Disciplinary differences or modes of curriculum practice? Who promised to deliver what in problem-based learning?



Although problem-based learning has become increasingly popular in the last five years or so, particularly in the United Kingdom, the arguments about it still seem to rage. The ones that seem to be most problematic are, first, those about the relationship between problem-based learning and other similar active learning approaches, such as project-based learning; and second, those arguments about sustaining problem-based learning curricula in the face of cuts and poor university administration. Meanwhile, the blame-it-on-problem-based-learning attitude still seems to prevail worldwide, with little real consideration of the broader concerns about some of the educational issues. For example, there seem to be too few debates about what it means to facilitate problem-based learning or how we might develop the kinds of curriculum modes that support problem-based learning, and even what might count as a curriculum. This article seeks to unpack two of those issues by drawing on research into facilitation and modes of curriculum practice.

I read the series of articles about the problem of problem-based learning with great interest, particularly those of Glew [1] and White [2]. Some of this was because I was interested to see members of the problem-based learning community critiquing this approach to learning but also because much of what was being argued about did not, to me, seem to be something that could particularly be blamed on the learning approach. Instead the difficulties seemed to be emerging from a number of issues, which included:

  • The role of the facilitator, present or otherwise;

  • The way problem-based learning is implemented in the curriculum;

  • The unplanned-for, long-term running cost of problem-based learning;

  • The extent to which facilitators are experiencing burnout;

  • The way in which tutors are trained, equipped, and updated;

  • The extent to which the assessment is driving the learning;

  • A debate about whether teaching science was different from teaching other disciplines.

So, at one level I can sympathize with Glew [1], but at another level, I think the problems are to do with curricula concerns about what we mean by facilitation and what we mean by a problem-based learning program. It is these two issues that I will address in this article. A few years ago, I submitted an article on research into facilitation to an American education journal. Although it was accepted, there was some rather stark criticism about my findings, as the reviewer suggested they did not relate to anything he had seen in the United States. This was a fair comment because the study [3] was done in the United Kingdom, but I was a little puzzled, because many of my colleagues in the United Kingdom felt that the findings did reflect their own experiences. What I had argued was that professors' pedagogical stances, the ways tutors see themselves as teachers in particular educational environments, affected the kinds of facilitation they offered and the types of learning behavior they affirmed and rewarded in problem-based learning teams. The choices and interventions that professors make within a learning environment and the particular learner history they bring to a learning environment all emerge from their pedagogical stances.

My results no doubt reflect the U.K. context in which professors are required to have a qualification in teaching in higher education and are expected to both teach and research. Very little, if any facilitation of problem-based learning is undertaken by Ph.D. students, and we do not have teaching assistants in higher education, so the problems Glew [1] raised regarding this do not seem to be evident. However, for many U.K. professors, becoming a facilitator tends to be a daunting experience because, although they may have taught students through workshops and small-group sessions, their role as a facilitator in problem-based learning often requires more of them than other forms of teaching. This is because for many tutors it involves letting go of decisions about what students should learn, trusting students to acquire knowledge for themselves, and accepting that students will learn, even if they have not been supplied with a lecture or handout. The conflict for many professors is in allowing students to manage knowledge for themselves, whereas in previous roles and relationships with students they have been the controllers and patrollers of knowledge. The challenges and conflicts of facilitating problem-based learning affected professors in a variety of ways, and I discovered that the impact affected how professors positioned themselves in the problem-based learning team. What I offer here is a snapshot of some more recent research [4] that overlays my work on pedagogical stances.

The focus of this research was to explore professors' expectations and experiences of being facilitators in a problem-based program. This longitudinal qualitative study took place over a 4-year period. It involved 22 tutors, who defined themselves as problem-based learning facilitators, lecturers, clinical teachers, demonstrators in skills laboratories, and designers of networked learning packages. These participants also undertake a host of other roles, many of which have different philosophies and consequently often prompted pedagogical conflicts for the tutors involved. In the study, I used collaborative inquiry, a research method that allows development of collaborative relationships among the participants, invites reflexivity and critique, and encourages negotiation of meaning beyond the descriptive level.

