Performing PBL: the importance of creating atmosphere

The PBL-classroom is not only a site of learning, but also a site of performance; a metaphorical stage, in which individuals perform certain roles. The student, scribe, chair and tutor play their respective parts in a group effort to achieve meaningful learning. Literature on PBL characterises the role of the tutor as a “facilitator“of self-directed – student-led – group learning. The tutor, then, should observe the quality of the discussion.

However, tutors on the stage of the PBL-classroom know that improvising is also part of their performance: posed questions may not stimulate or deepen the discussion, or students may even experience ‘stage-fright’. Below, we discuss how to make PBL-actors feel at ease in their roles by offering our thoughts on the script of a tutorial.

Act 1: Starting the PBL-discussion

During the first tutorial of a course, all actors enter the stage of the PBL-classroom. While it may depend on the programme, year, or course, usually students are not familiar with each other, or with their tutor.

We believe that the tone for the rest of the course is set during the first few minutes of this first tutorial. Since successful PBL-discussions best occur when actors feel at ease in each other’s presence, an introduction round is vital. We do not mean a regular round of name-age-origin; we want to get to know fun facts, favourite novels, travel destinations… The more personal type of questions will encourage bonding, which is important, because the PBL-discussion, by its very nature, is a group effort.

At the beginning of every subsequent tutorial, tutors should put an effort into recreating this low-threshold atmosphere. They could, for instance, start by asking how the readings went, making sure students know that they are not the only ones who had difficulties with a particular text. If tutors acknowledge that ‘even they’ find a text challenging, they create an atmosphere for collaboratively tackling the text, and might take away students’ fear of providing ‘a wrong answer’.

Act 2: During the PBL-discussion

The tone has been set: the PBL-discussion is underway. PBL-discussions are first and foremost verbal performances. Ideally, students are engaged with the chair or with each other, while the tutor observes the dialogue as the ‘director’ of the metaphorical stage play. However, what if students break the ‘fourth wall’ and direct themselves to the tutor? Should the tutor immediately enter the discussion at the risk of instilling a cycle of tutor question (“What does this concept mean?”) – student response (“I think this means…”) – tutor evaluation (“Very good.”)?

This situation in the PBL-classroom illustrates an easily overlooked part of any discussion: non-verbalcommunication. To avoid directing the discussion towards them, tutors can make use of non-verbal performances. Tutors can direct their gaze back to the group, conveying the message that it is the group’s responsibility to answer questions. Similarly, tutors can also look at non-speaking students during the discussion, to nudge shy students in a non-confrontational way to also share their reflections.

When tutors intervene verbally, students might suffer from ‘stage-fright’ when receiving the impression that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. When posing questions and evaluating responses with an outright “That is (not) correct.”, the discussion might come to a stand-still. Therefore, teacher-led discussions should be as non-judgmentalas possible by valuing any response as input to the discussion. When evaluating factual knowledge, do not point out a wrong answer; instead, ask if there are students who hold a different view. When evaluating more interpretative answers, ask the group to reflect on the implications of an answer. Explicitly stating that discussing is about finding the best way to approach a challenging issue together, might make students feel more at ease.

Act 3: Concluding the PBL-discussion

Self-directed learning is at the heart of PBL. Students should learn to recognise good PBL-practices and think of possible improvements. A reflection at the end of each tutorial session will enhance the performance of each respective role.

Students tend to pack their bags when they hear you say: “Thank you for chairing, Laila”. Instead of letting them leave immediately, take a moment to make them co-responsible for the success of the tutorial. Make them reflect on the performance of the group, chair and tutor. When students leave the tutorial with a sense of ownership, this might make them more confident next time they enter the PBL-stage.

Next time might be in a new course, with a new tutor and new group. The last tutorial session of a course is a nice venue to reflect on best PBL-practices for future courses. Such reflections serve to enhance students’ self-understanding as members of a team, which is beneficial to both their academic and professional careers.

In conclusion, this blog post is both an advice and appeal to the emphatic and social side of the process of facilitation. Within the PBL-classroom, a good atmosphere is fundamental to an effective discussion. Taking this into account, what do you actually do during the tutorial break?

About the authors

Maud Oostindie and Robin Schormans teach BA courses in Arts & Culture and European Studies and as supervise BA theses. They were voted best tutors by the BA students in 2019, winning the annual FASoS Education Award.