Small-group studies: the merits and perils of Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Effective instruction in any subject aims at activating students’ own potential for learning.  One of the successful strategies for achieving this goal is known as problem- or inquiry-based learning (PBL and IBL).  Working in small collaborative groups, students are encouraged to explore challenging open-ended questions and take responsibility for the learning process. 

In the context of PBL, instructors do not lecture or provide answers.  Instead, they assume the role of facilitators in the learning process.  Preparation for class involves careful planning and readiness for improvisation.  

This is how the method works in an ideal setting.  An initial analysis of the problem activates the students’ prior knowledge.  Small-group discussion allows them to elaborate and restructure it, as they process the new information.  As students collaboratively engage in meaningful problem solving, their curiosity is stimulated, and if encouraged to pursue inquiry on a regular basis in their studies, they are more likely to cope with uncertainty and communication problems later in life. 

The approach to instruction in the Integral Program at Saint Mary’s College of California (where I taught from 2004 to 2008) is a form of PBL.  Intrigued by its merits, I began to experiment with a version of PBL in my UC Berkeley Extension Latin and Greek courses.  Working with a variety of students, from college freshmen to adult professionals, yielded valuable data about the effectiveness of PBL.

The Integral tutor’s preparation for class requires careful planning and readiness for improvisation. In my work as a tutor, I encountered two scenarios: 

  • The first involved instruction in activities familiar to me (language acquisition and analysis, text interpretation).  In this scenario, my role was that of the classic PBL facilitator.  I would establish initial scaffolding through simpler and familiar examples from the subject matter.  I drew attention to similarly solvable problems from other areas.  From there on, simply asking strategic questions was sufficient.  Students were usually quick to assess and adopt the strategy proposed in the scaffolding model and to begin the development of their own problem-solving strategies.    The level of guidance diminished as the students progressed.  By the end of the semester, they were able to assess and solve problems in the field with little additional guidance from me. 
  • I was also required to teach classes outside my professional expertise.  An example on point is the freshmen laboratory tutorial, especially the first time I taught it – I am sure that the students in this tutorial, now seniors, remember the experience.  Such cases most closely resemble real-life situations, where there is no explicit facilitator.  The whole group, instructor included, engaged in problem solving by genuine inquiry and trial-and-error.  I would provide only general guidance in terms of efficient learning strategies.   

Even with initial scaffolding, beginning students do not always adequately perceive and assess the essential patterns for solving the problem at hand.  As a result, group discussions may be diverted to other patterns, which may seem less relevant to the initial inquiry.   In the first scenario, the facilitator is able to evaluate the general direction of the discussion, make a competent decision about its relevance, and guide or redirect it, as necessary.   The second scenario, where the tutor genuinely participates in the initial analysis of the problem and development of scaffolding, is more beneficial in activating students’ learning potential and building up their confidence.  Problems with the second scenario arise if the students do not have previously established independent thinking habits, as is the case with some of the freshmen, or when their overall schedule allows them to invest only a limited amount of effort in any given class (hence their need for a more definite, formulaic approach to learning).   

In a PBL context, I base my assessment on a range of observations.  Group work requires that students learn how to explain their insights to each other and, in turn, be able to receive their colleagues’ input.  Irregular (or physical only) attendance, scant preparation for class, and consistent lack of attention during class severely limit students’ ability to participate in the learning process.  Those performance-limiting indicators are often accompanied by less-than-adequate assessment of oneself and of one’s peers.  

In an effort to encourage the Integral Program students’ self-assessment, I experimented with the so-called reflection journals (which are an important assessment tool in PBL).  The results were mixed, but most entries exemplified the students’ growing awareness of their mode of learning, as well as the significance of what they have learned on a wider scale.  Some Integral students were less willing to reflect on their learning, expressing instead their discomfort with what they perceived as unnecessarily increased “responsibility for others” or the relevance of the material for discussion.   Regular face-to-face meetings with the tutor usually helped those students, but several of them confused external encouragement with self-assessment and continued to struggle with the concept of fruitful group discussion.  

Each class has its own group dynamic.  In a sense, teachers are managers in a unique environment with its own complexity.  I am beginning to think that learning more about strategies of HR management and conflict resolution may be beneficial to both students and tutors.


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