Problem-based learning: a sceptic’s diary



This paper outlines my own experiences in learning about problem-based learning (PBL) and my attempts to implement it (or elements of it) into my teaching at Brookes. It is a very personal paper, outlining one person’s experiences and feelings about PBL and also the problems and advantages gained from using it on one particular module. Basically this paper gives initial responses to ‘trying something different’ (for example PBL) and the rewards this can give.

Judith Piggott

The beginning

I first came across PBL in late 2002 when I attended an Economics LTSN meeting. Everyone in the meeting was talking about it and finally I plucked up courage to say ‘What is PBL?’ ‘Problem-based learning’ was the reply. Now I had heard of this but was not at all sure what it entailed. It seemed to be something that we did in seminars as an integral part of our economics modules anyway – to get students to sort out economic problems. But I was told it was really much more than this and that it was used for whole modules, and even whole degrees.

The basic idea, they said, was that not only do students identify solutions to a problem but they also identify what the problem is and the lecturer/tutor acts much more as a facilitator of learning.

I do have to admit that I found it difficult to grasp the vital difference between this and our seminar classes but kept an open mind and decided to investigate more. As luck would have it, after the meeting someone from the LTSN asked if I would be interested in trying out PBL and writing a diary for their website – from a sceptics point of view.

So this is how I found myself at Maastricht University – the home of PBL courses – attending a workshop on the use of PBL in Economics and Business Studies. The workshop was excellent, consisting of a small group of international colleagues all with an interest in finding differing ways to approach teaching and learning, and it provided a lot of food for thought.

The Maastricht experience

The first day – from 8.30 a.m. to 8.30 p.m. – was spent mainly showing us how the lecturing system does not work very well. A little ironic, I thought, that we sat in lectures telling us this for most of the day; obviously they didn’t want us to remember much!

A more practical approach was taken in the second day and we watched a PBL session in progress: Maastricht style. Maastricht University have what they call the ‘seven-step approach’ to PBL:

Preliminary discussion

Step 1 – Clarifying concepts

Step 2 – Defining the problem

Step 3 – Analysing the problem/brainstorming

Step 4 – Problem analysis/systematic classification

Step 5 – Formulating learning objectives

Self Study

Step 6 – Self Study


Step 7 – Discussion

Each group chooses a discussion leader to ‘chair’ the discussion and a ‘scribe’ to take notes.

We saw steps 1-5 demonstrated and it was impressive. The ‘conservative’ in me felt the tutor took a back seat a little too much. I expressed concern over the fact that the students, to my mind, had missed a major point of definition which caused confusion in much of the discussion, yet the tutor did not step in. The tutor did not see it that way.

I felt this point came out again when the workshop split into three groups and we set our own PBL tasks for use with the same student group the next day. I must admit that writing a PBL task is not as easy as it looks and it definitely pays to get feedback from colleagues or to work collaboratively. Otherwise, you could find yourself setting a completely different problem to what you thought you were!

Trying out the problem on the students was very useful and acting as a tutor to the group showed it is very hard to achieve the correct balance between too much intervention and too little. I felt this question of the level of intervention became more apparent in an accounting problem set by one group. The students needed ratios to consider the problem set and it was soon apparent that they had forgotten these and were guessing. Eventually the tutor intervened to ask them to reconsider what the ratios were and in the end told them the correct ones. However, this had taken some time and one could not help thinking that a 5-10 minute revision session by the tutor about what might be required in this problem would have saved much confusion. To my mind, there was also the risk of reinforcing mistakes by working on incorrect ratios.

We had a chance to chat to students over lunch and they were all very supportive of the PBL system in Maastricht. However, it was interesting that many felt it was sometimes too extreme and that some lectures or differing teaching methods would be refreshing. They also admitted that not all groups worked as well as theirs did; some just sat in silence and some students did not turn up prepared. The workshop did not cover how to deal with a ‘problem’ group, which I felt was a shame (good groups usually take care of themselves).

Discussion with colleagues also raised other questions about PBL. The biggest question was the resourcing problem. PBL requires small group work and most universities in the UK have growing student numbers, without similarly growing resources. Also, it would be hard to do PBL where a culture of PBL does not already exist. There would be a big risk of student complaints, such as ‘She never says anything’, ‘He never tells us the answer’, and so on. These complaints would be magnified if you were doing this alone.

From these discussions, I came away with some ideas to change elements of my teaching. Encouraging students to work more and find out the answers for themselves is obviously good and PBL did seem a good way to do this. In fact, many seminars already do this, but PBL gives the practice a more structured approach.

The Implementation

So in the 2003-2004 academic year, armed with my Maastricht experience, I took the first steps to trying out PBL in class at Brookes.

The first problem I experienced was that the module I had planned to use it on grew from 40 registered students to 118 over the summer vacation. I was therefore faced with co-ordinating 4 other seminar leaders and testing PBL on a large number of students – not ideal circumstances!

