The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

2.3 Recent PBL innovations at the University of Ulster

The following innovations have been very successful at Ulster, and are worth serious consideration for anyone contemplating introducing PBL.

Use of final year economics undergraduates to facilitate first year economics PBL groups

Funding from the Economics Network Learning and Teaching Development Project scheme during 2006-07 permitted the use of final year economics students as PBL group facilitators on the first year microeconomics programme. Depicted below are the views of two final year facilitators, written during the final week of term prior to sitting their own examinations for the BSc (Econ). The facilitators took the same module 4 years previously under a traditional lecture-seminar format, and had the same teacher as the current first year students under a PBL format. They were, therefore, ideally placed to comment upon the new PBL regime (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Use of final year economics undergraduates to facilitate first year economics PBL groups

“The group seemed more willing to take time to explain the basic concepts to individuals who needed help, which in turn seemed to encourage anyone who could not first grasp key concepts to identify problem areas for discussion at the next meeting. It was also surprising to me to note the quality as well as the quantity of work that was completed on time, and this seemed to improve as the weeks progressed. The “positive externalities” included a number of very important aspects of student life, which I felt were often not addressed fully. The development of real, tangible, transferable skills through dialogue, discourse and discussion meant that students better appreciated how to communicate more effectively.”
Malcolm Campbell BSc (Econ), facilitator on the first year PBL project, 2006-07

“I liked the emphasis PBL placed on self-study and the penalty system for team members who did not participate. If students did not do their work the group could penalise them and award 0% if necessary. On the whole I do believe that PBL did make the students more committed to, and interested in, the subject compared to traditional class lectures. The most important thing is the attitude that students take to the new working arrangements - it is important that no individual is allowed to drag a group into inactivity.”
Paul Keen BSc (Econ), facilitator on the first year PBL project, 2006-07

“I think this module has definitely enhanced my employment prospects. If I was to write about my experiences in other modules, which were all lectures, it is questionable if they have actually developed my skills.

However with this module I can say that I have improved in many aspects. My teamwork and leadership skills have certainly improved. In most jobs you are inevitably going to be part of a team. This module has certainly given me more confidence in a group situation.

This module has also forced me to be organized, as I have to do the work or else I would be letting my group down. This has instilled good discipline which I hope would carry over to a job.

Another aspect of this module was the presentations. I have done presentations before, but never as involved as those required for this module. At the same time I really enjoyed doing the presentations and was calm and relaxed. I have no doubt that I felt this way because I was comfortable being up with my group members with whom I have formed a bond.

Hopefully I can carry over these benefits into employment.” Year 1 student, Microeconomics 1 PBL project, 2006-07

(comments were not edited by the author)

Extending the limits of student self-governance (see Figure 4)

A primary objective of student-centred learning is to develop confidence in students to make decisions. The measures noted in Figure 4 were introduced for this purpose. If students can be encouraged to take simple decisions on their own initiative, they will eventually develop the confidence to take more difficult decisions.

Figure 4: Extending the limits of student self-governance

This is achieved in two ways:

  • PBL groups decide WHAT to study by selecting any ‘X’ topics from a total of ‘Y’ topics forming the syllabus (all topics are represented in the final examination). The teacher determines the values of X and Y.
  • PBL groups decide HOW to respond to the PBL task – written report (W) or formal presentation (P). The teacher determines the split between W and P, which ensures that every PBL group is assessed equally. 

For example, suppose there are 6 themes, or topics, forming the syllabus (Y=6), all of which are represented in the final examination, and candidates must answer any 3 questions. In the first week of class PBL groups are formed and each group has full information on all the topics in the syllabus including all the learning resources associated with each topic. If PBL groups have to select any 4 topics (X=4), they are covered for the examination. In addition, 2 of the selected topics have to be orally presented (P=2) and the remaining 2 have to be submitted in the form of a written report (W=2). This ‘enhanced’ PBL regime requires PBL groups to begin functioning from the outset, since in the second week each group must (i) select the first topic and (ii) decide whether to respond in the form of W or P.

The above scenario adds an edge to the group format by introducing the need to make important decisions at the beginning of the teaching period. Despite this early pressure to make team decisions, this format is popular with students since it introduces a degree of freedom and flexibility to the learning regime.

Allowing PBL groups to determine X, W and P has proved to be a very successful PBL format on a “labour market” module offered on the final year of the business studies and economics (minor) programmes at the University of Ulster


PBL v LECTURES on the Microeconomics I module, 2007-2008 and 2008-09

Following the 2006-07 PBL mini-project experience, in the 2007-08 academic year the microeconomics I class was split, with half the students following a PBL format, while the remaining half were taught using the traditional lecture-seminar format (TLS). The syllabus content and teacher were the same for both classes. All students sat the same end-of-year examination. In the 2008-09 academic year all students were taught by using the TLS format only. Again the syllabus content and teacher were the same over both academic years (and, indeed, the same as the 2006-07 academic year). Prior to 2008-09 all students were registered on the single honours BSc (Economics) programme (S); in 2008-09 students registered on the new BSc (Economics Major) programme (M) took the microeconomics module for the first time. One-third of each year on the economics major programme comprises a non-economics discipline.

% Failure Rate (Exam)
% Median Mark
% Failure Rate
% Attendance
PBL students 2007-08
TLS students 2007-08
< 60*
TLS (S) students 2008-09
TLS (M) students 2008-09
* The attendance rates for those failing the examination was < 50% for all TLS classes.