Learning without teaching? Problem-based learning in Maastricht

The mean streets of Maastricht

All this week, I’m benefiting from the European Union. They are paying for me to visit Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, to exchange teaching practice under the auspices of the ERASMUS+ programme. If you’ve heard of ERASMUS you’ll know it allows students to study in other countries, but it also has a teacher strand, to help promote more connection between higher education institutions.

In practice, that has meant I’m doing some teaching on euroscepticism (my research area) and on using simulations (my other research area), while also sitting in on some problem-based learning (PBL) sessions. Maastricht is perhaps the leading proponent of PBL in Europe, using it across its teaching provision, so it’s an amazing opportunity for me to see it at work.

PBL essentially places the focus on students to define, research and resolve their own areas of study (within certain limits). This means identifying key questions and then working towards answers, supported by a tutor.

Importantly, that process is not one that is guaranteed to succeed (see this for a similar discussion of failure as a learning strategy), either because the group cannot find solutions or cannot function properly. In the debriefing after each cycle, such issues are addressed, to (hopefully) improve future learning.

I can tell you all this from my prior knowledge of PBL (such as this by Heidi Maurer, who works at Maastricht), but I have to confess that I’ve always felt a certain gap in my understanding. I can read the articles, listen to the conference presentation, but I still struggle to imagine what it is actually like.

This is something I’ve experienced from the other end, when talking about simulations: colleagues who’ve not used them get all anxious about them, while I’m totally comfortable about using and adapting them to my needs. Indeed, I’ve already met some colleagues here at Maastricht who are in exactly this position (and hoping that my seminar tomorrow will solve this).

In the session I watched today, the discussion wasn’t a full-PBL approach, but instead one that was building towards preparing for assessment. Students had written short drafts of essays-style responses beforehand, which they then discussed with their peer partner in class, to lead into a group discussion.

Two main points struck me from watching this.

The first is that the key challenge with PBL is trying to hit all levels of learning/understanding simultaneously. This was a group of first year undergrads, with limited knowledge of the subject, trying to talk through both very basic points and much more advanced analysis and conceptualisation. This is both frightening and exciting. It’s frightening because it goes against much of what we do in universities, gradually building up students in a stepped fashion. But that’s also why it’s exciting, because it opens up huge new spaces and models of learning.

Certainly, the notion of failure is never far away, and the discussion frequently has to return to basic ideas or jump to some new point that crops up. That requires a fully engaged tutor, who can be also flexible as their students; somewhat made all the more difficult by running c.25 groups in parallel, as happens in Maastricht.

However, the second point has been the most striking. And it is simply that students here are like students everywhere. There’s a mix of confident and expressive, alongside the quiet and reticent. There’s a range of abilities and degrees of focus on the task in hand.

This is striking because it reminds me that PBL isn’t more difficult than other pedagogies, only different. If we can all embrace that diversity of approach, then we might all gain something useful. As I see more during the week, I’ll let you know what else I find.