PBL – People Based Learning?

By Kirstin Herbst and Sarah Goosens

As second-year students in the Bachelor European Studies, we can look back on two years of experience with Problem Based Learning (PBL). PBL has both fostered our knowledge and taught us many skills. We fulfilled different roles in the PBL group setting, ranging from hungover free-rider to the well-prepared, responsible chair. We had the opportunity to learn about PBL in theory – oh, dear seven steps! – and in practice through lectures and tutorials. And after all this time, we are still convinced that PBL is the right educational system for us – an opinion we hopefully share with many people at FASoS.

We considered writing about how different groups and tutors affected our learning process. Or about how self-study is not equal to studying alone. But instead, we want to write about one aspect of PBL that we find crucial: collaboration during tutorials. Before every PBL tutorial, we enter the room not knowing how the discussion will evolve, but we always leave with new knowledge in our minds. In that way, PBL surpasses the individual learning process. While tutors are aware of their influence on this, a student perspective on group dynamics is probably different.

Two skills that we deem important in group dynamics are open-mindedness and active listening.

We see two ways in which PBL improves open-mindedness. First, people can have different interpretations of the same question. Students read the same texts and attend the same lectures, but everyone has their own understanding of how to answer the question. Discussing helps us to better understand the subject while staying open to answers other than our own.

For instance, both of us had moments in EU Politics when tutorial discussions led us to reflect differently on the EU institutions. During a tutorial about the European Commission, two students discussed how important they find the Commission in comparison to the European Parliament. Regardless of whether we agreed with them, it brought up new perspectives on the EU. This proved very useful, as one of the exam questions was about advising the EU on how to improve its democratic quality. The discussions provided us with perspectives on this question we might not have had without attending our tutorial. In another tutorial, the discussion turned towards the role of the elites within the EU. Opinions ranged from “the elites are enlightened and should independently make decisions” to “the elites are fundamentally corrupt, the ‘honest working (wo)man’ should govern through direct democracy”. Neither of us sees themselves at one complete end of the spectrum, but the realisation that there is no inherent agreement on these matters led to a different thought process.

Second, training open-mindedness in tutorials made us reduce the bias of our own background. A group is composed of individuals with different prior knowledge and experiences. To ensure collaboration, we had to get used to the fact that some of our “givens” are unknown to our peers. For example, one of us is from Belgium, a multilingual state and experienced multilingualism as viable in a political system. So, during a tutorial about the many official EU languages, she tried explaining how this diversity could be sustained. But she mostly met sceptical faces. Germans and Italians could not relate to her point, because they had diverging experiences with language. Since then, she always thinks twice before assuming a commentary will be crystal clear to everyone.

When it comes to the other crucial skill, active listening, PBL demands another communication strategy than the one picked up intuitively. Obviously, we do not listen to our peers’ contributions in the same way as to our friends’ love life anecdotes. During tutorials, we listen with the aim of understanding an argument while indicating our own position. So, being able to actively listen becomes important to show involvement with the group learning process. Active listening is the act of signaling understanding, encouragement or disagreement while a person is talking. Active communicators are the building blocks of a discussion, while passive students can slow it down.

This becomes most obvious when we have a lot of control over the group process: the much-anticipated process of chairing. We had chairs who asked questions and then proceeded to be captivated by their laptop, seeing lifting the awkward silence as the fulfilment of their purpose. Others tried to get rid of the silence by directly asking certain students to contribute when the crickets were chirping too loudly. If these students were already slightly unsure before, this could be downright painful. Yet, we also saw great chairs who brought about an inclusive atmosphere and fruitful discussion. Good chairs encouraged participation non-verbally. Consequently, they eased shy students’ doubts about “does what I am saying make sense?”. An actively listening chair is essential to get the discussion going and make all students feel like they can speak up safely.

So, in sum, active listening and open-mindedness often helped us to bring tutorials from “individuals reading out their notes” to “a group creating common understanding”. These tools are essential to learn from others and work together, and they will certainly prove useful in our future academic or professional path. Finally, as reflecting on skills development is integral to PBL, we hope this entry offers the chance for others to do so as well.

About the authors

Kirstin Herbst (1998) and Sarah Goosens (1999) are second year students at FaSoS. They aim at obtaining their bachelor’s degrees in European Studies in 2020.