Engaging students in PBL tutorials

UM FASoS Philip Post winnaar Education Prize 2017 FASoS

By Philip Post

Engaging students is important in any educational context, but is crucial to a proper working of Problem-Based Learning. In our system, students are in control of the learning process and the participation of the students therefore largely determines the quality of the tutorials. But how can you as a tutor make sure that everyone feels engaged and contributes to the discussions?

One of the key things I have learnt is that not everything depends upon you. One of the great mysteries for me is how it is possible that in the same course, on the same day, three groups can function so differently even though my questions, examples (and often my jokes) are almost completely the same. While one group reacts enthusiastically, another group looks at you as if you are talking to them in Limburgian. But even though you are not omnipotent as a tutor, there are some things that you can do to engage students.

I believe the key is in the proverb ‘prevention is better than cure’. It is crucial to engage all students right from the get-go, because in my experience the group dynamic is formed at the beginning of a course and does not tend to evolve very much throughout the course. Active groups tend to stay committed, while more passive groups are likely to remain aloof.

To ensure participation right from the start, students should feel comfortable among each other and with you right from the start. Because the tone is set at the beginning, the first two or three meetings are crucial. It is important to have an interactive introduction in which students get to know each other and already talk a lot to each other. By asking questions and finding out about the students’ interests, you can then immediately create a good atmosphere. In addition, it is good to talk about the different roles in PBL and discuss what makes for good participation and what the role of the chair is. I would suggest asking one of the more experienced or enthusiastic students to perform the role of the chair for the first meeting, so that a good example is immediately given.

In the first two meetings, I refrain from adding much in terms of content, but instead I focus on stimulating participation.  I think it is important that every student speaks in the first sessions, because otherwise it will only become more and more difficult for quiet students to jump in. This does not mean that I point fingers and ‘force’ people to speak, but by asking relevant, indirect questions, you can ensure that everyone participates. For example, I would not say “William, you haven’t spoken so far, could you please contribute”, but instead I would ask “William, you’ve told us that you’re from South-Africa, is populism an issue there as well?”. To be able to ask these indirect questions, you do need to know where someone comes from or has travelled to, which is why it is important to make extensive notes during the introduction. These indirect questions show that you remember and are interested in students’ individual background. In addition, in case a somewhat shyer student does participate, it is good to compliment him or her and to refer back to the point this student has made. This shows them that you thought their contribution was relevant, which hopefully motivates them to participate even more. You can also do this via e-mail and inform students that you were pleased with their contribution or talk to quiet students in the break or after class. Regularly having feedback sessions with the students also makes sense, as this is an opportunity to address the group dynamic and everyone’s role in this.

In case the group is not very active at all, it can be beneficial to switch things up a bit. What could help is to divide the group up into smaller subgroups of around four persons. Each subgroup then has to reflect on a concept or learning objective for about half an hour. Afterwards, you recommence with the regular session and ask the subgroups to share their ideas. This could be helpful in engaging the students because it is often easier for students to first discuss ideas in a smaller group and then do the same thing in the larger group. This works especially in short courses that only consist of three or four meetings and in which there is little time for a group dynamic to emerge.

These are just some suggestions to engage students in the learning process, there are of course many other ways to go about doing this and any other suggestions are more than welcome!

About the Author

Philip Post (1989) is a historian and political scientist who works as a junior lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and teaches in the Bachelor programmes Arts and Culture, European Studies and University College Maastricht. Philip was elected BA AC ‘Tutor of the Year 2016/2017’.