Maastricht University Book on Research-Based Learning receives international attention in Book Review
Bringing reality into the classroom

On Thursday 26 October, EDLAB hosted a Teach-Meet on ‘PBL problem design’. The Teach-Meet is an initiative by EDLAB with the aim to create a platform for educators to exchange their knowledge and experiences with teaching at UM across faculties. With a long-awaited topic, this session attracted more than 50 UM teachers. Five speakers were invited to share their insights from practical experience and literature about how to design a PBL problem. The topic was chosen as it often came up in the third edition of the Teach-Meet.

Problems should match with prior knowledge

Michael Capalbo (FPN) is an educational psychologist and kicked off the session by emphasising that “problems should match with prior knowledge”. A good problem triggers discussion and activates prior knowledge. Without this it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to achieve quality learning goals let alone a good post-discussion. Michael gave advice on three levels:

1) What are the best problems?

Problems should be clear, but not too clear.
They should contain a challenging trigger to learn more .
Know your audience: Match the problem with the worldviews and interests of the students.
Be concrete, authentic and relevant.

2) According to didactical literature, problems should:

Serve as a preparation for profession.
Focus on recent issue and/or contain news-value.
Be multidisciplinary.

3) Tips & tricks from own experience:

Create problems between half a page to max. two pages of length.
Be creative and use attractive visualisations.
Don’t expect students to discuss graphics by themselves.
Create the right focus for learning goal formulation.
Avoid questions.
Attach good tutor manuals.

Christopher Pawley (MSP) affirmed Michael’s points. He started off with some insights and structural elements from literature and elaborated from his personal experience. The guiding element of his pitch was inspired by the importance of  problem design and the need for participants to reflect, review and research (the 3 R’s) in order to identify context, connect new elements and understand content (the 3 C’s).

According to literature, Chris argued that what makes a good problem are foremost three elements:

  • Hook students by means of the problem
    • Real, genuine and authentic
    • Build on prior knowledge
    • Relevant for their future
  • Find appropriate depth
    • All levels of students can do something with it
    • Not too long
    • Not too specific
  • Include a plot twist
    • Education comes through learning something new
    • Can be induced through something contradictory (opposite to what they already know or just learnt) or counter-intuitive

Regarding implementation, Chris argued that these are all tips to design a problem in the first place but what is most important is to review and refine your problem every time. The most important aspect of that is probably not literature but the participants, so get feedback and try out something new next time. Chris’ references can be found below, in the further reading section.

Madalena Narciso (LAW) only recently started working at Maastricht University, and provided an outsiders perspective on PBL. What differentiates UM’s PBL from other universities? She argued that it is the problem description and the sub-sequent pre-discussion that is a great factor of what makes PBL unique. She underlined the advantage of heterogeneous groups as this is what allows students to acquire a broad perspective.

Kelly Geyskens (SBE) breaks to the audience that it is not possible to create an ideal task. She also argues that it is important to have introductory courses, in which students have the chance to properly understand PBL. Illustrating her points with many examples from the field of marketing, she gives the following tips for problem design:

  • Balance obvious vs. difficult
  • Relevant context – make it vivid
  • Balance monotonous – diversity
  • Be flexible and updated

Echoing the points made by previous speakers, she reiterated the following:

  • Make sure that the context is based on the real-world, relevant and interesting
  • Relate to your students prior knowledge
  • The functionality of tasks is group-dependent: tutor manuals key
  • Most tasks are related: build them on one another
  • Have variations of the 7-steps (e.g. role plays, newspaper items)
  • Have feedback meetings with tutors

René Gabriëls (FASoS) is known for creative problem designs. The audience was looking forward to hearing his insights into the topic. Rather than engaging in the discussion about PBL task design, René criticised the role of normalising specific teaching methods such as PBL. He questioned the usefulness of educational research and policy making and placed it in the context of the neoliberalisation of the university. His solution to this is radical critique, which he brought forth in the context of the Teach Meet.

We appreciate the stimulating discussion that followed the contributions. We thank all attendees and especially the participants for sharing their experiences. We are happy to see the increasing interest and diversity in the audience and already look forward to our next Teach Meet.

  • Hung, W. (2009). The 9-step problem design process for problem-based learning: Application of the 3C3R model. Educational Research Review, 4(2), 118-141.
  • Barrett, T., & Moore, S. (2010). New approaches to problem-based learning: Revitalising your practice in higher education. Routledge.
  • Weiss, R. E. (2003). Designing problems to promote higher‐order thinking. New directions for teaching and learning, 2003(95), 25-31.

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