Preparing your students for Problem Based Learning

Damian Keil - 1

Damian Keil, Senior Lecturer in Exercise and Sports Science at MMU, has been using Problem Based Learning, or PBL, for a number of years. We recently made a film with Damian for the Good Practice Exchange, featuring interviews and thoughts of students and staff involved with the initiative to make learning active. Implementing PBL can be challenging, as it requires a step change for staff, but also major shift in the the expectations of students of their educational experience. Here, Damian writes about his methods for preparing students to get the most of of Problem Based learning.

See Damian Keil in action in his Good Practice Video

  1. How do you prepare students for engaging in PBL?

“I found early on that students were not prepared or expecting this approach. Not surprisingly, there was a general lack of understanding and therefore resistance from the students. ‘Why were they having to answer questions’, ‘why was I not giving them the answers’, ‘why were they having to do all the work’. I found that preparation was extremely important for success; getting them to understand the philosophy behind the approach was the key to engagement.

I spend the first 2 weeks of the unit (in a flipped classroom style) getting them to watch online videos, consider the philosophical change that is needed, and think about the specific processes that will be required. Along the way, it helps them to think about the education system they are in and their role in gaining a degree. Preparing them for the self and peer assessment is also important. Often it can be awkward at the start and they have a tendency to be ‘optimistic’ about their own and peer contribution (giving high marks to their peers as they feel ‘bad’ for giving low marks). There is a continuous process of metacognitive development that needs to be facilitated and benchmarked. Eventually, their understanding of what constitutes productive and effective study behaviour becomes more refined.”

Damian Keil 1

  1. The peer and self-assessment process forms a big part of your PBL approach. How do you help students see the benefits of this?

“To start with, students generally don’t see its usefulness and they have no idea of benchmarks. For us, we take it for granted that they know what a good student is, but for many of them, they don’t. If you ask the question ‘have you done enough work this week?’ generally, the answer is ‘yes’. This view will hold until you and their group pursue this question and really start to evaluate what is ‘enough’. They then start to reflect on their effort. With greater awareness, they can hopefully change their behaviour.

One of the questions I ask in their self-assessment, is “do you understand the material?” After the first week, the majority will score themselves 6 or 7 out of 10. This is generally not because they want to bolster their own knowledge in front of others, or improve their self-assessment mark, it is a genuine lack of understanding about their understanding! With some effective questioning, can re-evaluate their benchmarks and increase their own self-awareness.”

Damian Keil - Problem Based Learning Copy.Still002

  1. Have you got any practical tips for implementing PBL in an HE setting?

“Getting the case study right is essential and takes a long time. Try and make sure it is interesting, realistic and obtainable. Be imaginative. Be obvious and subtle in your writing. I will ‘hide’ things that will only become obvious when their understanding has reached a certain level. The words I use are important, as often they will form the basis of database/Google search terms. You therefore, have to have already completed the searches they will do and read the papers that they will find.  Have a clear idea of the path you want students to travel, but don’t be scared of allowing them to find their own path, make their own mistakes or find their own dead ends. This is a difficult judgement call and has to be made based on the students and time until the deadline. This engagement in decision making is important and actually leads to better understanding.

I have found that if the time scales are too long (over about 7 weeks) for a case study, students have a tendency to put things off. It is difficult for them to see the end-point. Each of our case studies finishes in submission, which therefore offers a goal for them to work towards.

Plan everything from the start so there is a clear and logical plan for the students (and you). This includes the case studies, criteria and self/peer assessment. We have 4 case studies through the year, with the first and third being formative and each prepares the students for the next (although they may not realise it at the start).

They, and you, need to understand your role. You are not there to give answers, and this can be challenging for both parties.

It has been quite surprising what things students don’t understand. That could be from how do you search for things on the web or library (they may say they know, but when you ask them to show you, they can’t), to understanding of learning outcomes. I remember having a 20 minute discussion with a group about a LO, only to find that actually they didn’t understand the word ‘implication’ and therefore the 20 minute discussion was pointless. This can completely reframe your idea of what students understand and take away from your sessions.

The classroom environment is very different. It is an extremely ‘vibrant’ atmosphere and you have to give them some freedom in that. All sessions are blended, i.e. they bring in laptops and tablets etc. If they ask me a question, most of the time I will tell them to look it up. I can then facilitate and guide discussion based on that. It means that they are constantly engaged and challenged by their learning experience. In addition to this, each small group has a Google+ community which we, and they, post on. It allows me to guide and facilitate even when they are not in front of me, and identify early-on, those who are not contributing to the process.”


The Good Practice Exchange is an online resource created by CELT MMU to celebrate and share good practice in learning, teaching and assessment by our colleagues across the university. If you or your colleagues have a teaching initiative or aspect of good practice you think would be valuable to share, contact Eleanor Livermore on e.livermore@mmu.ac.uk. Thank you.

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