Using writing in PBL: Less talking – more ideas

John HarbordBy John Harbord

The typical PBL session: some students talk, some are silent – are the silent ones not contributing because they didn’t do the reading, because they are shy, or why? It’s often hard to tell. Some show off their knowledge, making less confident ones feel inferior; others just show off, but say little that is useful. And whether germane or not, that first comment often directs or even sidetracks the discussion so other good ideas sometimes remain unspoken.

One problem of traditional, oral PBL is that of 12-14 students, only one can speak at once. And the competition to seize the floor favours the most confident. Using writing in PBL can change that dynamic, allowing greater participation, giving shy students the chance to articulate and share their thoughts, and feeding a multiplicity of ideas into the discussion. Additionally, students practice drafting coherent written arguments, and come away with a permanent record of their thoughts.

As tutor, you can introduce short writing exercises (one- to five-minute essays) at various stages in the session. At the beginning of stage 7 they could write about the most important thing they have learned in their research, or the most important question that remains unanswered for them. Sharing these notes in small groups can help to structure the exchange of information and opinion, which can be difficult when learners are not experienced in effective collaboration.

The same questions at the end of stage 7 could prompt students to summarise what they have taken away from the session, or what they still need to think about. Questions such as “what learning objective of the course does this relate to”, or “how does this relate to stuff we have learned in previous courses”, can help students to step back and see the bigger picture. In stages 1-5 of the PBL process, short “essays” can invite students to reflect on what they expect of the new assignment, how it seems to relate to previous sessions, or to what concepts really mean and why (one example is the pre-discussion preparation form used in the BA ES course An Introduction to Academic Research and Writing). Prompts for writing can also help students reflect on the process of PBL, their personal experience of it, and how it can be improved. The only golden rule is not to always do the same thing.

When you ask students to write, initially you as tutor will need to give clear instructions. Tell them the task, write it on the board, tell them how long they have to write, warn them when there is 30 seconds left, tell them when to stop. When students have done some writing, there are several things you can do with it: they can share in small groups (3s-4s); they can swap with one person; they can pass the papers around for others to read, or stick them on the wall (if they are handwritten). On the surface, this may seem like extra work. Actually, however, it is alternative work. These activities make students engage with and relate to course content in line with best practices of collaborative learning. They may agree on the most interesting, relevant, provocative response and share it; or synthesise multiple comments into one; or respond to written comments, either orally to the small group or whole group, or in writing, which can later be shared again. In other words, there are several possible options.

All of these activities do two things which traditional oral discussion techniques used in many PBL sessions don’t always do well: first, they help level the playing field of contribution, in that every student who can write down an idea has something to share, and time in which to develop it without fear of being talked down. Secondly, because all ideas are generated before any evaluation takes place, giving each idea a fair chance, more ideas are likely to be fed in, so that students thus discuss more aspects of the problem.

But isn’t this too tutor-led to be real PBL? Perhaps it is more that we are just used to the oral model: it happens the same way in every PBL session and every student knows it. Written PBL activities need to be more tutor-led because they are new and unfamiliar; when they become familiar, good chairs can manage them without tutor intervention. And we need to move away from the idea that the minimalist tutor is the best tutor. The best tutor is the one who best helps students to learn and to organise their own learning: any strategies that achieve that goal are in line with PBL.


John Harbord is Academic Writing Advisor at FASoS. As well as being director of the Center for Academic Writing at Central European University from 1999 to 2015, John has worked in various positions as a teacher and trainer of writing and language teachers in secondary and higher education in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China.