Learning to Facilitate Problem Based Learning

David Wright 1David Wright is a Lecturer in Exercise and Sports Science at MMU. When he started lecturing a few years ago, he was introduced to Problem Based Learning (PBL) by a colleague and has since gone onto to learn and use it in his teaching. One of the challenges of implementing PBL is the step change for the teacher. The term teacher in PBL, in fact, is a misnomer (Food for thought (22): Learning through problems with Dr Leslie Robinson) with the traditional teacher role being replaced with a facilitator role.

Here, David writes about how he learned Problem Based Learning and gives advice for those just starting to use it.

See Good Practice Video featuring David Wright and Damian Keil on PBL

  1. How did you prepare yourself for taking on PBL (did you read about it, attend training etc.), and if so, can you recommend any resources?

“I prepared for my PBL teaching in a number of ways. I spent considerable time speaking to a colleague who used problem-based learning and shadowed quite a lot of his lessons. This shadowing experience was invaluable as it gave me insight into how a problem-based learning classroom should look and what the role of the tutor is in this type of situation. I learned valuable lessons about how to interact with the students and how to facilitate their learning through the use of guided questioning, rather than simply telling the students the answers. I also watched a number of online videos that discussed the concept of problem-based learning and did some reading on the topic from websites. I did not attend any training on problem-based learning, simply because I have not been aware of any training on this topic. Problem-based learning is very different to more traditional lecture or seminar sessions and so I would have found some formal training on PBL to be helpful.”

Damian Keil - Problem Based Learning Copy.Still001

  1. Has adopting PBL had an effect on the way you teach other units/classes?

“Prior to adopting problem-based learning, I had previously seen my role as a lecturer as being an information provider. As such, I would always attempt to give answers to the questions that I was asked in lessons. Having been involved with problem-based learning for almost two years, I now see my role as being more of a learning facilitator.  As such, I now find that I am less likely to simply provide the students with answers or confirm whether or not they are correct, but I am instead, more likely to turn the questions back on the students so that they are forced to think about their question themselves. Problem-based learning has therefore changed the way that I interact with students in the classroom. It has also made me realise that students do not always understand as much as they think they (and we) do, and use of effective questioning can help identify this and then guide the students in the right direction. In addition, I have also begun to use more self- and peer-assessment in my other units. Having used this as part of my problem-based learning teaching, I now find it a useful method of forcing the students to engage with assessment criteria and learning outcomes during formative assessments.”

  1. What advice would you give to somebody thinking about trying PBL for the first time?

“My advice to someone thinking about trying problem-based learning for the first time is that they should not be afraid to try it, but they should not expect it to be easy. In many ways, PBL is harder than delivering a more traditional lecture or seminar. In traditional lecture settings, you always have the security of the slides and you often switch to automatic pilot when delivering them. In addition, the questions that students ask in these more traditional settings are more predictable as they generally relate to the lecture or seminar content. PBL is more difficult as it is more unpredictable than a lecture. You have to be constantly on the ball, constantly thinking as each group that you speak to could be tackling a different issue, and so the breadth and depth of the questions that they ask can be more diverse and more challenging. However, the PBL process is worthwhile as the students develop a number of valuable skills in addition to content knowledge.

Some other pieces of advice would be to be aware that many students simply want to be given the answers rather than attempt to find things out for themselves. This can be challenging as the role of the tutor in PBL is to facilitate learning but not simply give the answers, and some students struggle to deal with this. In addition, it would be valuable to shadow a colleague before starting PBL for the first time, and to spend time making sure that the PBL case studies are of good quality, perhaps with using a critical friend to help develop them. Finally, PBL is a new experience to many students and so it is important to spend time ensuring that they understand fully what the process involves before rushing straight into the case study.”


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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