On a mission: helping students to make better use of the pre-discussion

By Jasmijn van der Most

When I was a student in the Bachelor in European Studies (BA ES), I thought that a PBL pre-discussion worked as follows: you read the assignment text, scan it for difficult words, and you put them on the whiteboard. Then you connect the words and you come up with some questions. A couple of years later, when I started tutoring in the BA ES, I found out that this was apparently not how a pre-discussion should be conducted. One colleague, Sven Schaepkens, even coined the term “concept darting” for this practice.

It seemed that I had not been the only one with this misconception, because my students would resort to it every chance they got. Simultaneously, however, they complained about the uselessness of pre-discussions or just went through the motions, without being really engaged. The pre-discussions clearly did not do what they were meant to do: stimulate pre-knowledge and discussions, teach students to detect problems, and on the basis of this, learn to formulate coherent questions. Hence, I resolved to look for ways in which I, as a tutor could help my students improve the quality of our pre-discussions.

I had already focused on setting explicit standards and pushed my students to explain why they wanted certain concepts on the board, but I also decided to treat the seven-step approach in a more flexible manner, already for first years. I have experienced this approach as a useful guideline, but a rigid application of it may limit student creativity. For example, visualising a brainstorm often happens by jotting down concepts. Therefore, this is what students think they should provide. Students might not try to come up with fully fledged ideas, because they believe they have to start thinking based on important key words. Or they have fully fledged ideas, but they have difficulty putting them in a key word.

I first experimented with letting the seven-step approach go completely, with an unsurprising result: the tendency of the students is to go straight to the learning objectives and to base them off key words in the text. Interestingly enough, the learning objectives they came up with were usually quite decent, but the problem that remains is that such a pre-discussion does not have any added value for the students. It is as if they formulate the questions on autopilot, not thinking about the problem, not thinking about why.

After this, I started employing a ground rule: steps cannot be skipped, but they can be mixed. I have noticed that I do not think in the boxes of the seven steps and neither do my students – and, as the EDview project again made clear, PBL is also about more than just the seven steps. At times, it is needed to brainstorm about what the text is actually about before a problem statement can be formulated. Sometimes suggestions are insufficient for the problem statement, but they could be relevant for the brainstorm, or sometimes students immediately come up with a relevant learning goal and are able to explain why. In the past, I used to encourage my students to save this for later, but now I let them write it down, although we do get back to what we were doing before. I feel like this allows the students to think more freely.

I have also started to stand outside of the group  more – a strategy that we discussed during last year’s PBL Movie Night. The tutor is often viewed by the students as someone who already knows where the students should be going. This might make students think that there is only one set of good learning objectives. Consequently, they may remain silent because they think their ideas are wrong, overly rely on the tutor, or try to meet the tutor’s expectations by using concepts as hints to identify what is “important”. Ideally, standing outside of the group puts more focus on students’ own ideas. When I started trying this, I found it had the desired effect in some cases, but not always. I think it is important to first have developed a solid standard of how to do a pre-discussion within the group, before students can be left to fend for themselves.

By making these small changes throughout my second year of teaching, I have noticed that my students have found it easier to produce a useful pre-discussion. Nevertheless, I have also realised that there are no easy fixes to ensure the quality and of pre-discussions. This depends on many more factors beyond the students’ and an individual tutor’s control, such as the quality of the assignment texts and the existence of a degree of harmonisation in how tutors approach the pre-discussion, which are issues that are worth looking into as part of the ongoing process of revising the BA ES.

About the author

Jasmijn has experienced PBL as a student in the Bachelor and the Research Master in European Studies, and later in the role of teaching assistant in the Bachelor in European Studies. Within this capacity, Jasmijn has been a tutor in numerous tutorial groups, as well as a mentor to new students. Come 2020, Jasmijn will exchange Maastricht for Stockholm in order to start her PhD on the activities of Scottish, Catalonian and Flemish pro-independence parties in Brussels.