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3 Designing problems/ tasks: four steps

This section outlines four key steps in the design of PBL tasks. To illustrate the discussion, a specific task relating to the UK housing market will be considered in detail in this section. The design features outlined in this section are further illustrated by additional exemplars provided in the Appendix.

When designing a task, one should first be aware of the learning activities that students will perform when tackling the task and, secondly, try and visualise (and thus eliminate) possible difficulties that may arise in the process (Bouhuijs and Gijselaers, 1993). In relation to the first consideration, one needs to design tasks that are consistent with the learning outcomes specified for the module and to ensure that the learning outcomes intended are actually realised. Poor problem design may result in actual and intended learning outcomes being different (Dolmans et al., 1993). In respect of the second consideration, a number of difficulties may arise that prevent students from realising intended learning outcomes. One must ensure, for example, that the learning resources required to tackle the task are available – computing facilities, general library resources, access to journal articles, etc. The designer must also ensure that key references are in adequate supply – there is no point in having large numbers of students trying to access one text within a limited time-frame.

Step 1: Determine the form of the PBL environment

In a ‘partial’ PBL environment, in which PBL is used to organise seminars in support of lectures, PBL groups will probably only have an opportunity to meet for 1 hour per week. In a ‘full-format’ PBL environment, where PBL replaces lectures, PBL groups will have an opportunity to meet for at least 2 and possibly 3–4 hours per week. Clearly the form of the PBL environment will affect task design in a number of ways, particularly in respect of the learning activities embodied in the tasks and the form of response required of students. Tasks designed for a full-format PBL environment must span the full syllabus, whereas this is not necessarily the case when designing tasks for a partial environment. In the latter context, one must decide which parts of the syllabus will be reinforced by PBL methods; additionally, one may decide to design tasks that focus on particular learning outcomes, such as data acquisition and/or simple model application. Tasks designed for a full-format environment must relate to all the learning outcomes of the module, and there must also be sufficient time for students to evaluate competing theories, etc. These possibilities and limitations must be taken into account when designing tasks.

Step 2: Focus on target learning outcomes

The focus for the PBL task should be provided by the subject-specific and transferable outcomes that are being developed. It is useful to start from the outcomes appropriate to the level of the award for which the task is being designed. The target outcomes I use when designing tasks for level 1 students are summarised in Box 1.

To facilitate development of the skills identified in Box 1, tasks normally comprise 3–4 components, encompassing the following elements: (a) diagrammatic manipulation; (b) fact finding; (c) model application; and (d) appraisal. The first three are regarded as being most important at this level. Not all subject-specific skills need be developed by every task. At the introductory level it is also a good idea to have group responses to PBL tasks take the form of presentations (although groups should still provide a written list of sources used).

Some target outcomes for students working at level 3 are presented in Box 2. My level 3 classes are all full-format, with no formal lectures. Once again, tasks normally incorporate 3–4 components.

Box 1: Subject-specific and transferable skills at Level 1

Subject-specific skills

  • Use of basic diagrams (i.e. models) and economic concepts to explain, describe and analyse real-world situations.
  • Use of varied information sources: introductory texts, internet, newspapers, statistical sources and, occasionally, non-technical journal articles and government reports when appropriate (e.g. the occasional online article from Fiscal Studies, Economic & Labour Market Review).
  • Use of key facts in support of one’s viewpoint.
  • Evaluation and appraisal skills – evaluation of a particular situation or public policy issue and ability to give a considered viewpoint or conclusion (though this is given less weighting at level 1 than the other subject-specific outcomes).

Transferable skills

  • As part of a team provide, as required, either a formal verbal presentation of the team’s response to the task using OHP facilities or a brief written summary. A written listing of all sources accessed must be included in both cases.

Box 2 Subject-specific and transferable skills for a final honours module

Subject-specific skills

  • Use of relevant statistical sources, competence in presenting statistical information and an awareness of the limitations of statistical sources used.
  • Competence in the use and evaluation of economic models.
  • Evaluation of relevant journal articles in support of one’s viewpoint.
  • Evaluation and appraisal of economic analysis and public policy.

Transferable skills

  • PBL groups will provide, as required, either a formal presentation of the team’s response to the task, or a written report. Full referencing of all sources accessed must be included in both cases.
  • In respect of presentations, teams will demonstrate effective presentational skills using appropriate resources within the time allocated

Step 3: Determine the learning activities associated with the task

Table 1 illustrates how the task is related to the chosen target outcomes. This particular task was designed for level 1 students within a partial PBL environment in which PBL was used to organise seminars in support of formal lectures. The task requires students to apply an economic model (supply and demand analysis) to a real-world situation (the UK housing market). It also requires students to undertake information-seeking activities and to share ideas and experiences with peers. Although the basic supply and demand model is introduced during lectures, no reference to the housing market or the related information sources is made during lectures. Data on the UK housing market are available from a wide range of sources, many of which can be accessed via the Bized website.[note 8] Tasks can be tailored to accommodate non-specialist students. In the case of law students taking introductory economics, for example, one can design tasks that relate economics to the issue of soft-drug legalisation, discrimination and gender earnings differentials.

