5 Designing a PBL environment

This section exemplifies organisational structures for full and partial problem-based learning environments. In each case, the PBL environment is designed for a 12-week semester, although the structure could be adapted for other circumstances. The assumption in this section is that modules organised on a PBL basis are allocated the same resources as an equivalent module organised on a TLS basis.

Top Tip:

Before making serious changes to your teaching approach, have a trial run with PBL by designing and implementing one PBL task only (perhaps having only one of the original tutorial groups complete the task). You can then decide how to proceed after this experience.

5.1 Preparing students and staff

For a PBL environment to be successful, staff and students must be aware of what is expected of them and they must be equipped to carry out their designated roles. This section summarises an approach to this preparation.

During the first class students are given a PBL handbook containing the following information:

  • A brief description of the PBL process as outlined in Figure 2, and the time available for each stage.
  • A description of how group meetings are structured, including the appointment and role of task leaders and recorders.
  • The required response to PBL tasks, whether presentations, written reports, etc. The minimum requirements for each type of response are also stipulated.
  • The assessment process, including the assessment criteria used to grade responses.
  • Stipulation of every PBL task, including learning outcomes, reading guidelines, hints for task leaders, etc.
  • How ‘free-riders’ are penalised.

Students can also access the PBL handbook using the online facility for the module. E-mail communication between teacher and students is maintained throughout the teaching period.

Before the teaching period begins, it is essential to have a meeting with members of the teaching team who will be acting as facilitators during PBL sessions. Tutors should also be provided with the PBL handbook that is given to students. Difficulties may arise in PBL sessions because tutors have no previous experience of PBL, interfere too much with student governance of the PBL process, or interpret ‘facilitating’ as ‘doing nothing’. It is therefore helpful to have a preliminary meeting with tutors to explain why PBL is being introduced, the potential benefits (and problems) of adopting PBL, the importance of facilitating student self-directed study rather than inhibiting the process, and how PBL sessions will operate. It is essential that regular communication is maintained with tutors throughout the teaching period so that difficulties are identified and dealt with quickly.

Consistency in approach by all tutors is vital. It is wrong, for example, for one tutor to deal with ‘free-riders’ while another tutor ignores the problem. Hard-working students are being disadvantaged in the latter case and, inevitably, the PBL environment will collapse. When using PBL on first-year modules, careful monitoring of groups throughout the teaching term is imperative. With first-year students there is a greater likelihood of poor self-discipline, which can lead to a breakdown of the group. Safeguarding against this possibility is a crucial role for tutors.

5.2 Setting up a partial PBL environment

This section discusses the introduction of PBL to replace the standard seminars in the situation presented in Figure 6. Note that the schedule below can be modified to suit the specific learning environment. The number of tasks can be reduced to any number, 1-4, as required.

Figure 6: Example organisation of a lecture and seminar format

  • 2 hours of lectures per week (either one 2-hour session or two 1-hour sessions)
  • a 1-hour seminar per week
  • one tutor per seminar group
  • seminar class size = 15–20 students
  • 12-week teaching period
  • assessment comprises coursework and final written examination

Each of the original seminar groups of 15–20 students is split into smaller PBL groups of 6–8 members and each of these groups operates independently from other PBL groups sharing the same seminar room. The size of some PBL groups may be reduced to 4–5 students where the original seminar size is relatively small. Each seminar group (2–3 PBL groups) is allocated one tutor who assumes the role of facilitator. The structure illustrated in Figure 6 assumes that two PBL groups have been formed and that there is one week to research the task between group meetings. Sufficient time for research between first and feedback meetings is imperative.

The partial PBL format depicted in Figure 7 is allocated 1 hour per week (less 5 minutes’ wastage due to class changeover, etc). Groups typically have 35 minutes for first-meeting sessions (55 minutes in the case of the first task), during which there is an initial ‘brainstorming’ discussion, identification of learning objectives and delegation of study tasks to be undertaken by group members during non-contact hours. One week later, each group has a 50–55-minute feedback discussion to formulate a response to the task. At the third meeting, 20 minutes are provided during which one group will formally present their response to both the tutor and the other discussion group using OHP facilities. The latter feature provides an opportunity for general class discussion and tutor feedback (formative and possibly summative). When a group does not have to make a verbal presentation, it must provide a written summary of its response to the facilitator for feedback. Providing opportunities for group presentations works well with first-year students. I tend to rely on written responses at other levels (though see Section 2.3 above, “Extending the limits of student self-governance”).

