Developing Critical Skills Through the Use of Problem-Based Learning: a review of a pilot scheme in Microeconomics

Sedgwick, John and Volpe, Guglielmo (2005) Developing Critical Skills Through the Use of Problem-Based Learning: a review of a pilot scheme in Microeconomics. Investigations in university teaching and learning, 3 (1). pp. 18-28. ISSN 1740-5106


Problem-based learning [PBL] is an increasingly popular approach to teaching and learning. Supporters of this approach generally declare that they promote greater understanding of the concepts, develop skills, foster active participation and motivate classes. Proponents of PBL also argue that it brings benefits not only for assignments or for courses, but for part or all of a disciplinary curriculum as well as for lifelong learning (see, for example, Albanese and Mitchell (1993), Vernon and Blake (1993), Maudsley (1999)).

However, there is no agreement in the literature about the actual effectiveness of PBL. Concerns have been raised difficulties in its implementation and the philosophy that underpins it. For example, Benbow and McMahon (2001) wonder how problems of group dynamics can be resolved when it is not uncommon for some students to dominate and others to withdraw. Fenwick (1998) claims that PBL treats uncertainty and plurality as obstacles because it fundamentally conceives of life as problem-governed. A recent research project coordinated by Newman (2004) evaluated the use of a PBL curriculum in nursing education. The results of the research do not provide support for the many claims made for the advantages of PBL and, rather, they show that in some contexts it may lead to worse outcomes for some students. Overall, the research concludes that it is far from clear what the ingredients necessary for successful PBL are.

In this paper we reflect on our experience in using PBL for the first time in the year 1 module Introduction to Microeconomics. After briefly explaining how we organised the module, we use structured feedback from students, unstructured feedback from the teaching team members and some statistical evidence to analyse our experience. We highlight our problems with the implementation of the approach, the coordination of a large teaching team and the monitoring of group work. We also raise questions about the effectiveness of the standard PBL approach that does not take into consideration local issues.

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