Using Problem Based Learning and a Business Game in Teaching Managerial Economics

Contact: Pierre Picard
School of Economic Studies, University of Manchester
Published December 2002

This project was developed with the support of Curriculum Innovation Grant. It is based on two novel elements, Problem Based Learning (PBL) and a market simulation game, Synthesis. PBL serves as the learning approach and the market simulation game as the source of the (real time) problem set on which the learning approach is anchored. The main part of the course is designed as group work. Each team manages a single firm and sets its individual project and learning agenda. Formal problems are given to the teams in order to direct their learning process.

We’ll first discuss the objectives and the achievements of the project, then continue with the estimate of its value for the school and students and finally stress some important issues at the project’s continuation strategy.


The main objectives of the project were to:

  1. Develop Problem Based Learning expertise in the School of Economic Studies.
  2. Develop the course unit content to enable students to assist firms’ management with maximum collaboration between them.
  3. Develop staff expertise in running a market simulation game
  4. Convert the market simulation game to the English context
  5. Fine tune and test the combination of PBL and market simulation game for undergraduate students
  6. Communicate and disseminate this experience of Problem Based Learning and market simulations in Economics.
  7. Use web-based technologies to allow interaction between students, their tutor and the market simulation game.

Summary of Achievements

The outcomes of the project have been

  • The production of a tried and tested course using PBL in Economics
  • The first implementation of a market simulation game in the Economic Department.

We have also achieved the following objectives:

  1. The Managerial Economics II course units have been successfully developed in the School of Economic Studies and make extensive use of Problem Based Learning.
  2. Six problems have been written about managerial economics situations and tools. These problems enable students to assist their firms’ management with the maximum collaboration between them. A series of six induction lectures to PBL as well as re-capitulation lectures have been designed and produced.
  3. The lecturer and the tutor got strong experience in running the Synthesis simulation game. This involves acquiring a deep knowledge of the game specification and expertise in running the game week by week. It also requires writing problems that make a good link between firm’s management issues and economic and managerial theories.
  4. The market simulation game Synthesis has been adapted to the UK context by translating the input and output forms of the game and by publishing an English version of the Synthesis Guidelines.
  5. The combination of PBL and market simulation game has been fine-tuned during the sequence of six problems that have taken place during the first year. It has been further adapted for the second year experience.
  6. This experience of Problem-Based Learning and market games has been communicated in the School of Economics, through reports to Teaching Group, formal review by another School lecturer, formal presentation at the school (October 2002) and discussions with (new) lecturers.
  7. A web site has been developed to integrate communication of general course information and PBL team results. A special email box has been set up and a web interface for data input has been implemented.

Project Evaluation

Value to the School

The benefit to the School is important since no previous experience existed in relation to problem based learning and little experience in applied business and economics. Some colleagues have shown interest in the approach and consider that an experience at the Department is very valuable. However, to some, PBL has been seen as a source of problems as it upsets some teaching rules and assessment standards.

In the next year, the second lecturer in the ES3000 course unit is expected to swap to PBL. Also, as a result of the present initiative and as a result of the Teaching Course for New Staff, new lecturers have undertaken other small scale PBL projects for tutorials. Some lecturers have expressed concerns about using games in finance courses.

Value to Students

Students benefit from a more varied teaching and learning diet. This course unit has provided them with an enhanced opportunity for skill development, group work and self-learning.

As a matter of fact, students worked hard and generally enjoyed the course unit. They commented that the course unit allowed for significant transferable skills, including working effectively to time limits.

A team expressed its congratulation for

"putting together this truly unique course and also thank[ed] for defending it against all its critics on the way towards its creation. Undoubtedly, most other groups will agree that this is one of the most diverse, creative and intellectually challenging courses this year".

Some students commented that the present problems allowed them to understand how to use basic statistical concepts. A student reported that this problem revealed to him the relevance of many concepts he had seen in two other specialised econometric course units. Therefore, the ES3000 course unit makes strong links to other courses.

Nevertheless, one team of students expressed adverse feeling with respect to the PBL and market simulation game approach, from the beginning to the end of the academic year.

Support by the University?

The teaching support unit’s seminars have been useful for the design of the course unit. Useful meetings, and attendance to PBL at, the Dentistry department also helped a lot to implement the PBL course. Nevertheless, there has been no actual person available at the University to help us in the detailed design of the course. Fortunately, I found support with my mentor at the teaching course for new staff. The University cannot have a PBL teaching strategy without setting up an efficient network that brings support for detailed implementation of PBL.

Integration in traditional teaching curriculum

A major problem in the implementation of this course is the clash with assessment methods used in traditional teaching. The UG teaching committee has imposed a 1 ½ hour individual exam that prevails for traditional teaching. However, this kind of examination does not allow students to appropriately show their acquired skills and knowledge as set up in the objectives of the course (especially for computational analytical skills). A 24 hour take-home individual exam would be more appropriate. Also, students questioned the usefulness of an exam paper in addition to assessed group reports. Students claimed that the individual exam is useless since reports are already assessed and since individual input is already reflected in the split of the team mark to individual marks. The UG teaching committee has opposed such alternatives. Finally, for the sake of marking anonymity, students are examined on the data of a new firm on which they re-process their analyses in order to prepare the individual exam. Students complained about the irrelevance of this re-processing and expressed preference to be examined on their own firms.

Teaching Cost Challenge

Two types of teaching costs must be highlighted in this course unit. First, inception and implementation costs have been larger than for a traditional course unit. In particular the Lecturer/Tutor's training to Synthesis market simulation game is important. Also, the design of a first Problem Based Learning course unit at the School requires additional administrative tasks.

Beside these one-shot costs, the current version of the course presents additional costs. Second examiners must assess executive reports. Also, the decisions of the teams about their firms should be processed.

Problem Based Learning is a more labour intensive teaching method because, in its usual form, it requires a tutor to facilitate each team. In the long run, the current team size of 5-6 members (for this ES3000 project) should increase in order to reach the ratio of 15 students/tutor for this type of course. However, Woods (2000) strongly recommends working with small teams. From his experience, tutor-less teams work very well although some specific issues about attendance, conflict, trust and workload must be carefully dealt with. Finally, the cost of the facilitating task can be reduced. Indeed, the teaching qualification and effort of facilitators is lower with the Problem Based Learning approach. This leaves room for hiring PhD or Master students at a lower cost for the facilitating task.

Some University staff were approached to discuss this problem. For them, the issue is whether the School wishes to support a more varied teaching and learning diet. If so, resources should be formally devoted to such PBL courses.

Continuation Strategy

This ES3000 is now an established and student-appreciated course unit at the School of Economics. Although not at its optimal form, it is expected to continue in the next years. Recurrent proposals will be given at the undergraduate committee to improve the assessment method and to solve the cost effectiveness issue of the course.

In the year 2002-3, it will be implemented as a one-semester (short-fat) course unit (because of the lecturer’s sabbatical semester and students’ wishes). This concentrates more hours per week for the course and gives an opportunity to test PBL in a larger extent. If successful, this is expected to be the final design of the course.

Besides the running of the ES3000 course, efforts will be made to support other PBL and learning games initiatives at the School.


Woods, D. R. (2000) "PBL: Decisions for planning and action: why, when, where, what, how?" McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.