Figure 7 ‘Partial’ PBL environment: 12-week module using PBL structured seminars supporting lectures


1. Task = first meeting to discuss new task; Feedback = feedback meeting; Present = formal presentation by group to tutor and other group/s; Discuss = discussion of presentation by whole class.

2. In the last week, both groups formally present their response to the last task.

3. The above structure allows for five tasks to be completed, involving three formal presentations and two written responses, within the 12-week teaching period.

4. A third PBL group would mean that each group made two presentations and three written responses.

The structure illustrated in Figure 7 has been used successfully to teach introductory economics to single and joint honours economics students and non-specialists at the University of Ulster. All students undertaking PBL are asked to complete a questionnaire giving their views on their PBL experiences. A sample of both the positive and negative views and perceptions of Ulster students experiencing the partial system outlined above is provided in Figure 8.

Student perceptions of a partial PBL environment

All the students were in their first year, taking the same introductory economics module. The part-time students were employed in the public sector and were registered on a public sector studies programme. All students completed the UK housing task illustrated in section 3 above. The dominant feature of the positive comments (1 and 3–8, for example) is the synergy that can be generated when students work within small teams in a problem-solving context. The benefits that arise from regular student–student interaction cannot be overestimated, not only in terms of the sharing of ideas, but also in terms of helping to raise confidence (12 and 13) and helping students establish a rapport with their peers – valuable attributes in the case of first-year students. That the experience tends to be enjoyable, relevant and interesting (on the whole), despite the hard work, is suggested by comments 2, 11–13 and 15.

The role of facilitators is crucial in identifying potential problems before they impact upon the process. Team members who do not participate need to be identified earlier rather than later (negative comments at 7 and 14). Despite the negative perception at (10), facilitators are asked to invite questions/queries from students on a regular basis. In addition, students are encouraged to contact tutors via e-mail whenever necessary. Facilitators must also ensure that task leaders keep the discussion going and that all team members contribute (see the negative comment at 8). Poor facilitating can exert a negative influence on the PBL process.

Overall, however, these comments show that the students did actively participate in the learning environment, sharing ideas and helping peers (or receiving help). All this is in sharp contrast to the TLS environment it replaced. The rationale for introducing partial PBL to teach introductory economics at the University of Ulster is discussed in more detail in Forsythe (2002).

Figure 8 Views of first-year students taking Introductory Economics module at the University of Ulster within a partial PBL environment: positive (+) and negative (–) comments

Key: E = BA (Economics); LE = BA (Law and Economics); EG = BA (Economics and Government); PT = part-time non-specialist (mature) student

(1)  ‘Each individual contributed different information. Each student learnt from each other. Only at the beginning was it negative. Students found it difficult to converse because we were new – overall no real negative features.’ [EG]
(2)  ‘I had never encountered economics as a subject before. I was dreading the subject and did not want to do it. However, I’m glad I did and found it interesting. I now see the advantages of having done the module.’ [PT]
(3)  ‘It gave you the opportunity to hear ideas and interpretations on a particular topic from fellow students rather than just from the lecture.’
–  ‘It was hard at the start to interact with other pupils considering you had just met them.’ [EG]
(4)  ‘Everyone worked well together and everyone got a chance to play a part with the rotation of leader and recorder.’ [LE]
(5)  ‘Everyone participated. Lots of ideas were gained.’ [LE]
(6)  ‘Got to hear other opinions.’
 –  ‘It was embarrassing if you did not fully understand the topic and were therefore unable to contribute.’ [EG]
(7)  ‘It made you research different topics, thereby getting a better insight into the topics.’
–  ‘If somebody didn’t research their allocated task the whole group lost out.’ [EG]
(8)  ‘A small group meant everyone had a chance to contribute.’
–  ‘Group leader needs to keep the group focused.’ [PT]
(9)  ‘Group input allowed students to reduce their own personal weakness on a particular topic.’ [PT]
(10)  ‘I was able to relate the theory to real-life situations through the topics discussed and researched.’
–  ‘There was less opportunity for individuals to ask questions and this could be a problem (not for me as I had done A-level economics.’ [E]
(11)  ‘It made the subject more interesting. You were actually getting involved and discussing it rather than listening to someone else discussing it.’ [E]
(12)  ‘You had to concentrate all the time (no hiding in the crowd). You had influence working in a small group; it was easier to ask questions outside of large lecture if you wanted to and got more out of tutorials as a result.’ [EG]
(13)  ‘It helped you think about topics without losing interest as much as in a normal tutorial.’ [E]
(14)  ‘Raised confidence by working in small group and got to know people I would not talk to otherwise.’
–  ‘People not turning up and this created problems for others.’ [EG]
(15)  [Most common positive comments]
‘Helped understand topics better by use of real world examples and made to use the internet etc.’
‘Work sharing; got to know other people.’
‘Hear other people’s views.’
‘This was interesting team work.’
‘Enhanced skills involved with the group.’

