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An introduction to problem-based learning

Lecture delivered to students on a constitutional and administrative law unit at Norwich Law School – to find out more read the case study on the unit.

What is problem-based learning?

  • mode of teaching in which responses to, and investigation of, a problem scenario drive students’ learning
  • lecturers become facilitators of students’ learning rather than omniscient providers of knowledge
  • students perceived/perceive themselves less as passive recipients of wisdom and more as active learners pursuing knowledge through research endeavour

Basic procedure:

  • students are presented with a problem scenario
  • they identify what they think they do and do not know
  • they gather further information and communicate this to one another
  • they apply this new knowledge to the problem scenario
  • they identify what they think they still do not know, and the process begins again

Benefits for students:

  • greater emphasis on students’ development of graduate skills central to prospective careers as lawyers, and transferable to other any professional context
  • practised self confidence
  • appreciation of the complexity or ‘messiness’ of real world problems, and a learned capacity to cope with uncertainty
  • higher level of disciplinary understanding – students get to ‘know’ the law better
  • an appreciation of the need for on-going personal professional development – commitment to ‘lifelong learning’ becomes a ‘taken for granted’ attitude – valuable, indeed indispensable, to any future career


(Source: http://www.dlsweb.rmit.edu.au/eng/beng0001/PBL-LIST/PBL)

Benefits for faculty:

  • rewarding ‘research-led’ teaching
  • opportunity to enhance coherence between research interests and teaching
  • move away from didactic approaches allows fostering of ‘better’ relationships with students; respect for students maintained and strengthened
  • a mark of distinction for the adopting law school – the Maastricht experience
  • recognition by employers, prospective students, and other schools as a groundbreaking, innovative institution – a virtuous circle

Negative aspects (or why isn’t anyone/everyone doing this?):

  • institutional inertia: “if it ain’t broke…”
  • resource implications

Unit Timetable

Week Lectures Seminars
1   problem 1 workshop
2 overview of judicial review  
3   problem 1 moot
4 review of problem 1  
5   problem 2 workshop
6 overview of civil liberties  
7   problem 2 moot
8 review of problem 2  
9   problem 3 workshop
10 advanced judicial review and civil liberties  
11   problem 3 moot
12 review of problem 3  

The problems

  • designed to cover the necessary curriculum content
  • contain triggers to prompt students to investigate the identified core areas
  • not easy: equivalent to three/four weeks’ work

First formal meeting

Students will be presented with the problem scenario in advance of the problem workshop in each four week cycle, and should read over this material before attending the class. Each seminar group of 14-16 students will meet for a problem workshop during week 1 of each cycle. The seminar group will be subdivided into two study groups of seven or eight students. These groups will remain intact for the duration of the semester. These two study groups will be asked to consider the problem from the perspective of opposing actors in the problem. A member of staff will determine membership of the study groups.

Each study group will be asked to consider the scenario, to ensure that all members of the study group understand its details, and to identify what might be the main issues that arise from the problem. In particular, they will be asked to make a note of such information/knowledge as they believe they would need in order to respond to the issues raised; that is, the students attempt to identify what they do not know. They might also speculate as to possible solutions based on their existing knowledge, whether gained from previous legal studies or some other experience. As the workshop progresses, discussion should focus on such aspects of the problem scenario as the students believe they will need to investigate further in order to develop a solution. Students should also consider what resources they might use in order to answer their questions.

During this discussion, one student should be allocated the role of chairing the discussion. A second student should act as scribe. The chair, along with the members of the respective study groups, should ensure that each student is offered the opportunity to bring his/her viewpoints to bear in the collective discussion. The tutor will oversee the discussion, ensuring that the group does not stray too far from the core issues, and prompting consideration of any important issues that have been underplayed. The outcome of this discussion should be an agreed list of issues that each study group has identified as worthy of further research.

This list will form the basic agenda for research in preparation for the problem moot in week 3 of each cycle, but groups should expect their initial ideas to develop as they research further, read other groups views, and discuss issues in the interactive lectures. A member of staff may make some suggestions as to useful research sources. The research agenda produced by each study group should be posed on Blackboard for other groups to peruse, and perhaps to identify issues that they had not identified in the problem.

By the end of the problem workshop each study group of students should have determined how they are to proceed in researching the identified issues. They might decide that each student will investigate all the issues individually with each point being considered by more than one student, that they will work in pairs with each pair covering a number of the issues, that each individual student will be allotted one or two of the issues to research in depth, or that they will utilise a combination of these methods.

The first period of self-directed research and online discussion

Whichever approach the study group adopts, the students will need to arrange at least one meeting in advance of later formal classes to report back to each other on their research findings, and to discuss how these findings might help or hinder the resolution of the problem scenario. Each member of the study group should be prepared to report on their collective findings to the wider group. The study group as a whole can then refocus on such uncertainties, inconsistencies and disagreements as arise in the course of discussion. It is almost certain that students will identify further issues arising from the problem scenario during the course of their research that the group had not countenanced during the workshop. These can and should be added to the research agenda.

In addition to members of each study group working together, they will also have access to an online discussion of the problem scenario. This discussion will be overseen and contributed to by staff. Students can contribute findings from their own research, ruminate on the problem scenario, advise others of useful resources, and pose questions that have troubled them for others (students and staff) to consider and respond. The threads of this discussion will remain as a cumulative resource.

Interactive lectures

During the second week in the cycle the class as a whole will assemble for interactive lectures on areas of law pertinent to the problem. The basic format will include:

  • the presentation by a member of staff of an overview of relevant law, with a heavy emphasis on the identification – but not full discussion – of the seminal cases and important statutes for each area of importance.
  • the opportunity for individual students and study groups to enter comment and raise queries on any particular point. Such issues will then reflected upon by staff and the year group as a whole. The mode of operating, however, will not simply be the straight provision of information. The emphasis will be on guidance and not instruction.

To facilitate the interactive lecture process, it would be advantageous if study groups could meet in advance of lectures to reflect upon issues where further guidance may be sought. Moreover, it would be helpful if study groups sat together in order that an individual raising a point need not feel they are speaking merely on their own behalf.

Submission of skeleton argument and problem moot

Each study group will work together ultimately to develop and submit a short written report (skeleton argument) on the legal issues arising from the problem scenario. This must be submitted on Blackboard in advance of the problem moot scheduled for week 3 in each cycle to allow the opposing study group an opportunity to reflect on the likely arguments that will be raised in the moot. The moot itself will involve an opportunity for each study group to present its case, and to respond to questions, for a period of 20 minutes. Thus, the group should appoint two or three persons to represent them at this event. These representatives should be different for each problem. The class will conclude with comment from the tutor on the arguments presented, and the presentation style of those involved.

Problem review

In week 4 of each cycle one or two review lectures will involve further discussion of the problem, general comment on the solutions presented by groups in the mooting events, and a further opportunity for students to pursue particular matters further. In particular, the lecture is designed to allow staff to locate the expertise and knowledge gained by students within the wider context of the studies for the semester.

During the lecture, members of staff may present a series of minor variations on the factual circumstances and ask students to consider for the future what impact such changes might have had on the legal resolution of the problem.

It is hoped that some formal sessions and interviews will be videoed, with the footage being made available to students for self reflection and assessment.

Potential pitfalls

  • dysfunctional groups
  • lazy students
  • domineering students
  • missing the point(s)?/absence of safety net

Last Modified: 4 June 2010