What place for lectures in the Problem-Based Learning process?

Versie 2By Afke Groen

My first lecture at university was a nightmare. I thought I had prepared well. I had extensively read the assigned material, and had completely based the lecture on that. If I would just stand behind the microphone and read out what I prepared, I was going to be just fine. Then, students started to chat. Worse, some lay face down over their table, apparently taking a nap. Of course there were some eager students in the front, but overall, I felt rejected as a lecturer.

After a sleepless night, I figured this was not about my skills to deliver a lecture, but about the lecture’s design. Maastricht University’s vision on education is about the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) environment, mostly known for its small tutorial groups in which students and staff collaborate. What place then for lectures in this environment? While criticisms have been raised against traditional lectures, I think there is much to say for the argument of Fyrenius, Bergdahl and Silén that lectures are valuable if used well. Crucially, they argue that lectures can enhance students’ experience of relevance, activate pre-understandingand help to explore difficult concepts. I thus re-designed my lectures in three ways.

First, I changed the structure and presentation of content. In terms of structure, I previously did not pay attention to the logical connection between the various elements I covered. No wonder students lost attention: by the time I arrived at my elaboration on how to apply Process Tracing, they had probably forgotten its purpose. In my redesigned lecture, I make sure that various elements collectively form a coherent story. I present four elements of the definition of Process Tracing at the start, and then show how I address these in the four sections of the lecture. I end each section with a brief summary, and then come back to the full definition at the end.


In terms of presentation, I try to speak to different types of learners. To accommodate both sequential and global learners, I include indications of where we are on the bottom of every slide. I refer to what was said earlier through the inclusion of boxes that contain part of a previous slide, and present visuals of the lecture’s structure. To speak to both sensing and intuitive learners, I include real-world illustrations to accompany concepts. I find that this can easily be combined with ways to speak to both visual and verbal learners. For example, in my lecture on Process Tracing, I provide a verbal explanation of inductive and deductive research, along with two pictures that illustrate the different research processes in real life: a child affected by the Zika-virus and the LIGO interferometer. All in all, with these efforts I hope to provide a coherent exploration of difficult concepts for various students – the third of the three purposes of lectures in PBL according to Fyrenius, Bergdahl and Sirén.


Second, to reach the first purpose of enhancing students’ experience of relevance, I try to create synergies between the PBL tutorials and my lecture. My aim is to ‘bring the content to life’ to encourage those students that may not have intrinsic interest in the particular subject of the lecture. I thus open my lectures with a story: in my lecture on Process Tracing about a student who struggles with the thesis, in my lecture on legislatures about something fascinating that recently happened in a parliament. Throughout my lectures, I provide illustrations of actual practice in relation to the more complex concepts I address. For example, to explain parliamentary control, I talk about a parliamentarian I interviewed who has had to bike back and forth to the parliament to video call with a minister who had to deviate from her mandate during Council negotiations.


Third, and perhaps most importantly, I attempt to activate pre-understanding during lectures. An easy way to do so is to ask students to shout the answer to a question I ask. For issues that are more complicated, I ask students to deliberate in small groups. Integrating pauses in lectures also offer a great opportunity to stimulate reflection. In a 2-hour lecture, I include about 4 to 5 of such small exercises. Their basic principle is always that students think and debate before I explain an issue in more detail, because this ‘promote[s] the habit of thinking during the lecture’. Here, lectures can also be made collaborative in a PBL spirit: collaboration with course coordinators and tutors about issues students struggle with, and with students about questions to be discussed in a next lecture. Such “quectures” can be followed up with a final lecture in which students consult other experts on the topic.

Examples from my lecture on Process Tracing, 27 February 2018

These changes have worked for me. I would love to hear your advice on how to improve lectures, so please leave your comments below!


Afke Groen is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and the Amsterdam Institute for German Studies. She teaches mostly in skills training courses in the BA European Studies. Next to her research on transnational party activities in the European Union, she also researches various aspects of teaching and learning at university.