5.3 Setting up a full-format PBL environment

Although partial PBL is a valuable experience, the full-format PBL environment is more satisfying for the teacher and students. The reader who has successfully experimented with PBL should aim for the full format. The absence of the lecture removes a constraining feature on the focus and organisation of the problem-based learning environment. PBL is particularly suited to final honours teaching, where the potential for generating focused teamwork is greatly enhanced. Group meetings follow the same procedures as under the partial system, except that groups now meet for 2 hours per week rather than 1 hour. It is also possible to require a more demanding response from students: in the cases described below, students were asked to prepare a written group report of between 1500 and 2000 words in response to each task.

Two examples are discussed in this section, both based on actual teaching experiences with level 3 modules. In both cases, 3 contact hours are provided (giving a 2-hour lecture and a 1-hour seminar under the TLS system). In the first example there are only 15-20 students taking the module, and thus 2–3 PBL groups can be formed. In the second, more demanding example, there are 9–10 PBL groups. The perceptions of students who have experienced a full-format environment are also provided below.

The system depicted in Figure 9 generates an accumulated workload that exerts significant time and work pressure on students – this, one might argue, simulates the real-world working environment. Under this system a much more subtle understanding and development of group dynamics can be developed in students. These are skills that are valued highly by employers. In many instances, students have reported this outcome following job interviews undertaken after completing the module.

In the system illustrated in Figure 9, each PBL group follows the same structure. This organisation assumes that there are seven tasks (this can be varied), a one-week research period and written responses to each task. This seven-task system imposes a hard working regime on students. However, a number of ‘escape routes’ are possible if it is felt that students are under too much pressure. First, the system illustrated does not use the third hour timetabled each week. This can be used to provide additional time for PBL activities, including longer group discussions or quite separate activities. In my own case this hour is used as a teacher-led weekly ‘journal-shop’. Each week one journal article is selected to demonstrate the methodology it uses to address a particular issue in labour economics. Secondly, there are 7–9 unused hours (at the start and end of the teaching period) which can be used for mini-lectures, workshop activity, revision or further PBL time. Finally, the teacher can decide to set only five or six tasks, giving more time to complete each task.

Figure 9  12-week final honours module using full PBL format


1. The first hour is used for feedback meetings and the second hour is used for the group’s first meeting to discuss a new task.

2. Task = new task (first PBL meeting); Feedback = second PBL meeting; S-report = submission of written report; Assess-T = teacher feedback and total assessment marks awarded for group report; Assess-P = peer-agreed distribution of teacher marks within group; Record = recording of individual summative marks following Assess.

3. Assess-T, Assess-P and S-report can be provided during the first or second hourly meeting of PBL groups.

4. If the timetable has provided one 2-hour lecture period, the first and feedback meetings may be back-to-back over the 2 hours, or the third ‘seminar’ hour may be used along with one of the original lecture hours to separate the two meetings.

Student perceptions of a full-format PBL environment

The comments in Figure 10 were provided by final honours students taking an optional module in labour economics. The comments have been grouped according to key aspects associated with small-group activity. It is important to note that students were not prompted to provide comments corresponding to these headings. The comments were only grouped after the views had been received.

A number of perceptions are dominant. The full-format PBL experience is no easy option and requires hard work throughout the teaching period (this is the main thrust of the negative comments, 39–41 and 45). The synergy generated within final-year PBL groups is a particularly rewarding experience for the teacher as well as for students. The comments under ‘group dynamics’ (1–9) and elsewhere convey an extremely healthy, relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, yet the work rate progresses, as evidenced by the comments under ‘benefits of PBL’ (14–30) and ‘skills developed’ (31–38). Although the ‘free-rider’ problem tends not to be an issue with final honours students (13), I was impressed that when it did surface (10–12), team members resolved the issue without involving the facilitator. The externality effect of PBL, whereby non-PBL modules benefit from the skills acquired by students on PBL modules, is also noted (21). It is, of course, important to be aware that some students cannot adjust to a PBL environment, and prefer a conventional lecture-based approach (43).

Overall, the views of final honours students tend to be strongly supportive of the PBL approach to teaching. It is particularly pleasing to have students themselves admit that they have developed key subject-specific and general skills on the module (31–38, 17, 20 and 21, for example). While a teacher may presume that appropriate skill development has occurred, one can never be sure this has been the student experience. Although designing and maintaining a full-format PBL environment is hard work for the teacher, one senses that one is going in the right direction and doing the right thing.

