At Erasmus University College we use a specific educational model for delivering our Liberal Arts and Sciences programme: Problem-Based Learning (PBL).
PBL is a problem-centred approach to active learning, which increases the motivation of the students and ignites a thorough interest in the subject matter. For most courses in year one, groups of about ten students meet in two-and-a-half to three-hour tutorial sessions once a week, where they will engage in a discussion amongst themselves, guided by a tutor. In years two and three, students continue to use their PBL skills in small-group, active learning environments.
Learning with Problems
In PBL, problems play a steering role in the learning process and are the driving force behind a student's self-study. In each tutorial session and the subsequent self-study, students follow a systematic procedure of dealing with ‘the problems’, called the seven-step method, through which students progress to maximize learning.
- Clarify the concepts and unfamiliar terms
Problem definition - define important questions that arise. What are the phenomena that need explaining here?
Brainstorm - produce initial hypotheses to answer the problem definition
Problem analysis - systematically organise and elaborate on the hypotheses
Define learning issues - define what you want to study based on questions left open after the discussion
Self-study in the study landscape or at home to prepare for the next PBL meeting
Reporting phase - present, debate and elaborate on your findings
The first five steps are part of the discussion phase in which the problem is tentatively analysed and discussed by the students in the tutorial session. This tentative analysis will lead to a tentative explanation and/or to questions about issues that are yet not understood or which need clarification.
These questions (i.e. the learning issues) will be used by the students as their objectives for self-study. In the period that elapses until the next tutorial session students search for relevant literature and other resources that could answer their questions. After studying these resources, the students prepare themselves to report their findings.
Following this self-study phase, in the next tutorial session, the students report back to each other, sharing what they have learned and which resources are used, and discussing and synthesising the findings of the different resources.
During the entire seven-step method, the tutor will facilitate the discussions of the students and their elaboration on the subject at hand, guiding them in fulfilling their respective roles as either chair, scribe, or group member in a tutorial session, and finally ensure that the learning issues will support the students in their self-study phase.
Self Directed Learning
PBL assumes that the student is able to study independently and therefore, takes responsibility for his or her own learning process. This emphasis on self-directed learning demands discipline on the part of the students. For example, students will have to plan their self-study time, manage finding resources and learn to distinguish relevant resources from the trivial.
At the same time, PBL emphasises collaboration and interactive learning by means of arguing, discussing, and sharing knowledge. The initial discussion of a problem with fellow students helps in activating prior knowledge and awareness about knowledge gaps, whereas discussing and elaborating on the subject matter after self-study stimulates deeper learning, by establishing new knowledge structures and the construction of meaning.