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 its essence, PBL involves seven steps that you follow in groups of 10 to 15 students.
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 first tutorial. You then work individually or in small groups on ‘your’ part of the problem, and come together in the second tutorial to discuss the results as a group.
Four advantages of Problem-Based Learning
It’s all about you
In PBL you are personally responsible (under supervision, of course) for what you learn. This requires you to play an active role in the learning process. Often, the problems you analyse are also the subject of important academic research being conducted at UM. Together with your group, you take part in discussions, share knowledge and formulate your own learning objectives. The number of face-to-face teaching hours at UM is, compared to other universities, relatively limited. The rest of your week is taken up by independent study and group assignments.
You learn together, in our international classroom
Because you work actively on real-life issues, the theory sticks better in your mind and you learn to apply your knowledge to all sorts of questions. The very different backgrounds of your fellow group members form a truly international classroom. This not only makes for lively discussions, but also means you gain experience cooperating in culturally diverse teams. Chances are that you emerge from all this as a highly engaged citizen of the world. What’s more, you learn essential skills like presenting your point of view, debating, writing reports and collaborating. You may be assessed on these skills instead of sitting an exam.
Your tutors are approachable and inspiring
The tutorials are supervised by a tutor, who may be the lecturer or professor who personally developed the course, or it may be an older student. We select these students very carefully, based on their experience and accomplishments. The tutor supervises the group process, asks important and critical questions, shares knowledge and provides support as needed. As a rule, the communication between you and your tutor is low-threshold and informal.
You acquire skills for life
Our graduates serve as the evidence that Problem-Based Learning is effective. They are assertive, independent and professional. They are especially skilled in analysing complex issues, gathering and structuring information, working in international teams, leading discussions, and forming and presenting ideas. Research shows that when it comes to developing this particular skillset, PBL is more effective than traditional education methods.
Good to know...
- you have two tutorials per week
- besides the tutorials, you also attend lectures, practicals or skills training sessions; exactly how many depends on your study programme. The content is always geared towards the case studies covered in the tutorials
- courses are organised into blocks of (normally) eight weeks
- each course or block concludes with an assessment
- the exact form of PBL differs per study programme. The tutorial groups may be smaller or slightly larger, for instance, and some programmes use Project-Based or Research-Based Learning
Examples of PBL assignments
What does a PBL assignment look like? During our information sessions you can take part in a mock tutorial to see for yourself. Below are two (condensed) examples of real PBL assignments from Maastricht University.
You and a couple of friends have had enough of the political climate in the country and in Europe. After some deliberation, you decide to go into European politics. You think the best approach is to become a member of the European Parliament, while your friends think you can have more influence on policy if you join the Commission. Unconvinced by their arguments, you decide to postpone your decision until you can do more research. What questions should you be able to answer in order to arrive at a plan of action?
European Public Health
The municipal health service in Aachen, Germany, informs the Maastricht health service that a GP from Liège, Belgium, has reported a case of open tuberculosis. The patient, a 39 year old electrician, is employed by a highly specialised installation company. He recently carried out work in the hospitals in Aachen and Maastricht, travelling to both by public transport. A few days later another case of open TB is reported, this time in a Maastricht train commuter. You study questions such as: How is tuberculosis spread? What are the risk factors? What national and cross-border measures are needed to prevent the further spread of the disease?
What is it like to be in a PBL class? Our students tell you more.