The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.2 Arguments for the use of PBL

Research findings relating to PBL

The use of PBL as a teaching method originated within a medical and health-care context during the 1960s. Although it is now implemented across a wide range of disciplines, PBL research literature is still dominated by medical-based applications. For an assessment of PBL, particularly when compared with conventional lecture-based teaching, see the extensive literature reviews undertaken by Albanese and Mitchell (1993), Vernon and Blake (1993) and Dochy et al. (2003).

Relative to conventional lecture-based methods in which information is transferred from teacher to student, the research literature suggests that:

  • PBL fosters a deeper approach to learning (see also Gibbs, 1992).
  • PBL promotes more versatile studying methods and PBL students are more likely to use the library and library resources to study.
  • PBL develops greater knowledge retention and recall skills.
  • PBL students tend to exhibit stronger knowledge application skills (according to Dochy et al. (2003), this is a very strong and robust result to emerge from the literature).
  • From a teacher perspective, PBL appears to be a very satisfying method of teaching.

When comparing the relative performance of two student cohorts studying introductory macroeconomics under conventional lecture-based and PBL methods, van den Bosch et al. (2004) also found that the PBL students exhibited better knowledge application skills than the conventionally taught cohort. According to these authors, PBL promotes a structuring and elaboration of knowledge that develops a more accessible knowledge base.

In terms of the relative knowledge coverage acquired through PBL and conventional lecture-based teaching (as distinct from the application of knowledge to real-world situations), the literature suggests rather mixed results that appear to depend upon the scope of PBL implementation. Based on their literature review, which included only one non-medical research paper, Dochy et al. (2003) found that if the whole curriculum is PBL based, then it is likely that conventionally trained students will have covered, or have been introduced to, more knowledge and facts than PBL-trained students. This, of course, must be weighed against the possibility that conventionally trained students may be less able to retain and apply their wider knowledge base relative to PBL students. The possible differential in knowledge coverage between lecture-based and PBL teaching methods becomes negligible when PBL forms only part of the curriculum.

Finally, one aspect of PBL that requires further study is the possibility that PBL students become too dependent on a small-group environment (Albanese and Mitchell, 1993). PBL students may lack the confidence and the skills to work alone in solving/tackling problems. Clearly any negative effect of excessive reliance on small-group activity will also depend on the scope of PBL implementation within the curriculum. This may also be an issue that is more relevant within a medical rather than an economics or business context.

The PBL experience at the University of Ulster

The comments below are based upon my own experiences of introducing PBL within a TLS-dominated curriculum to teach economics at the University of Ulster in a variety of teaching contexts that has included full-time/part-time students, specialist economics/non-specialist students and first/final-year students. Many of the experiences noted below are consistent with the discussion provided in Gibbs (1992) on how PBL can help develop a deep approach to learning.

Teacher perspective. Students are normally expected to spend additional self-study time for each contact hour with the teacher. At Ulster, for example, 25 per cent of total designated module hours are ‘contact’ hours during which students meet teachers. Under the more traditional lecture–seminar format, students who are unable to manage the remaining 75 per cent non-contact time, perhaps due to weak independent learning skills, may waste excessive non-contact time before the teacher becomes aware that a student is having difficulty with the module. A key advantage of PBL is that it can help students manage ‘non-contact’ hours more effectively, since it is during these hours that PBL students are required to generate information for the group within a given time-scale (one week at Ulster). The PBL tasks designed by the teacher determine the learning activities undertaken by students during non-contact hours. This helps to reduce wastage of non-contact hours.

Another key advantage of PBL is that students are required to communicate and discuss the subject with other students on a regular basis. This feature of PBL, which requires students to ‘talk economics’ throughout the teaching term, is particularly attractive when, as at Ulster, one is faced with a student culture that tends to adopt a passive, non-communicative stance under more traditional seminar formats. Such students, many of whom lack the confidence to participate in a teacher-led environment, prefer the teacher to do all the talking and invariably, after an initial struggle, this tends to be the outcome in a conventional seminar format. In this context it is interesting to note that according to the latest available statistics (HESA, 2009) 46.5 per cent of the intake of full-time undergraduates to the University of Ulster fall within the four lowest NS-SEC socioeconomic groups (the UK average is 29.5 per cent). This characteristic of the student population was also highlighted in the QAA Subject Review Report for Economics at Ulster (QAA, March 2001, para. 23), and may help to explain the passive stance taken by many students at Ulster within a conventional lecture–seminar environment.

Well-designed PBL tasks also encourage students to become ‘information-seekers’, undertaking library research and accessing varied information sources – texts, journals, the internet and key statistical sources (i.e. education, health, labour market statistics, etc). This not only helps to develop important information-seeking skills in students, but also encourages greater diversity in student responses to economic issues compared to what may be expected when the teacher is the primary information source.

When PBL is used in ‘full format’, as described in section 5 (there are no formal lectures), students are obliged to respond to a number of tasks that encompass the full syllabus. Students cannot choose to specialise in the first few topics for examination purposes (and ignore the rest), since PBL requires them to continue working and generating information over all topics. One of the reasons why PBL imposes a severe work regime on students is that it encourages a fuller coverage of the syllabus than the TLS format.[note 6]

Finally (and according to students themselves), there are externalities associated with PBL. The independent learning, research and time-management skills that are developed within a PBL-based module help students study more effectively in other, non-PBL modules. This suggests that the sooner students experience PBL methods within the curriculum, the greater will be the potential ‘externality’ effect elsewhere – in other words, some PBL within the curriculum is better than none. 

Student perspective. Every student introduced to PBL at the University of Ulster has an opportunity to comment upon his or her PBL experience. A sample of these comments is included in section 5 (where they are discussed in the context of the particular PBL environment encountered).

PBL requires students to work within strict time limits. There is also the additional responsibility of having to contribute to team effort. In the sample of student comments included in section 5, students emphasise the benefits that result from the shared workload and the exchange of ideas that are typical features of PBL. Despite the constant pressure of work, a significant majority of students indicated that their PBL experience was positive rather than negative. Students who disliked PBL cited two reasons – the high workload and a preference for lectures in which the teacher is a primary source of information.[note 7]

The bottom line: is PBL worth the effort?

Establishing a successful PBL environment is hard work, requiring written documentation for students, preparation of facilitators, design of suitable PBL tasks, monitoring and assessment of group activities and, very likely, having to manage resources (room layout, for example) that are not designed for group activities.

PBL can also be stressful for both teacher and students, particularly when it is introduced to final-year students who are accustomed to a TLS-dominated environment. In these circumstances, teachers must have confidence and belief in what they are trying to achieve if they are to coax the students along. It is at this point one realises that lecturing is a much easier alternative.

Despite the hard work and occasional periods of tension, I continue to use PBL. As a teacher it is a privilege to witness a dynamic group of students working on their own initiative, fired with enthusiasm, striving to solve an economics-related problem. Such groups become extremely efficient at organising the learning environment, arranging additional meetings during non-contact periods and exchanging information via summary reports, photocopies, e-mail and fax (in the case of part-time students). This is active student learning at its best and the effort required to achieve it is worthwhile.