In the early phase of data collection, professors spoke of their transitions from lecturer to facilitator using a variety of metaphors, but over the course of the study there was a considerable shift from their early perceptions and experiences to those they held later when they had become more accustomed to facilitating problem-based learning teams. For example, to begin with, professors saw themselves as novice facilitators whose role it was to control and direct the team, fill in the gaps in the students' knowledge base, and ensure that the course content was covered. Later, professors spoke of how they positioned themselves in relation to problem-based learning in four different but overlapping ways:

(Dis)placed Academic

The idea of a (dis)placed academic captures the feeling that problem-based learning tutors are no longer strongly located in one discipline but instead have to work inside and outside their area of expertise. For many, this dislocation brought confusion and discomfort. They were professors who were ambivalent about their new role and so, although they valued being a facilitator, they struggled with their change of role. These facilitators valued the freedom associated with encouraging students to be autonomous, but they were not always entirely sure just how much autonomy they should allow. Thus, they saw autonomy as allowing the students to become self-directed in what and how they learned, but how much autonomy to allow was a major concern.

(Re)positioned Academic

Facilitators in this theme saw problem-based learning as offering them a positive opportunity to reposition themselves as professors. Many of these had been uncomfortable with the role of traditional lecturer, and facilitation offered them circumstances in which they could realign their pedagogical stances with their view of themselves as enablers of learning. In the main, professors in this theme not only repositioned themselves but also wanted to reposition the students by offering them greater power over what and how they learned.

(Dis)located Academic

Professors in this theme were talked about by other tutors. There was only one professor I interviewed who could be classed in this category, who was then omitted for reasons of confidentiality. Many of the professors spoken of here were those who had opted out of involvement with problem-based learning from the beginning, or had tried being a facilitator and then given it up, or had used mechanisms to sabotage problem-based learning. These professors seemed to dislike problem-based learning because they felt that it did not accord them the same power and status as lecture-based forms of learning. Others felt dislocated because of the disjunction they experienced as a result of their role change, and ultimately chose to stop being involved with problem-based learning. Simon explained his frustration with other professors who believed that didactic teacher-centered approaches were the only way to produce good practitioners: “Well, the rationale underpinning problem-based learning was explained to these people—and attempts were made to engage them in dialogue about the rationale and the principles behind an alternative way of delivering biological science material. The professors in that group are concerned that students won't acquire a sufficient volume of knowledge to enable them to be safe practitioners, and they operate on the belief that attendance at a lecture by a student equates with acquisition of that large body of knowledge, and they obviously believe that imparting a large body of knowledge to the student equates with learning.”

Simon's frustration stemmed partly from the realization that he had sometimes been at the border of being very directive, but he also realized that these professors felt dislocated because they were no longer in charge of what was being learned, so they used controlling mechanisms to manage the team learning.

Commodifying Academic

Commodifying academics are those who promote pragmatic responses to issues raised by practitioners. The result was to encourage in students the value of practical knowledge while downgrading the kinds of reasoning that encourage students to form their own ideas and judgments and to keep their own critical distance from all they experience within a course. Thus, these tutors believed they should be enabling the development of Mode 2 knowledge, rather than Mode 1 knowledge [5]. Mode 2 knowledge is knowledge that transcends disciplines and is produced in, and validated through, the world of work. Knowing, in this mode, demands the integration of skills and abilities to act in a particular context. Thus, these tutors provided a context in which students could practice Mode 2 knowledge in the university setting. The aim was to provide students with the kind of knowledge demanded not only by health providers and industry but also by students who demanded to be given applied forms of knowledge (socially distributed knowledge). The result was not only the commodification of knowledge but also, possibly, the commodification of a relationship between academics and students. Tutors saw themselves as being there to help students get the “right” knowledge for practice, and this often spilled over into a co-dependence type of relationship.

