Using Problem Based Learning in Teaching Economics

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Contact: Peter Pierpoint
Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Plymouth
Published February 2001

Problem based learning or PBL is a way of constructing and teaching courses using problems as the stimulus and focus for students learning (for more details about the PBL have a look at the PBL advice sheet on this site). A small team of academic staff teaching accounting, finance and economics at the University of Plymouth Business School has used PBL since 1995. Generally the Maastricht 7-Jump Step model is employed.

In our teaching a colleague and I use a variant of the Maastricht model on a European Union Policy module (level 3 in semester 2). The variant develops out of small group discussion work in a related module in semester 1. Problem statements are prepared with reference to five policy areas (agriculture, social, environmental, competition and fisheries). With the statement published, the students undertake initial research prior to the first group meeting. At this meeting the students can launch into the 7-Jump Step in order that they can generate a set of learning objectives to be researched for the follow-up meeting.

The model provides for two formal meetings per topic with each session lasting for two hours. The chairperson hosts the discussion and two students will minute the meeting (these minutes are usually used as an important resource for revision). Chairpersons and minute-takers rotate, so that each student will play both roles.

This module is an elective and each course typically numbers around 20 students. It is rated highly by the students but has a reputation of being demanding in terms of time (the students learn to organise themselves well). We had initial fears that quiet students might and fall by the wayside but this thankfully has never happened. In contrast the students seem to really develop when given an opportunity to practice their contributions.

There is an element of assessment for contributions to all 10-group sessions. The weighting is 10% for the group sessions, 20% for the minutes and 70% for the unseen examination. A special assessment checklist was developed, so that the groups operate in a non-threatening environment.

Students rated highly both the discussion groups in semester 1 and the PBL group sessions in semester 2. The group sessions in particular are excellent fun so that the students both learn and have a laugh. The process of social integration that takes place is especially important, as the dominant delivery method using generic material almost inevitably isolates students from one another.

Increasingly we have come to recognise the crucial importance of the development of high value personal skills associated with our use of PBL. Graham Clayton and I presented a paper at the recent conference in Manchester reviewing student feedback on skills enhancement.

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