Figure 10: Students’ evaluations of full-format problem-based learning

Team dynamics

(1) ‘Everybody was willing to put in a lot of effort and wanted to do well in the set tasks. At the beginning we established a routine of how to do the tasks and it worked very smoothly every week.’

(2) ‘Everyone pulled their weight. If people were going to be absent, they let the other team members know and prepared their work in advance.’

(3) ‘Everyone was motivated to get as much information as they could for the group. Nobody wanted to let the team down. ‘

(4) ‘Everyone in the group participated and each did their part. We all learnt from each other as everyone submitted different ideas and information, and so we were able to cover a lot of ground in each topic.’

(5) ‘There was a relaxed attitude, so people felt they could speak out and give an opinion. Everyone was willing to research as none of us knew anything about the topic.’

(6) ‘Everyone worked very well together, it proved an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.’

(7) ‘Group members could rely on each other and were prepared to meet outside class times to get things done well.’

(8) ‘Everyone shared information. There was a high degree of trust.’

(9) ‘Everyone exchanged contact numbers and so we had support if needed.’

Coping with free-riders

(10) ‘I don’t feel that we had any free-riders. We did have teething problems initially, but we discussed them as a group and were able to improve the way we worked as a team.’

(11) ‘We confronted the person involved to try and understand and discover what problems he was facing.’

(12) ‘They were confronted and asked to explain themselves. The situation was resolved by listening to their problems and then helping them to overcome these problems.’

(13) ‘We didn’t have any free-riders.’ [This was the response of 92 per cent of PBL students.]

The benefits of PBL

(14) ‘It gave me a chance to meet new people. Also to see how different people take different approaches to the one question.’

(15) ‘Confidence, shared information, different opinions.’

(16) ‘I learnt where to find various sources of information. I also learnt how to participate in a group and work within a team.’

(17) ‘The information gathered was up-to-date. It was easier to digest and remember information obtained this way as opposed to reading lecture notes. The group was able to cover a wider scope when looking for information than one person working alone.’

(18) ‘Better than sitting in a lecture. We learnt more because we had to find the information ourselves. We also became much more aware of information sources.’

(19) ‘Each team member had different skills to bring to task discussions and I picked up very valuable information from each of them.’

(20) ‘Merging individual views into a joint document was an excellent learning process.’

(21) ‘The problem-solving skills I developed on this module will help me study my other modules next semester.’

(22) ‘I learnt more about the subject researching it myself rather than being lectured.’

(23) ‘Apart from the social aspect of meeting new people and having a bit of “craic”, it was a very valuable experience working in the group. I am a quiet person and group work made me provide an input to team effect.’

(24) ‘I was shown by another group member how to access journals etc. and I experienced a wide range of skills.’

(25) ‘It gave me experience in researching data sources. This was an area in which I had little experience. It also helped me develop a professional approach to tasks.’

(26) ‘Given a lot of responsibility – introduced me to independent learning.’

(27) ‘Group morale was high. Knowledge gained was more extensive and better than lectures.’

(28) ‘The fact that the majority of people did the work meant it was easier to learn the material.’

(29) ‘It benefited my organisational and interpersonal skills. Also my diplomacy was tested with certain members of the group.’

(30) ‘It forced us to do the research ourselves.’

What skills do you believe you developed?

(31) ‘Research methods, communication skills, leadership, selection of quality data from a vast range of data.’

(32) ‘The ability to select relevant data and dispose of rest.’

(33) ‘Communication, reporting, negotiation, data selection, leadership.’

(34) ‘Team working, research methods. I also gained self-confidence with this method.’

(35) ‘Time management, meeting deadlines, interpersonal skills.’

(36) ‘Delegating, researching, organising and summarising issues (through the written response part of the set task).’

(37) ‘More in-depth research skills and applying data and economic models to real-world situations.’

(38) ‘I feel that this method of teaching developed my problem-solving skills.’

Negative aspects – not all students like active learning! Also, some students who enjoyed the PBL experience overall had reservations with certain aspects.

(39) ‘It put us under a lot of pressure to complete the work on time. I did not enjoy it at all.’

(40) ‘Meeting outside of scheduled classes.’

(41) ‘Too much hard work every week – the pressure did not subside.’

(42) ‘You had to depend on others for vital information, and you have to trust their input to the process.’

(43) ‘I would have preferred more lecture-based teaching.’

(44) ‘On occasions we all wanted to be leader which led to confusion.’

(45) ‘It was quite time consuming. I spent a lot of extra time researching and meeting up with other members of the group outside of class hours.’