories and to rely less on rote learning. Our experience has led us to be somewhat more cautious about this link and to be less sure that there is any automatic link between PBL and the development of critical thinking skills.

The difficulty here is that the presentation of a problem situation, in response to which students have to investigate a possible theoretical explanation, does not necessarily lead them to think critically about that explanation. They may simply apply it to the problem in as mechanistic a way as in the conventional pedagogy, but in the 'reverse order' (with the problem leading them to the explanation rather than the previously presented theory being illustrated by being applied to a concrete example). A key element in developing critical thinking is surely comparison between alternative theoretical explanations, and there is no guarantee that PBL will lead to this.

An example here comes from the case of the demand for money. We provided a PBL case designed to illuminate the general idea of asset demands and then set an essay question designed to build on this case. This question was generally done very badly and a key reason for this, as we later realised, was that it depended on concepts of market equilibrium and of processes of adjustment to such equilibrium, that were simply not provided by the PBL case (and could not easily have been so provided). Yet without those concepts it was not possible for the students to do what we had asked them to do - to distinguish between competing views of how the money market works and of the impact of government policy on that market.

3. Integration of PBL with the rest of the module

We used PBL predominantly in seminars (motivated in large part by problems we had previously had in encouraging attendance in first year seminars). This was quite successful - there was a marked increase in participation in seminars as compared to previous years and the quality of discussion in the seminars was good. However, it did throw up two further issues

  • The first issue is that of integrating the PBL seminars with the lecture material. In retrospect it might have been a good idea to have had weeks entirely devoted to seminars followed by weeks entirely devoted to lectures. However this would have been difficult to organise in terms of room bookings and module co-ordination and we did not take this route. What we did was to have seminars preceding lectures each week - the idea being that the seminar problems would generate unanswered questions, which would then be covered in the lecture. In practice this was very hard to do effectively. The lectures had to be prepared prior to the seminars actually taking place and multiple seminar groups meant that there was no one set of questions emerging from the seminars around which the lectures could focus. The tendency was for the lectures to resume their conventional place as the main point at which content was provided, with the PBL exercises consequently losing some of their centrality.
  • A more serious problem was that of linking class contact (both seminars and lectures) with work outside class. In the initial weeks of the module we found that the PBL cases led to lively seminar discussions. However these discussions picked up the following week at exactly the same point as they had been left at the end of the class because the students did little or no follow-up work. Once the groups and individuals began to work for their assessed coursework then more was done outside class but we still found our lack of control over what was actually done quite problematic. A 'pure' PBL approach, such as that taken at the University of Maastricht, would neither suggest nor prescribe sources of information (beyond a few starting points) and would emphasise the independent research skills of the students. We became sceptical of this, particularly with regard to the widespread use of web-sites such as tutor2u.com which are not at the right level for university studies, which seemed to us to divert the students away from the kind of work we wished them to do outside class. One possible solution to this is much greater prescription both with regard to weekly activities outside class and also with regard to information sources; but this seems to run counter to PBL, at least in its 'pure' form.

Conclusion

These notes are really designed to raise questions so a detailed conclusion is not really appropriate. However, one general contrast seems worth considering. The way in which we have previously tried to encourage critical thinking among students in macroeconomics (and which is probably the dominant way in which this has been done in UK universities) is through the historical presentation and comparison of theoretical approaches. The strategy has been to present a simple Keynesian model, look at the classical or monetarist criticisms of that model, then look at the Keynesian responses to those criticisms and so on. Our approach in this project has been to focus on practical problem situations and examine theories as responses to these situations, as opposed to presenting a historical genealogy. That has important advantages both in terms of encouraging student motivation (the traditional approach is rather abstract) and developing skills relating to the practical application of theory (the traditional approach can also be mechanistic). But it also has costs. In particular critical thinking surely depends both on seeing the way in which ideas are shaped by their historical context and on comparing different theoretical explanations. Both of these were covered, albeit imperfectly, by the traditional approach, but not by PBL. One possible way forward is to look at ways in which we could combine the positive elements of PBL with elements of that approach in order to make the link between PBL and critical reasoning more explicit.

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