The module followed the following format: a 1.5 to 2 hour seminar using the PBL approach, followed by either a lecture or visiting speaker. This meant the PBL approach set up and started the learning process and the learning was confirmed in the lecture or talk afterwards when the basic theory and points which we hoped to raise were talked through. This is not the pure Maastricht approach, I know, but I felt this was the way forward for the time being given the newness for students and seminar leaders alike.

We presented students with a piece of information, usually in the previous week. In one case it was a balance sheet, in another some data, and in another a newspaper article. We then asked them if any terms needed clarifying. Once this was done, I asked ‘What strikes you about the information given?’ or ‘As a business/economics student what questions come into your mind from this information?’ I soon learned that students were reluctant to undertake this individually and that putting them into groups was a better way to get them to come up with a list of questions and points.

This tended to take 10-15 minutes, after which there was a plenary session where the 4 to 5 groups in the seminar discussed their questions and distilled them to a list for the seminar group as a whole. During this group discussion, I walked around the room visiting the groups and helping or asking relevant questions.

Once we had the questions, the groups were asked to come up with some suggested answers to their questions. Approximately 30 minutes was spent on this and then the group reported back and a general discussion ensued. Then reading lists to support the work done were handed out. This process constituted the basic format.

Problems encountered:

  1. The students did not read the PBL information beforehand, which wasted time at the start and reduced the ‘informed discussion’ element. Some way to get them to read the information beforehand is needed but unless it is tied to assessment this is difficult.
  2. At first students were reluctant to discuss. However the group approach encouraged this and after a couple of weeks, this worked well.
  3. Some students did not like this interactive learning approach. They were not used to it and wanted set questions and answers. These students voted with their feet and did not attend.
  4. Some staff could not or did not really understand the approach and therefore tended to dominate the seminars or not run them as PBL. For example, in one week, I gave the seminar leaders six questions that I expected to come from the data presented and gave them some notes on the questions to help them. I then dropped in on one of my colleagues class at the start only to find to my horror all six questions (meant to come out of student discussions) written on the board.
  5. The seminar seemed too long at two hours and this has been reduced now under the new semester system. A shorter time frame could suit this module better.


  1. Most students enjoyed the new approach and I felt gained significantly from discussions. These students also tended to do much better on the coursework.
  2. Students certainly learned to question more and think things through for themselves. It was interesting to see how they became more confident and talked more freely after the first few weeks.
  3. The lack of spoon-feeding via lectures tended to make the students more inventive and analytical in the assessed work. We had some excellent pieces of work. Comments on the module feedback said that they found the work hard but very interesting.
  4. Most seminar leaders gradually got used to the new approach and felt it worked well.

This was a new module and it has to be said that some of the problems, and advantages, came from running the new module, rather than from the PBL approach.

Reading beforehand is a problem for all modules but tends to have more impact on PBL, as informed discussion is a vital component.

The next steps

I am again trying out elements of PBL on the module discussed above – but with numbers now close to 140, it is very limited and I have not taken it any further than last year. On the other hand, two colleagues from London Metropolitan University and Andy Kilmister and myself from the Economics Department at Brookes have been successful in a bid to undertake a project for the Economics LTSN (which has now changed its name to Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy) for 2004-2005. This will look at introducing elements of PBL into first year economics modules, but mixing them with traditional teaching methods. This project is, obviously, very much in the initial stages.

Finally, I have decided to try the more ‘pure’ PBL approach on the option module, International Economics, which I run for the Economics Field. This has smaller numbers, 42 at last count, and will be run in two seminar groups, with no lectures and in a PBL format. It is 100% examination based assessment but with the use of cue cards in the examination. It will be interesting to see the results.


Judith Piggott is Head of the Economics Department and Principal Lecturer in Economics in the Business School. She teaches macroeconomics, international economics and has just moved into a new area looking at the business side of sports and entertainment. She has been producing the ‘PBL: a sceptic’s diary’ for the Economics LTSN (now known as the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy) since November 2002, and this paper is based on this diary.

Contact details

Judith Piggott
Business School,
Oxford Brookes University,
Wheatley Campus,
Oxford OX33 1HX
Telephone: 01865 485932
Fax: 01865 485830


Design Your Problem-Based Learning Course: A Hands on Experience – EDiNEB Workshop on December 9-11, 2002.

Piggott, J. (2003 and 2003), PBL: A Sceptics Diary, LTSN website:

Van Til, C. and Van der Heijden, F. (2001), PBL Study Skills; An Overview, Department of Educational Development and Research, Maastricht University.

Additional Sources about PBL:

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Double Blind Review
This paper has been subject to a double blind peer review by at least two reviewers. For more information about our double blind review process please visit:

How to cite this paper.
Posted in Practice Paper

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Subscribe to BeJLT

Get email alerts when there is a new issue.
* = required field

Send this page to Kindle

your kindle user name:
(, without
Approved E-mail:
(Approved E-mail that kindle will accept)
Kindle base email |
(Use to download on wispernet or wifi, use for wifi only.)
using may incur charges)