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2.1 Key features of PBL

PBL involves learning through tackling problems. Although the problems, or tasks, may not always have a ‘solution’, PBL nevertheless provides a rich learning environment in which students identify what needs to be studied and learnt from examining the problems confronted (Gibbs, 1992). The problems are used as a tool to achieve both the required knowledge base and the skills to ‘solve’ them (Barrows, 1986). The basis of PBL is that students learn by doing. It is a student-centred system whereby students, working within small groups, generate the information necessary to respond to, or solve, a specific problem or task. One attractive feature of PBL in my experience is that it helps develop in students both subject-specific and transferable skills (Figure 1).

Subject-specific skills are developed directly through problem design, while transferable skills are developed indirectly via the PBL process itself.

Figure 1 Problem-based learning and skill development

PBL helps to develop
Subject-specific skills in economics
Using diagrams and abstract models, acquiring and using relevant data, assessing government policies, analysis of real-world issues, etc.
Transferable skills
Time management, teamwork, independent learning, decision taking, problem solving, communicating ideas and results, etc.

A PBL environment will normally incorporate the elements depicted in Figure 2. This cycle is repeated for each task. When implementing a PBL environment, one may adopt a ‘partial’ or ‘full-format’ model (see section 5 for further details).[note 4] In a ‘partial’ PBL environment, formal lectures are retained and PBL is used to organise the weekly tutorial sessions in support of lectures. In a ‘full-format’ PBL environment, there are no lectures and the learning environment is driven entirely by PBL methodology.

Figure 2 The PBL process

The problem/task

When designing tasks, the aim is to make students primarily responsible for acquiring and assimilating the information necessary to solve them. In a PBL environment the teacher relinquishes the role of ‘expert’ and assumes the role of facilitator.[note 5] Student learners must adapt to a learning environment in which there is no ‘expert’ information source. The teacher designs tasks so as to develop the learning outcomes appropriate to the target learner group. I normally design tasks that incorporate data acquisition, model manipulation and evaluative components (the latter may relate to a particular public policy issue, theoretical model or literature review). In this way, the tasks ‘drive’ students to encounter (and struggle with) subject-specific concepts and issues (Thomas, 2000). The design of PBL tasks for economics students, along with examples, is discussed in section 3.

First meeting

Students are organised within small groups that work independently from other groups throughout the teaching term. Since I usually design tasks that comprise different components, I use groups comprising 6–8 members. During the first meeting the PBL group discusses the problem for the first time. The meeting is structured to incorporate the following features based upon the ‘seven-jump’ procedure for handling tasks within PBL groups (Bouhuijs and Gijselaers, 1993; see also the guidelines given to students in relation to the UK housing task illustrated in section 3):

  • Initial discussion to ascertain ‘first-impression’ views of the problem.
  • Brainstorming session to identify relevant issues and essential information required to ‘solve’ or respond to the problem.
  • Identification of specific study tasks (library research, etc.) to be undertaken by group members before the ‘feedback’ meeting.
  • Allocation of study tasks to individual group members (the number of students working on a particular study task will also be determined at this stage).
  • For each task the team should select a different task leader and ‘recorder’. The task leader is responsible for keeping the discussion going and ensuring that all members participate in team discussions. The task recorder has the responsibility of recording the research responsibilities delegated to members during the first meeting and for reading out this information at the start of the feedback meeting. The students are responsible for all decisions arising from the above activities. The facilitator should not interfere with the governance of group procedures.

Top Tip:

Groups with 6–8 members are easily managed and allow members to work in pairs (if necessary) during the research phase. Groups with fewer members can be successful, particularly with level 2 or 3 students, but the workload on individual members is heavier.


Between the first and feedback meetings associated with a particular problem or task, group members undertake the study task allocated to them at the first meeting. This may entail providing a summary and assessment of relevant journal articles, trawling internet sources, acquiring and tabulating relevant statistical information, etc. Sufficient time must be made available between first and feedback meetings to facilitate research. One-week research periods are used at the University of Ulster (see section 5 for suggestions on designing a PBL environment).

Feedback session

Members report back the results of their allocated research activity to the group (after the task recorder has reminded the group of individual responsibilities). Using this information, the group formulates an agreed response to the problem.

Group’s response

This can take various forms. It may be a formal presentation using OHP facilities or a written report. The facilitator requires some form of response so that formative feedback can be provided. Assessment may also be summative, in that the response is graded and contributes to overall assessment for the module. Issues and suggestions concerning the assessment of student responses to PBL tasks are considered in section 4.