PBL Arena

by Catharina Wahls

The Problem with Problem-Based Learning:
An Arena for Critical Inquiry – Part I

For all of us, PBL offers a more, or sometimes less, important part of our academic life. The 7-steps of Problem-based learning seem to become ingrained into our brains whilst mastering our study programs. While at FASoS, the approach is slowly introduced during the introduction days and internalized day after day for the rest of our studies, UCM indoctrinates the approach during intensive training sessions before students have even been to an actual tutorial. Whereas within the walls of the SBE, the scope of the approach appears to merely serve as a smart marketing technique which then becomes abandoned after the first period, if not already after the first tutorials. When reflecting on the PBL system, it would, of course, be easier to assign the realization of PBL and its single steps
to simple faculty stereotypes. At the same time, it becomes interesting to critically discuss some strengths and weaknesses from a students-perspective. In the following ‘Arena’, the aim is to reflect on PBL’s complexity from a FASoS-based, Arts & Culture and European Studies, perspective. The first piece is written by myself, and will be further discussed by European Student and Mosaïek Board member Josephine Brouwer in the following issue.

In this article, the main aim is to reflect on how student opinions, which are selected in line with a more general socio-psychological approach, can be applied to critically discuss the PBL learning approach. Additionally, it should be emphasized that on such a basis, the focus lies on its weaknesses rather than its strengths, and it should be mentioned that this article does not encompass a complete picture.

Hence, my aim is rather to critically reflect on specific aspects of both the PBL approach and student opinions in order to expand the discussion, and raise awareness of such, within our community.

In one of my tutorials outside the walls of FASoS, I was introduced to a very specific teaching approach in connection to a rather psychological discussion of prejudice, discrimination and the ability to empathise. The course coordinator decided to give us the article “How the Columbine High School Tragedy Could Have Been Prevented” (2004) by Elliot Aronson. Although the article addresses a frame which might, or might not, apply to our academic bubble per se, the take home message sparked me as an inspira-
tion to be taken into the realm of PBL.

The author narrates how an American high school asked for researchers’ advice on how to create a more harmonious classroom interaction. After observing the behaviour in the classroom, the researchers were struck by a ‘highly competitive nature of the typical classroom’, which would then lead to tensions between students. Here, it is important
to emphasize that such social relations are not to be underestimated in terms of the impact on oneself (e.g. ending in anxiety). However, the team created a technique which aims to change social dynamics within a class room in a way that the organizational structure of the lesson encourages students to cooperate with each other, rather than to compete.

‘‘We called our technique the jigsaw classroom because it resembled the assembling of a jigsaw puzzle, with each student having a vital piece of the puzzle. Each student must learn his or her own section and teach it to the other members of the group who do not have any other access to that material. …

Each student takes the exam individually and is responsible for the entire lesson. Thus, the students quickly learn that their grade is dependent on their ability to learn from one another. ‘‘(Aronson, 2004) The PBL system creates a similar frame in which the goal is to solve a puzzle, or specifically a problem. Here, the puzzle concentrates on the different aspects which are involved in such problems, be it theories, facts or consequences. Although the approaches at first seem fairly similar, it appears that in the PBL framework a puzzle can be seen in the identification of the different aspects, whereas in the researchers’ approach the emphasis lies within the distribution of different pieces which create a vital whole. But how do we experience PBL in practice?
‘‘Although I know we are supposed to work together, it just sometimes feels that everyone is talking to the tutor anyways.’’ – Carla (Exchange Student)

