A review of the PBL system by Mathias Müller
The PBL system is maybe THE thing people associate with Maastricht University. A lot of students have been to an “Open Dag” of the university before beginning of their studies. While straying through the unfamiliar maze of information stands, lectures and all other kinds of activities PBL is probably the aspect prospective students get told about the most. After an exhausting day the visitors find themselves in their cars or the train cluttered with information material. Browsing through the masses of material, one starts to recall the impressions of the day. A crucial question that everyone tries to answer is: “What the hell is this PBL thing?” Until their first week of the studies, most of the students are probably unable to answer this question.
According to the university’s website PBL consists of five core elements. First, it is a student-centred approach in which the students are personally responsible for their education; they learn in small tutorial groups in which they analyse a problem together, through discussion, exchange of knowledge and self-formulated learning goals. Secondly, PBL is a system of active learning. This means that the tutorials contain a diversity of interconnected subjects, and variety of skills such as presenting, debating, writing, and teamwork is acquired. Regarding the tutors, the university claims that they are easily approachable, guide the groups through the learning process, share their knowledge with the group and, when needed, support the students. Another crucial element to the PBL system is the learning and resource centre – meaning, the library. The study materials are tailored to the subjects of the tutorials. Lastly, the university advertises that the skills acquired through the PBL system last a lifetime. It makes the students assertive and independent, teaches them strong analytical skills and how to collect and structure information. Further, it is very international and promotes the ability to take an active part in discussions.
Thinking about this straight after the “Open Dag” there is really no good reason not to come to study to Maastricht. Still, students complain a lot about the system. But why? A lot of them say that they are annoyed by the PBL system. Statements such as: “The seven steps are so stupid” and “Oh my god, the pre-discussion does not make any sense” can be heard quite often. Frequently, students complain that the seven steps are very rigid, provide little flexibility and that it can be quite a strange feeling when everybody in the the post-discussion is equiped with pretty much the same notes that they have to “discuss”. If everyone already knows the same facts, one can hardly call it a discussion. So how can one overcome this lack of momentum in tutorial meetings? Often students say that it is the tutor’s responsibility to direct the group through the valleys of awkward silences. Tutors might have a different view on that issue as Dr Benedetta Voltolini, tutor at FASoS, clarifies. She thinks that the core of the PBL system is that “[…] students become the ones that are doing the learning” and that “they are not passive recipients”. On the other hand she also admits that part of a tutor’s role is “to force students to think” and contribute to the tutorial. Bridget, a master student at SBE agrees as she enjoys to be led by the tutors. On the other hand she likes it “when students give the incentives for discussions” during tutorial meetings. She did her bachelor in Germany and had been rather sceptical about the PBL system before she began her studies in Maastricht. But now that she is here she came to worship the PBL system with its rather strict rules of attendance for one specific reason. She thinks that the fact that students get their degree in time is a distinct advantage of the PBL compared to other countries and learning systems.
As hard it is to say this as a student: If your tutorial is lame, boring and lacks exciting discussions it is your responsibility to change it. The tutors might try to encourage and support the students but you have to do the studying yourselves.