Problem-Based Learning (PBL) offers you a different way of learning from traditional university education. You work in small tutorial groups, engage in hands-on training and attend (far) fewer lectures. Under the supervision of a tutor, you team up with ten to fifteen students to tackle real-life challenges. PBL is an active way of learning that gives you better retention of knowledge, enhances your motivation and encourages you to develop skills that are essential for the labour market in the 21st century. In short: PBL is all about you, your tutors are very approachable and you learn together in a dynamic way, helping form you into an assertive professional.
So what are these ‘skills for life’? Research shows that PBL teaches you to:
- really understand the subject matter, rather just learning by rote
- collaborate with partners and small teams
- think critically with a view to solving problems
- study and work independently
- feel comfortable with public speaking
In PBL you decide, together with your fellow group members, what knowledge you will need
- Your group is supervised and guided by a tutor or lecturer
You learn skills that will stand you in good stead later
You engage actively with the subject matter, enabling you to absorb it better
PBL has been at the heart of UM ever since the university was founded
Complex problem solving is the number 1 skill for your future, according to the World Economic Forum
“At high school in Curaçao, I only spoke when I was spoken to. Even so, I chose UM for its Problem-Based Learning approach. Being active in class seemed a lot easier in theory than it turned out to be in practice. But eventually I started to be more active in the tutorials. Even if I wasn’t sure my contribution was going to be valuable, I’d speak up anyway. I’m no longer as shy and reserved as I once was; instead I’ve become more open and self-confident.”
Lisanly Vanblarcum (24, Curaçao), Master in Fiscal Economics
“More and more universities are starting to offer Problem-Based Learning, but my impression is that the quality at UM is higher. During tutorials I sometimes had the feeling that I was in a boardroom with colleagues and we actually had to make strategic decisions. I was given a case to solve during my job interview, and that same case study had come up several times during the programme. So I literally owe my job to Problem-Based Learning.”
Vincent Maessen (24, Netherlands), Master in International and European Tax Law
"Back when I was in high school, my mother already figured that Maastricht University, with its PBL approach, would be just my thing. My mother was right after all, of course. Actively engaging with the study material helps me remember it. At Maastricht, it’s important to actively participate in class. If you don’t you lose half a mark off your final grade, and it’s annoying for other students as well."
Vivian van Slooten (20, Netherlands),
Bachelor in Arts and Culture
How does PBL work?
In essence PBL revolves around four learning principles: constructive education, learning in a relevant context, collective learning, and self-directed education.
Learning should be an active process, in which you gain knowledge from your experiences and interactions with your environment. You are encouraged to think about what you already know, and you learn to integrate new information with this prior knowledge. This helps you to really understand the subject matter, form well-founded opinions and acquire new knowledge, rather than just learning things by rote. You will notice that it is easier to remember things this way.
Learning in a relevant context
You study relevant cases, which have meaning in today’s society – whether these are simulations from professional practice, debated topics within scientific communities, or other problems that require an academic approach. Being confronted with such problems, you learn how to tackle a wide variety of topics, as well as how to make the all-important transfer from theory to practice.
You are encouraged to learn from and discuss with others. By exchanging ideas with your peers and providing one another with feedback, you come to understand the subject matter much better. Learning is not an individual process; it is something you as a group share responsibility for.
The learning process at UM is something you manage yourself by planning, monitoring and evaluating. The tutors and lecturers are there to assist you, but you as the student are the driving force. As the programme progresses you learn to better direct your own learning process in a motivating and effective way. You will find that this enables you to keep on learning for the rest of your life.
What does that look like in practice then?
We understand PBL at UM as an umbrella term that includes multiple educational methods that are based on these four principles. Thus, in practice, PBL can take different shapes and forms like:
Some of our education is designed around the Project-Centred Learning (PCL) teaching method.
In PCL, you participate in one project per semester in which you apply and integrate selected content of the courses. This enables you to develop a variety of skills such as project management, writing, presenting and working in a team. UM offers skill classes to further develop these competences, which are also important for your future career.
During the project, you go through various aspects such as understanding the task, team organisation, the acquisition of relevant literature and data, the implementation of the task to produce experimental results, the discussion of the results, and self-reflection on whether the project goals are achieved.
Your examiners provide feedback during intermediate sessions and the project tutor guides you and your group through the process. This guidance is offered during weekly project meetings.
Projects are based on recent research, or on problems submitted by companies and institutes. At the end of each project, you deliver a functional product and present your findings to your fellow students, the teachers and/or the client.
The seven steps are:
- discuss the case and make sure everyone understands the problem
- identify the questions that need to be answered to shed light on the case
- brainstorm what the group already knows and identify potential solutions
- analyse and structure the results of the brainstorming session
- formulate learning objectives for the knowledge that is still lacking
- do independent study, individually or in smaller groups: read articles or books, follow practicals or attend lectures to gain the required knowledge
- discuss the findings
The initial five steps are covered in the second half of a tutorial. You then work individually or in small groups on ‘your’ part of the problem, and come together in the next tutorial to discuss the results as a group for the first half, before repeating the cycle.
Students are offered the opportunity to learn about conducting research and to acquire new substantive knowledge by doing research. While participating in a research project, you will learn about the research process, research methodology and the dissemination of research results, as well as obtain in-depth substantive knowledge
The project starts with group meetings in which you explore the subject-matter and methodology under the guidance of the supervisor. As the project progresses, the focus turns more towards your own research as you develop the contours of your own research project. Throughout, you will be given the opportunity to share your experiences with the other students in your project group, to discuss the progress of your research and the challenges you encounter, as well as to provide and receive feedback on proposals, drafts, and presentations.
The projects are supervised by researchers who will guide and support you while you explore the substantive topic and develop your own research project. The project groups usually have 5 -12 participants.