It was my turn to be a co-leader for this topic and so I want to take a moment to reflect on the experience of being in a problem-based learning group.

In short, what I loved about the PBL group experience was:

Sense of community within group

The single most important activity for building a sense of community within our PBL group was the routine of checking in and out with every person in the group at the beginning and end of each meeting. This ensured every member of the group has space to speak, be heard, bring up an issue if needed, and also get to know others in the group through informal, social check ins/outs. Other factors that I believe were important for building community included the small size of the group (we were 7 members and 2 co-facilitators), our common purpose to learn in the course, the regularity with which we met, and the positive, interactive environment of the meetings.

Interaction leading to more diverse, nuanced and all around better understandings

It is not surprising that a diverse learning community, that is purposefully interactive both between and within meetings, and is meeting regularly around a commonly agreed on learning objective leads to better ideas, new perspectives, and more nuanced understandings.

Motivation from interaction and community

The sense of community, particularly combined with the interactive nature of the course was extremely motivating. It made it easy to explore topics, attend events, participate in group meetings, and  contribute to group work.

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By contrast, biggest problems I saw with the PBL group were:

Unclear responsibilities and uncertainty

The work of PBL groups even using the FISh process is largely open and unstructured, which means working with a high level of uncertainty. This style of work requires strong communication skills. I found out in the fifth iteration of the group process that my understanding of the role of facilitators, co-leads, and participants were not in line with what the co-leads were being told was expected. As a group member I’d been frustrated by a regular request for input that was then ignored, whereas co-leads probably felt that the group members were overstepping and frustrated that the group wasn’t letting them do their job. These conflicting understandings of responsibilities resulted in more work and frustration for all.

Missing persons

The downside of having a group with only seven members is that the impact of absent members or missing contributions is huge. It is extremely difficult to make highly interactive, open processes work well when people are not present or not prepared for the topic.

Handling conflict

Generally I find it difficult to identify the best ways to handle conflicts in context of PBL groups, especially at the beginning of the course. Compared to other types of group work PBL groups involved greater social involvement, social pressure, and uncertainty in combination with longer time commitment within the group, fewer processes or structures, and abrupt rotations of leaders and topics.

The problem is group work always involves in some level of conflict because members have different interests, personalities, experiences, and expectations. PBL groups need to have better ways of managing conflicts, reflecting on past work, and supporting students than what I saw modeled in this course.


Kek, M. & Huijser, H. (2015). 21st century skills: problem based learning and the University of the Future. Paper Third 21st Century Academic Forum Conference, Harvard, Boston, USA.

Savin-Baden, M., (2014) Problem-based learning: New constellations for the 21stCentury. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching 25 (3/4) 197-219.

Problem Based Learning Group Experience