Problem Based Learning


Problem-Based Learning

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

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:

  1. discuss the case and make sure everyone understands the problem
  2. identify the questions that need to be answered to shed light on the case
  3. brainstorm what the group already knows and identify potential solutions
  4. analyse and structure the results of the brainstorming session
  5. formulate learning objectives for the knowledge that is still lacking
  6. do independent study, individually or in smaller groups: read articles or books, follow practicals or attend lectures to gain the required knowledge
  7. 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.

Video: PBL in a nutshell.

Four principles

In PBL everything revolves around four modern learning principles. Learning should be:

  • constructive
  • self-directed
  • collective
  • relevant

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 a dynamic way
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 not only make for lively discussions, but also mean 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 three (condensed) examples of real PBL assignments from Maastricht University.

International Business
Fashion chain Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) was heavily criticised after a Salon Magazine interview with the CEO Mike Jeffries went viral in the media. He spoke about the firm’s exclusionary segmentation strategy, targeting cool, sexy and younger consumers only. Initially, Jeffries held on to his “exclusionary” ethos argumentation that exclusivity is a powerful thing, especially for luxury brands. Later he backed down. While the marketing segmentation strategy of A&F also negatively affected the body image of teenagers, Dove chose for a holistic, self-esteem promoting approach, bringing women the message “You are beautiful”. You discuss several aspects of marketing with your group members in order to understand the underlying mechanisms of this example.

European Studies
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.