For the times they are complex–Why PBL is more relevant than ever

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 9.48.06By Martin Wirtz & Lasse Gerrits

While Problem-Based Learning (PBL) still has an innovative air around it compared to traditional university teaching, it can hardly be claimed that it is “new”. Yet, we contend that PBL is more relevant than ever at a time when political actors and institutions such as the EU are increasingly faced with so-called complex policy problems. Given our particular theoretical angle and practical experiences gained by deploying PBL at our Chair for the Governance of Complex and Innovative Technological Systems (University of BambergGermany), we have recently presented some arguments in support of this claim. We summarise these in the following.

Complex (policy) problems are unstructured, ill-defined or even ‘wicked’: there are multiple problem definitions possible, rather than one being agreed or given. So it fits that in PBL, students have to define the problems they are confronted with in their assignments first. Our PBL-students would, for instance, be confronted with the following phenomenon: although based on scientific advice, the decisions of the European Commission in the domain of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have by no means been met with agreement from large parts of the public. Students then have to define the broader problem they want to address, ranging from formulations such as “How to successfully reform public risk regulation?” (Winter term 2017/2018) to a simple “How to govern risk?” (Summer term 2017). Yet, the match between PBL and complexity as a feature of today’s world (and of public policy) does not end here, as it extends also to the way in which complex problems are then addressed by the students.

Instead of being faced with an instructor preaching ‘Truth’ about the problem, its causes and potential solutions, in PBL, it is up to students to address the problems collectively – they are literally ‘in this together’. This mirrors policy practice: regarding GMOs, for instance, neither the EU-level nor member states can establish effective regulation alone, while at the same time, consumers and food industry depend on one another. Thus, classic hierarchies do not apply, which is associated with so-called ‘strategic complexity’. Moreover, the high number of actors involved entails that there will frequently be diverging opinions amongst the actors involved regarding problem definitions, their causes and solutions (so-called ‘substantive complexity’). GMOs, for instance, can be portrayed as a solution to world hunger, or as a risk to human and animal health. Such diverging views also tend to be found within the student group. The respective complexity-informed literature then recommends that a neutral network manager is selected to foster cooperation by means of process management strategies, a role that the Commission attempts to fulfil regarding GMOs and that PBL students get used to by chairing sessions.

Having said that, neither complexity theory nor PBL contradicts the idea of an objective reality ‘out there’. Instead, they acknowledge that our means to get to this reality are limited by the context of our endeavours. Similarly, just like complexity-informed governance approaches would not deny science a role in finding common ground regarding complex problems, PBL still allows for interventions by the instructor when it comes to a mere clarification of established facts or concepts. An example from our own experience include a situation where a student happens to simply confuse the activities risk assessment and risk management as classically defined and their respective (a)political nature.

Nonetheless, we would be betraying the emphasis on context following from a complexity perspective if we blindly recommended PBL as ‘best practice’ to be applied everywhere. On the one hand, as we have experienced ourselves, PBL and local study regulations must (be made) fit, especially in terms of incentive structures. In our courses in Bamberg, for example, we replaced the grading component that would normally consist of talk-and-chalk presentations with a grade for a student’s performance in chairing a session by assigning scores for both content and discussion leading.

On the other hand, we have also found that the seven steps of the PBL cycle should be fully adopted, for otherwise students might be confused for example about the role of the instructor in defining and addressing problems. This happened, for instance, during our first attempts to integrate PBL into teaching in Bamberg: we had individual students present their answers to predefined learning goals, in order to smoothen the transition from the format students were used to. Interestingly, recommendations we received from the students for changing the course format all pointed towards full-scale PBL. Once we did this, PBL has been evaluated as overwhelmingly positive by the students, who not only considered the teaching method as appropriate in standardised parts of evaluation surveys, but explicitly mentioned it as a feature to be kept in future semesters. What we can safely recommend, therefore, is that considering and testing PBL for one’s teaching or studies is worthwhile, as we think that PBL can help us come to terms with these complex times.


Martin Wirtz graduated from the BA programme in European Studies in 2010 and from the Research Master programme in European Studies in 2012. Thereafter, he completed his PhD at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences. Since 2016, he is teaching and researching at the Chair for the Governance of Complex and Innovative Technological Systems (University of BambergGermany).

Lasse Gerrits holds the Chair for the Governance of Innovative and Complex Technological Systems at the University of BambergGermany. He studied Public Administration and Urban Planning at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. After his graduation in 2003, he worked as a researcher at TNO Built Environment and Geosciences whilst working on his PhD thesis simultaneously (completed in 2008). He was appointed as assistant-professor (2008 – 2011) and associate-professor (2011 – 2014) at the Erasmus University Rotterdam before coming to the University of Bamberg.

Further reading

Barrett, T., & Moore, S. (Eds.). (2011). New approaches to problem-based learning. Revitalising your practice in higher education. New York: Routledge.

van Berkel, H., Scherpbier, A., Hillen, H., & van der Vleuten, C. (Eds.). (2010). Lessons from problem-based learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.