My first PBL lecture

I recently attended a workshop on problem-based learning (PBL). It was very interesting and I couldn’t wait to try it out! From what I understand about PBL, it addresses some of the challenges I have found with lecturing:

  • PBL dispells the notion of the lecturer as the “source of all information” and puts the onus of information gathering onto the student. (Incidentally this doesn’t relieve the lecturer from researching information, in fact the exact opposite is true as the lecturer has to be extremely knowlegable about the topic being investigated.)
  • Previously I exposed my Management 2 class to labour legislation through a project, but not all group members participated which was frustrating to the students who did put in some effort. My hope is that although PBL sessions are collaborative discussions, the learning issues generated must be researched by each individual student.
  • Instead of passive lecture sessions where students listen and don’t participate, PBL encourages full enagagement and participation of students and minimal lecturing/input from lecturers. (Personal note: this is great for those after-lunch lectures when it’s difficult to keep students’ attention in a lecture!)
  • Additionally I believe PBL replicates the types of ill-defined labour problems students may encounter in the workplace – as opposed to neat and tidy problems found in textbooks. (Is this authentic learning?)

In planning my lecture session, an Introduction to the South African legal system, I converted the course outcomes into learning issues:

What is law?
How is the law enforced?
Criminal vs civil law
Sources of South African law (there are 7)
What is the Constitution?
What are rights?
What is the Bill of Rights? (and what two categories of rights are there?)
What is Parliament?
How is the South African court system structured?

Ordinarily I would have presented the answers to the above questions in the form of a lecture. According to PBL, I needed to generate a problem that could be presented to students which they could use their existing reasoning skills and knowledge to create a discussion around the topics.

Generating the problem question has proven to be the most difficult, challenging and time-consuming task in my lecture preparation! I struggled to develop a question specific enough to encompass all the learning issues and yet be open-ended enough to lead into a discussion. Each problem I developed didn’t seem quite right. In a search for articles on teaching labour law in a PBL environment, I found a wonderfully and honestly written article by Rachel Arnow-Richman. I was secretly hoping that the article would describe a “magic formula” for deriving PBL questions! Instead, I found possibly the best and most reassuring advice on selecting a PBL question:

In light of this, I have made peace with what is essentially a trial and error process for selecting and assigning problems. The insights I gain from my first sally with a particular problem show me where it needs to be tweaked for the following year; I may even decide that a particular problem is best abandoned. In the meantime, I am mindful of the risks of my experimentation, and where a problem proves less than effective, I switch up my teaching style, supplementing with a bit of lecture or perhaps resorting to more traditional case-based questioning to bring students up to speed or to take them where I need them to go. Thus, for the first few years, faculty may be forced to select problems with less than complete information and to endure a bit of uncertainty about how things will play out.” (Arnow-Richman, 2013:55)

(Rachel, if you ever read this, please know how much value your article has added to my journey in PBL – thank you!)

I realised that I was unlikely to be able to execute PBL perfectly, so I took a deep breath and chose the best (but nowhere near perfect!) of the questions I had developed:

“Can a lecturer legally ban students from smoking?”

In the lecture session I asked the students to form groups of 4 – 6 students and gave each group an A3 sheet of paper for them to brain storm the question and write down their thoughts. After about 15 minutes I asked some of the groups to share their thoughts with the entire class.

My hope was that the discussion would lead into discussions such as who can create laws?, how are laws enforced?, how are laws promulgated?, where are laws made? and perhaps discussions around personal rights such as the right to freedom (to smoke in one’s own home) which could lead to a discussion on the Constitution.

The reality of the lecture was that the best answer I received was “it depends” (which I think shows that the students are realising the answer could change if additional information was provided) but most students seemed to focus on the idea that if there was a “no smoking” sign then yes the lecturer could enforce it. I tried to question the students about who could decide on the rule that there would be no smoking or who would enforce it but we ended up having very circular discussions about CPUT and their internal rules. I really struggled to direct the discussion to the laws of South Africa (which I had thought would have been prompted by the word “legally” in the original question).

I readapted the question to:

“Could the Minister of Health legally ban students from smoking?”

This pushed the discussed towards Ministers, MPs, Parliament, Acts and the idea that laws need to be enforced.

PBL Lecture 1BOur lecture time was nearly up so although we had only identified 3 out of the 9 learning issues, I gave the students a handout with the 9 learning issues as a self-study/research exercise. (To test their research abilities/understanding of the information I set up a Blackboard quiz for the students to complete.) I will probably need to conduct a mini-lecture on the learning issues next week, which defeats the point of PBL but I will try to allow students in the class to present the information. (Thinking aloud: maybe each group can present their findings on one of the questions?)

Notes and reflections:

  • while the groups were discussing the question, I walked around and observed their group discussions but didn’t offer any input until the larger classroom discussion. I later noticed that some groups had reached some of the learning issue topics that I was hoping to discuss, but they did not share them in the general class discussion. In the next lecture I am going to try to engage with each group and allow them to develop their own discussion, irrespective of where the rest of the class is.
  • perhaps PBL is not designed to be taught in classrooms of 100 students, or at least if it is, there ideally need to be more tutors who can engage with each group of students
  • I need to avoid PBL questions with a yes/no answer
  • I need to ensure that the learning issue questions are more specific. For example “What is the Constitution?” is quite open-ended. I should rather have asked “When did the Constitution come into effect? What is the purpose of the Constitution?” etc.
  • I need to ensure that students are motivated to research the questions (they probably need to submit something for “marks”¬† ha ha) and
  • I also need to continue to provide a method (e.g. Blackboard quizes) for students to test their understanding of the content.


Arnow-Richman, R. 2013. Employment law inside out: Using the problem method to teach workplace law. Saint Louis University Law Journal. 58 (29), pp 29 – 61.



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