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Developing a PBL course in Economics: a sceptic's diary, part 2

Report Two - Report on Maastrict Visit, December 2002

Previous: Report One - Introduction

I will admit that prior to my visit to Maastricht University in December to attend a workshop on PBL, I was sceptical about PBL. I also have to admit that I still am but perhaps less so. Some fears were put to rest but other problems were raised in my mind.

First of all the workshop was very good - a small group of international colleagues all with an interest in finding different ways to approach teaching and learning. The leaders of the workshop were also excellent and provided a great deal of food for thought.

The first day - 8.30 am to 8.30pm! - was spent mainly showing us how the lecture system does not work that well. A little ironic, I thought, that we were in lectures telling us this for much of the day - obviously they didn't want us to remember it all!

The evening session on differing approaches to assessment however gave a great deal think about. I was almost persuaded to attempt more peer assessment - something I am considering moving towards in a module I am teaching this term (and of course will report results). I also found the description of how PBL worked in Masters dissertation assessment fascinating. We were told how a study group was set up, including the tutor, and that the group functioned over the period of the dissertation work, giving advice, commenting on drafts of chapter etc. Then the group assessed the work (with the tutor only playing the role as an equal member of the team).

The second day brought a more practical approach to the work and we watched a PBL session in progress (although this was one set up especially for us). Maastricht University has what they call the "seven step approach" to PBL:

Preliminary discussion   Step 1 - Clarifying concepts
Step 2 - Defining the problem
Step 3 - Analysing the problem/brainstorming
Step 4 - Problem analysis/systematic classification
Step 5 - formulating learning objectives
Self Study Step 6 - Self study
Reporting Step 7 - discussion

Each group chose a discussion leader to basically "chair" the discussion and "scribe" to take notes.

We saw steps 1-5 demonstrated and it was very impressive! The "conservative" in me felt the tutor did take a little too much of a "back seat" approach and I expressed concern over the fact that the students, to my mind, had missed a major point of definition which seemed to be causing confusion in much of the discussion, yet the tutor did not step in. The tutor did not see it this way - so maybe it was just me.

However I did feel this point came out again when the workshop split into 3 groups and set their own PBL tasks for use with the same student group the next day. However first of all I would say that setting up a PBL task is not as easy as it looks and it definitely pays to get feedback from colleagues or to work collaboratively on this, otherwise you could find yourself setting a completely different problem to what you thought you were!

Trying out the problem on the students was very useful and acting as tutor showed how hard it is to achieve the balance between too much intervention and too little. Further, I felt the problem I mentioned above became more apparent and especially in the use of an accounting type problem. The students needed ratios to look at the problem set and it was soon apparent that they had forgotten these and were guessing. Eventually the tutor intervened to ask them to reconsider what the ratios were and in the end told them what was actually wrong with them. However this had taken a long time, and one couldn't help feeling that just a 5-10 minute revision session by the tutor of what might be needed in this problem, would have saved so much confusion. There was a risk of reinforcing mistakes by working on incorrect ratios, to my mind.

Talking to the students over lunch, they were all very supportive of the PBL system in Maastricht. However it was interesting that they sometimes felt it was too extreme and that some lectures or differing teaching methods would be a relief sometimes! They also admitted that many groups did not work as well as theirs did - that some just sit in silence or students don't do the preparation. The workshop did not cover how to deal with the "problem group" and I felt that was a shame (the good groups will usually take care of themselves!).

Discussions with colleagues on the workshop, also raised other queries. The biggest, we felt, was the resourcing problem. PBL requires small group work and most Universities in the UK nowadays face increasing numbers, would probably frown on this. It would also be hard to do PBL when the culture of PBL does not prevail in the Universities - there would be a very big risk of student complaints of "she never says anything, she never tells us the answer" etc. if you went alone on this.

So I came away with some good ideas to change elements of my teaching - encouraging students to work more to find out the answer themselves is obviously good and PBL certainly is a method of doing this. I suspect most seminars/small group teaching already use elements of PBL but it is good to have a more structure approach (like the 7 step). The assessment session also was very instructive and urged new approaches. I certainly will try out elements of PBL but feel I cannot take it completely "on board" yet.

Next: Report Three - Implementation 2003/04

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