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Developing a PBL course in Economics: a sceptic's diary, part 4

Report Four - 4 years on...

Previous: Report Three - Implementation 2003/04

It is 2 years since I wrote the last entry to my diary and not surprisingly, things have moved on. The first thing to say is I am still using PBL in my teaching and I am convinced that in some circumstances it can be a very effective teaching tool. But it does have its limitations.

But I am jumping the gun a little here.

When I wrote my last report I was trying to use PBL on a module of nearly 120 students and I was originally running PBL seminar groups for 2 hours and then throwing in an odd lecture or visiting speaker for the last hour. But in the present HE climate of resource constraints, it was difficult to justify the growing number of seminar groups and to keep the numbers in each seminar group down. Furthermore with a growing number of seminar leaders, it was hard to ensure everyone got the same "product" or level of information, especially when seminar tutors are not all convinced or happy with the PBL approach. As the numbers climbed further, I resorted to the lecture/seminar method, with the odd seminar being influenced by the PBL approach.

My experience above convinced me that with such large groups, PBL can only really work if used in conjunction with more traditional methods. For example, for the last two years I have been working on another module with approximately 100 students (1st year Macroeconomics) which is run by my colleague, Andy Kilmister. We have incorporated PBL into the module together with the more traditional lectures. So the students have a 1 hour seminar first, where they explore the problems, followed by a lecture which confirms the learning. We have also found that it is helpful to link the problems with the assessment - so problem 1 which was covered in weeks 2 and 3 was linked to the 1 assignment (a presentation), problem 2 (weeks 5 and 6) linked to assignment 2 (an essay) and finally problem 3 (weeks 8 and 9) to the "seen" question in the examination. For further details see our conference paper.

On the positive side, student attendance at seminars dramatically improved to something like 90% attendance and did not really vary towards the end of the semester - which is unusual. Furthermore the quality of discussion was good and discussions were lively.

What was disappointing was that this questioning and interest did not continue outside class. There was little evidence of further reading between weeks and so students started the next week's seminar at practically the same point they left it the week before. Moreover we felt that in trying to develop critical thinking through analysis of problems, we lost the historical context of many of the ideas and the comparison of the differing theoretical explanations was problematic - something the more traditional lecture approach achieved more easily.

I am however also using PBL in another area. This is an optional module called International Economics which has a much smaller group of approximately 35 students. I still don't use "pure" PBL as I keep the whole group together throughout the session, however I do not do lectures or give handouts to students (apart from those containing the problems). Two main points came out of working on this module:

  1. with some areas of the syllabus, setting up problems is much easier than others. For example, it is fairly easy to give students the case history of a trade dispute and get them to work out the effects of protectionism (with relevant diagrams). However it is not so easy to build offer curves in this way! In the latter case, I have tended to give them a list of questions which they work through in order to build the model - often they work through them individually or in pairs and then get together in groups to explain their answers to each other and come up with a final answer to present to the class.
  2. The module was assessed by 100% examination and I felt that I had to give some incentive to encourage students to participate every week and also to do the necessary background reading. I did this through the use of "cue cards". Every two weeks students were allowed to hand in a one page set of notes based on the previous two weeks work (so they had one week in which to write up the notes and doing the reading). These they would receive back in the examination hall. They could not hand in notes on these topics at any other time (so if they missed that hand in date, they would not have any notes in the exam hall on that topic). They also could not include diagrams in their notes - these could be described but not drawn - in this way they had to be understood rather than copied out of a book. In the last week of the module, they also received these notes back and were allowed to build on them in the two hour revision session.

Again student attendance was high throughout the semester (90%) and most students handed in 4 or 5 cue cards (5 being maximum). When I started this way of teaching, I fully expected some complaints about the lack of lectures and, particularly, the lack of handouts - but very few students have mentioned this in feedback. In fact the feedback (for the two years I have tried this) has been pretty positive - some comments have been:

"The lesson system and problems was very good - much better than just talk."
"The idea of the cue cards is good. I found the necessity of writing notes helped me recall a lot of information."
"It was different and a very good way of learning. There was a lot more class discussion and very well taught".

Some however did not like it - and preferred the lecture/seminar format: for example of the 27 feedback replies this year, 15 were very positive about PBL, 5 didn't like it, 4 were not bothered and 3 didn't answer!! More liked the cue cards (21 Positive, 4 negative, 2 not bothered - and they all answered this time!)

The first year I ran the module this way, one of the main comments was that it had forced them to read more and to read more throughout the module. So this last year I specifically asked them if they agreed with this comment and whether they had read any book apart from the set textbook. Most of the students agreed with the comment and also set they had read outside the main text. However most had only read another textbook! So although they are reading - it is still very much textbooks and a small range at that.

Particular comments here were:

"It has kept me up to date with my reading rather than cramming at the end."
"Making notes and handing it in allowed more reading around topics from start to finish."
"I reviewed each week materials after the class".

I do have to say that in the two years I have taught the module there has been a great atmosphere in class - lots of discussions, trying to think through things (rather than waiting to be told) and lots of laughter. Working in groups in class has tended to be a big factor in this and I think this is something ignored by many commentators on PBL.

To sum up: I am convinced the PBL style is a major aid to improving student attendance;

I am convinced it does encourage students to try and think through problems.


  • I think it struggles in teaching the more theoretical areas.
  • I think it has not been as positive in the area of student reading as hoped for.
  • I think that it cannot be used without the traditional methods generally - especially in large classes.
  • I think part of the reason students loved it in my International Economics class was its novelty.

So in conclusion, I think I am still sceptical, but perhaps a little less so.

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