Table 1 Designing a PBL task: the UK housing market

Task components (content)
Skills developed (purpose)
1. Provide regional data for UK house prices
(Professional/ transferable)
Data acquisition (Web and media-based)
2. Model (diagrammatic) manipulation

Diagrammatic exercises using basic supply and demand model

Application of basic supply and demand analysis

Extension of basic concepts to consider related themes

3. Explain regional variations in UK house prices
4. Consider the differences between owner-occupier, private-rented and social housing sectors
5. Group delegation of study tasks; collection, synthesis and presentation of group response to set task
Team skills, independent learning, presentation skills

Step 4: Presenting the task to students

Provide all students with a written copy of the task, presented in a format that is helpful to them. The example shown in Figure 5, which is in the format that students receive at the University of Ulster, includes four sections:

  • statement of the tasks;
  • guidance for the group leader;
  • suggested sources of information;
  • anticipated learning outcomes.

Key concepts (supply, demand) are highlighted in the task instructions to draw students’ attention to the theory they are expected to investigate. At the start of the teaching period, each student is provided with a PBL handbook containing all the tasks for the module (all presented in the same format as Figure 5). Thus each team member has a personal copy of these instructions before their group meeting. The times allocated within each phase of the PBL first session make it more likely that the process is completed within the available time. In this example, first- meeting sessions are restricted to 40 minutes to facilitate the formal presentations that are featured in the partial PBL format outlined in section 5; under the full-format mode, all meetings are of 55 minutes duration (see section 5 for further details).

In my experience it is helpful to provide students with the general guidance depicted in Figure 5, as this is one way of ensuring that actual and intended learning outcomes coincide; it also ensures that the self-directed learning effort by students is channelled in the right direction (Bouhuijs and Gijselaers, 1993).

Top Tip

Make the last task more demanding than earlier tasks and use it as a ‘tester’ to gauge how well PBL has worked in terms of developing subject-specific and transferable skills.

In this task students are provided with specific online articles relating to the UK housing market. This is highly recommended in the first PBL task. In later tasks students are expected to incorporate their own online sources.

Figure 5 Example of instructions for students


(A) List four factors that are likely to cause the market supply of UK owner-occupied housing to shift and four factors that are likely to cause the market demand for UK owner-occupied housing to shift.

(B) Using supply and demand diagrams, illustrate how each of the factors listed in (A) are likely to affect UK owner-occupied house prices.

(C) Explain (i) why there are regional variations in UK house prices (provide regional house price statistics in support of your answer) and (ii) the fall in UK house prices since 2007Q3.

(D) Identify, giving reasons, the factors listed in (A) that are also likely to influence the price of UK private-rented accommodation.

(E) Comment briefly on the factors affecting the provision of social housing in the UK.

Notes for task leader

1. Appoint a ‘Recorder’ for the session, and ensure everyone has pen and paper ready to make notes. (5 mins)

2. ‘Brainstorm’ session during which group members discuss ideas (given spontaneously) as to what information they feel is required to provide an adequate response to the task. (15 mins)

3. Identify ‘learning objectives’ (to be noted by Recorder): these relate to concepts/ideas arising in 2 above which the group feels arepossibly relevant to providing adequate response, but which require additional research time to fully understand/assess relevance. (15 mins)

4. Allocate responsibility for research tasks (to be noted by Recorder). It is via research tasks undertaken between meetings that the group is able to realise the learning objectives identified in 3 above and provide a final, agreed, response to the set task. Emphasise that members must report back their research results to the group at the next meeting. (5 mins)

Hints for leader
You may need to prompt the group to encourage discussion in the following areas:

Key concepts: Supply, demand, own price, conditions of supply and demand, equilibrium price, market mechanism, supply and demand diagrams.

Essential reading Text, pp. [text references here]
General: (Keywords: UK Housing Market )
You may also find the following helpful (all sourced online using the keywords above):

Housing Market Explained,, 18/2/2009.

‘Housing shored up by lack of supply’ The Financial Times, 15/5/2009.

‘Demand for rented homes soars as buyers shun market’, The Financial Times, 23/10/2008.

‘Brown told to put £6bn into social housing’, The Financial Times, 23/2/2009.

‘House prices rise in good state school catchment areas’, The Times, 15/8/2008.

Aims of Task 1

1. To make students aware of the factors affecting the supply, demand and market prices of UK housing.

2. To encourage students to use supply and demand diagrams.

3. To make students aware of the Internet as an information source.

4. To encourage discussion between students.

5. To encourage group responsibility and sharing of economic ideas and knowledge.

Learning outcomes

After this task students will:

1. Be aware of the factors affecting the UK housing market.

2. Have manipulated supply and demand diagrams to analyse the UK housing market.

3. Have interacted with peers.

4. Have acquired information for the group and accessed relevant websites and other sources.