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Developing a PBL course in Economics: a sceptic's diary, part 3

Report Three - Implementation 2003/04

Previous: Report Two - Report on Maastrict Visit

This academic year has seen my first attempts at introducing PBL into my course. In some respects it has confirmed my fears and in others eased them.

The first problem I experienced was that the module I had planned to use PBL on grew from 40 students registered to 118 over the summer vacation. This meant that instead of running the module on my own or with one other colleague, I was faced with co-ordinating 4 other seminar leaders and testing PBL with a massive group of students.

The module basically used the following format - a 1.5-2 hour seminar, using PBL approach, followed by either a lecture or visiting speaker or in one week, a debate between 2 lecturers. This meant the PBL approach set up and started the learning process and the learning was confirmed in the lecture or talk afterwards when the basic theory and points which we hoped to raise were talked through. I know this is not the pure Maastricht approach but I feel this is the way forward at present - given the newness for students and seminar leaders alike.

What we did therefore was to present students with a piece of information - in one case a balance sheet, another some data and another a newspaper article.

The next step was then to ask them if any terms needed clarifying. Once this was done, I then asked "what strikes you about the information given?" or "as a business/economics student, what questions come to mind from this information?" I soon learned that students were reluctant to undertake this on an individual basis and the better way is to put them in groups to come up with a list of questions and points. This tended to take 10-15 minutes, after which there was a plenary session where the 4 or 5 groups discussed their questions and distilled them to a list for the seminar group as a whole. During this group discussion, I walked round the room visiting the groups and helping or asking relevant questions - unlike the Maastricht model where the tutor stays with the group throughout the discussion, I didn't have this luxury (but felt that in fact it was not a necessity).

Once we had the questions, then the groups were asked to come up with some suggested answers to their questions. Approximately 30 minutes was spent on this and then the group reported back and a general discussion ensued. This was the basic format.

Problems encountered

  1. The students did not read beforehand which wasted time at the start and reduced the "informed discussion" element. Some way to get them to read the information beforehand is needed but unless it is tied to assessment this is difficult.
  2. At first students were reluctant to discuss, however the group approach encouraged this and after a couple of weeks, this worked well.
  3. Some students did not like this interactive learning approach - they were not used to it and wanted set questions and answers. These students voted with their feet and did not attend.
  4. Some staff could not or did not really understand the approach and therefore tended to dominate the seminars or not run them as PBL. For example, in one week, I gave seminar leaders 6 questions I expected to come from the data presented and gave them some notes on the questions to help them. I then dropped in my colleagues class at the start only to find to my horror all 6 questions (meant to come out of student discussions) written on the board.
  5. The seminar was too long at 2 hours and next year this will be reduced next year under our new semester system. This could suit this course better.


  1. Students enjoyed the new approach and I felt gained significantly from discussions. Also these students tended to do much better on the coursework.
  2. Students certainly learned to question more and think things through for themselves . It was interesting to see how they became more confident and talked more freely after the first couple of weeks.
  3. The lack of spoon-feeding via lectures tended to make the students more inventive and analytical in the assessed work. We had some excellent pieces of work. They commented on the module feedback that they found the work hard but very interesting.
  4. The seminar leaders gradually got used to the new approach and felt it worked well. In fact the seminars leaders came from differing disciplines (marketing, economics and business) and, in order to give the students differing approaches, we switched round each week. This actually worked very well (and received positive feedback from the students).

This was a new module and it has to be said that some of the problems, and advantages, came from running the new module, rather than the PBL approach. Next year I shall continue the approach but in a slightly differing format (shorter seminars as discussed above) and also try the approach with a smaller (I hope) module in the area of International Economics.

I do think the reading beforehand is a problem for all modules but it does tend to impact more on PBL as informed discussion is really more needed. With the extra weeks in the semester it may be possible to tie weeks in and get the reading done in the interim. As you can tell I am still absurdly optimistic at times! We will see.

Next: Report Four - 4 years on

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