Unlike in traditional classrooms, and unlike in line with PBL students’ experience, where students somehow still compete against each other, the jigsaw classroom has students depending on each other. As pointed out by one of the students in the interview, it appears that partly the goal can be to show the teacher how smart you are. Through the jigsaw process, the children are directed to pay more attention to each other; while in the process of paying attention they begin to gain more respect for each other. According to Aronson’s example of a student called Carlos, judged or discriminated students, like him, are treated differently within the realm of such a classroom, which results in an improvement on his and other’s behavior and confidence while simultaneously all chil-
dren showed a far greater liking for school than in traditional classrooms. In sum,
‘‘Compared to students in traditional classrooms, students in jigsaw groupsshowed a decrease in prejudice and stereotyping and an increase in their liking for their group mates, both within and across ethnic boundaries. In addition, children in the jigsaw classrooms performed better on standardized exams and showed a significantly greater increase in self-esteem than children in traditional classrooms.’’ (Aronson, 2004)
How does this apply to our specific PBL-based approach? Personally, I see a problematic tendency within the organization of the specific courses. While most of the times students have to read the same literature, discussions are fueled by the motivation of participation grades or clarification for literature that stands in the awakening context of ‘exam relevance’. While of course, a basic knowledge of the specific field, theories and facts has to be granted, I suggest that we have to reflect on how to bring our discussion beyond such. I feel like a distinction between a basic knowledge of the problem and dif-
ferent perspectives, or approaches, has to take place more clearly. In the latter, we would have the chance to dedicate a part of our time to jigsaw-based learning, aimed towards a problem-based understanding.

‘‘Although I really like the approach, I sometimes feel that it is a bit too high-school’ish. I feel like I had less reproduction- and more comprehension-based exams towards the end of my high school than in the exams I had here in Maastricht until now.’’                     Katharina (Regular Bachelor Student)

When discussing the idea for this article with one of my friends who is studying at UCM, he raised the question of how this would be realizable in terms of exams and assessments. His concern centered around the scenario that if somebody misses the class and thus a part of the group is missing to contribute his piece, this would cause trouble in being able to cope with later exams. However, I see a problematic tendency within the organization of the specific courses if we could make sure that everyone has a basic understanding due to mandatory literature and clarification-based lectures of the theories and historical context the problem centers around, as already mentioned above, the second part of the discussion could be dedicated to a vital interdependent puzzling of perspectives.


While in assessments like take home exams and presentations such concerns might be less applicable, the problem is more present in standardized exams. The suggested approach, on the one hand aims to exactly stress this dependence on each other, and on the other hand, gives freedom to work around strict reproductive exam structures. Here, exam questions could demand to choose from the perspectives that were distributed in class. In such a scenario, in which the perspective-based literature is divided among the class, this would allow students to have an in-depth understanding of a perspective, while making students dependent on each other during and after class, and at the same time still allowing students to catch up on literature if they miss class, either by asking for the literature or by asking for explanation.

However, when talking to other students, it became clear that there is a wish to redefine, or rather emphasize the role of the tutor. Some tutors appear to be very keen on showing that they can stand the ‘PBL-awkward silence’ throughout a whole tutorial, while others appear to be masters of dramatic monologues. Personally, I feel that the former can become very frustrating and unconstructive, while the latter fails to be in line with the PBL-work ethics.

‘‘In my opinion, PBL never works as intended, unless there is an experienced tutor with us. I feel like the most important task of the tutor is to jump in in the right moment. This moment is for me not only to tell us that we are on the wrong track but also to keep on stimulating the discussion in close cooperation with the chair. Additionally, I once had a very positive experience with a young tutor, who even dedicated 5 minutes of every beginning of the tutorial to remind us again what we missed or misunderstood during the last discussion. This was really helpful to me since at this point the information was processed to a certain point.’’ Toni (Regular Bachelor Student)

Ironically, I feel like the PBL system goes hand in hand with one of the main things I have learned in my ‘problem-based’ studies: every brilliant and innovative system, concept, philosophy, etc. still is a complex issue which embodies an infinity of discussions that demands to be redefined. In sum, dramatic monologues, awkward silences and competition, are on the one hand against the ideal and wishful thinking that might have
sparked our attention at first. But at the same time, it reminds us of the beau-
ty of our chaotic reality, which leaves us with the choice of taking an active
part in fueling the progress narrative.

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