The erosion of PBL at FASoS?

By Patrick Bijsmans & Mirko Reithler

Problem-based learning (PBL) is at the heart of teaching at Maastricht University and at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS). It is a student-centred approach to learning: students encounter problems that contextualise a learning process that emphasises the importance of self-directed, collaborative and constructive learning. But there is theory and there is practice. 12 years ago, Jos Moust, Henk van Berkel and Henk Schmidt published an article entitled ‘Signs of erosion: Reflections on three decades of problem-based learning at Maastricht University’. They give an excellent overview of the original premises of PBL, but also of the challenges to implement PBL. Last year, these challenges were discussed in university newspaper Observant, with interviews with Henk Schmidt (a key figure in the development of PBL in Maastricht and beyond and a guest at our faculty two years ago), Virginie Servant (a researcher at Rotterdam University) and Walter Jansen (from EdLab, the university’s education lab).

Why is this discussion important? Simple: Maastricht University prides itself on using PBL, yet at the same time many of the core ideas of this approach to teaching and learning have come under pressure. We have both been involved in several PBL-related initiatives, from the Leading in Learning project ‘Updating PBL at FASoS’ to the EdLab project on PBL and research skills, and of course the University Teaching Qualification. Based on our experience, and taking into account the aforementioned article, we believe that there are at least three key PBL challenges that we should discuss at FASoS:

  • Self-directed learning

Whereas one of the central elements of PBL is to gradually have students search their own sources (a valuable skill for research, the thesis in particular), in many courses, literature is actually pre-determined. We do not have to throw first-year students in the deep straightaway, but we could gradually decrease our intervention; from specific reading lists with page numbers, via one long reading list at the end of the course manual, to no reading lists. In some courses learning objectives are even pre-scribed, which puts teaching staff in the lead, not students. Yet, it is our experience that, with proper and continuous training, students are quite capable of formulating good learning objectives. It also provides them with ownership of the learning process and stimulates a better understanding of the topic at hand.

  • PBL as (research) process

PBL essentially mimics a research process, starting with a puzzle (the problem statement). Students try to find out what we already know, and what they still need to know to be able to better understand the puzzle. Based on this exercise, students draft research questions (the learning objectives) that will guide their research. We believe that the pre-discussion is vital in this context, but it is often rushed through: pre-knowledge is not discussed, and there is a focus on keywords instead of on the general problem. During the post-discussion, there is a tendency to emphasize solving rather than understanding the problem – as if there are clear-cut answers to problems in the humanities and social sciences.

  • The role of teaching staff

Throughout the years, teaching staff have become ever more central to PBL; from the ideal-type facilitator discussed throughout the literature on PBL, we increasingly hear students talk about some colleagues adopting or encouraging a more old-school lecturing approach. We have seen tutor instructions of 80-100 pages that sketch out every point to be discussed and every learning objective to be phrased. Lectures are increasingly focused on additional knowledge transfer, rather than on support for learning in tutor groups. And, generally, tutors seem to focus on content instead of on learning process. We both make a point of evaluating the group process regularly (even at the end of every tutor meeting!), and often hear students say that they never did this before. Yet, it is through reflection on the learning process that students also learn to learn.

These are just three points that we feel that should and canbe tackled. We would like to start this discussion by inviting you to join in. Do you agree with our diagnosis? Maybe you have some solutions to offer? Or maybe you have additional points that you would like to address? So, react to this blog, by commenting below or by drafting your own post.