Problem Based Learning System

At Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences courses are taught in different formats. The departments of Pedagogy, Psychology and Sociology use the Problem Based Learning system. This means that students actively participate in tutorials consisting of around 15 students. During class, students have an active role and are to a large degree responsible for their learning process. During the week, they prepare for the next tutorial with the learning goals they set during the previous tutorial. Work is done in small groups or in private study. The department of Public Administration offers both lectures and seminars. Lectures are taught to a large group of students, while student discussion is possible in seminars. Please read the information below to get yourself familiar with the Problem-Based Learning system. 

Basic Principles of Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a method that is based on the idea that the student plays an active role in the learning process (student-centered education). It is not about lecturing in order to accomplish information transfer (as is the case in traditional educational systems), but rather about active participation of the student in small groups. So most of the time, it’s not the teacher who’s explaining, it’s the students themselves.

This student-centered approach stems from the constructivist vision on learning which states that the best way to deal with information is to actively construct knowledge instead of passively consuming it.

Not receiving but rather actively constructing knowledge

In PBL we use “problems” which are presented to the students in their workgroup. These problems are the starting points of your study; they represent realistic situations and serve as an opening for a discussion. The problem is presented before other types of input (literature, lectures etc.)

By presenting a problem, students are provided with a meaningful context (connect to real-life environment) in which they can activate prior knowledge. To give you an idea of how it works, please follow the instructions below (step by step).

  1. Carefully read the following text:

    A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first, it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times.  It takes some skill but it's easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain however, soaks in very fast.  Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance. 

  2. After reading it, put it aside and answer the following questions:

  3. • What excites you the most about your studies abroad?
    • What do you think iss the most famous Dutch food?

  4. Write down what you remember from the story you have read. Is there much you can remember? Quite hard, right?!

  5. If I now tell you that the story is about flying a kite it will probably be easier to understand and remember information from the text.

This example shows you that when you know the CONTEXT of information (flying a kite), the information becomes MEANINGFUL and it will result in the ACTIVATION OF PRIOR KNOWLEDGE (about how to fly a kite) which results in better retention of the (new) information you have just read in the text.

How are these principles implemented?

PBL is implemented by working in small groups (max. 11 students), accompanied by a tutor. The group is presented with a ‘problem’ which will be explored in a structured manner (the 7-step approach).

7-step approach

To make sure that the 7-step approach is being conducted during the meetings and that the discussion takes place in a structured way students play different roles (chair, scribe, group mate). More detailed information about the PBL background, the 7-step approach and the different roles can be found in “PBL: step by step” booklet. 

Let’s practice! 

Imagine entering a classroom and meeting up with 10 other students and your tutor.

  1. You are presented with the following problem: 

    Ugh… Spiders!

    When Caroline came home from her job as an account manager she was tired and desperately in need of a bath. She then discovers 2 spiders in her bathtub. She flinches, screams and runs away. Finally a neighbor rescues her from her awkward position by killing the small animals with a newspaper. Explain the above-mentioned events.
  2. Now write down the steps from the 7-step approach. Steps 1-3 and 5 can be filled out now. Consider how you would approach the rest of the steps. 

    1)      Unfamiliar terms? If there are any words you do not understand please look them up.

    2)      Problem definition: formulate a question regarding the above text.

    3)      Brainstorm: try to come up with some answers to the question(s) you’ve asked yourself in step 

    4)      Problem analysis: this step must be taken in a group setting; you need other people to discuss 
             various solutions to the problem and connect them with one another.

    5)      Formulate learning issues: usually this is done after discussing all ideas with the group. For
             now you can look at your own brainstorm. You have come up with some answers/ solutions 
             but do they cover everything that happens in the problem? The issue(-s) that remain 
             unresolved can be formulated into questions.   

    6)      Self-study: with the learning goals in mind you can look up literature to find answers and 
             summarize relevant information. 

    7)      Reporting: you report your findings (answers to the learning goals) during the next group 

  3. Watch the video

    The video shows a group meeting in which the 7 step approach is applied to the above problem.

    Please mind that this example is a more concise version of real-life session (shorter time-wise). The video is a summary, normally a group meeting lasts longer. 

    Did you come up with (about) the same problem definition and learning goals?

Want to learn more about PBL?

  1. The department of Psychology has compiled a PBL step by step guide for students and tutors, which you can find here.
  2. On YouTube you can find several short films about PBL. For example here and here.
  3. On the website of Erasmus University Rotterdam  you can read some general information about PBL.
  4. If you still have any questions feel free to contact us for advice regarding the educational system!

Photo: Michelle Muus