These approaches to facilitation changed over time and also in relation to the problem-based teams, but because they emerged from the U.K. context I was interested to know if they resonated with those in the United States. However, when I arrived in the hot Baltimore, Maryland sunshine, at the Problem-Based Learning 2002 [6] conference, I began to understand the reviewer's comments. The conference was interesting and stimulating, but many of the papers that were presented were not talking about what I understood to be problem-based learning. Unlike Herreid [7], I do think it should be done in teams because there are few opportunities in higher education to acquire the type of team capabilities offered through problem-based learning; and thus, I also believe that it is more than just a form of case-study learning. Now, although I am not of the camp which says you can only do it one way, I do believe that problem-based learning is more than small-group teaching or doing a bit of problem solving in a classroom with students sitting around tables and not in rows. It was at this point in the conference that I realized that if facilitators were not equipped to facilitate, not committed to working with one problem-based learning team over a period of time (at least a course), and that if problem-based learning was being used willynilly across curricula, then facilitators were not likely to encounter the kind of challenges that emerged from my research.

Further, following the debates in this journal it did strike me that the research by Kandlbinder and Maufette [8] might shed some light on Glew's arguments [1]. They examined beliefs about teaching “basic concepts” in sciences, in programs that used student-based learning approaches, including problem-based learning. What was particularly interesting about this study was the foundational view of knowledge, whereby the assumption was that students needed to learn and understand a given body of knowledge before they could progress to the next level of the course. However, Kandlbinder and Maufette argued that what many lecturers referred to as “basic concepts” were in fact far from basic, and what the lecturers appeared to be describing was what I would term a pedagogical representation of ecologies of practice—how knowledge is perceived and used within a given discipline. They argued that what emerged from the data were four descriptions of what basic concepts were meant to represent to the students. The metaphor of building was central to the notion of disciplinary understanding, and knowledge was seen as the ability to test propositions rather than the learning of a body of knowledge through rote memorization. They argued that “Basic concepts can also form the boundary of received knowledge, providing identity to the discipline. By their nature these concepts are a particular kind of knowledge that is difficult to locate … In these cases science university teachers talk about finding the essence of the discipline, particularly in terms of the traditions of science” (p. 49). The four descriptions they offer of these basic concepts are

  • Pillars: propositions that provide a sound foundation;

  • Boundary: contains the knowledge of the discipline;

  • Web: connects the knowledge of the discipline;

  • Model: the concepts and their interconnections are tested against reality.

It is not clear whether these concepts are hierarchical, but it would appear that they represent an ecology of practice within the science disciplines, which, as Bourdieu [9] has argued, have strongly differentiated power and status, tend to stand in competition with one another, and are “the locus of competitive struggle” for individual scientists located within the fields: “What is at stake is the power to impose the definition of science … best suited to [individual] specific interests” (p. 23). I would suggest that such sites of struggle and power plays perhaps need to be explored in more depth by those using problem-based learning in science.

To date there has been little in-depth discussion about the design of problem-based curricula and the issue of disciplinary differences. Instead, the discussions have tended to center on what counts as problem-based learning, ways of implementing it, and types of problem-based learning [1, 10, 11]. More recently Conway and Little [12] have suggested that problem-based learning tends to be utilized as either an instructional strategy or as a curriculum design. What seems to be happening in most programs using problem-based learning in the United Kingdom is that we tend to use both approaches but that there is strong tour de force for ensuring that key principles that the U.K. problem-based learning community sees to be important are maintained. These include:

  • Organizing the curricular content around problem scenarios rather than subjects or disciplines;

  • Ensuring students work in groups or teams to solve or manage these situations while not expecting them to acquire a predetermined series of “right answers.” Instead, they are expected to engage with the complex situation presented to them and decide what information they need to learn and what skills they need to gain to manage the situation effectively;

  • Making sure that problem-based learning teams, wherever possible, stay together over a course (or longer);

  • Providing problem-based learning teams with a professor who is present and who remains with the same team throughout the course.

  • However, what we do seem to have is approximately seven modes of curriculum practice.


What I mean by modes of curriculum practice is not ideal models of problem-based learning but, instead, an understanding of what it is that we actually see going on inside curricula that utilize problem-based learning. Although I recognize curricula are varied across disciplines and cultures in terms of length and design, these seven curricula modes are represented as 3-year programs because this length is common to many undergraduate programs worldwide.

Mode 1: Single Module Approach

In this mode, problem-based learning is implemented in one course (possibly two) in the third year of a program. The professor who runs the course is interested in improving student learning and improving students' ability to think critically, something she believes they may not have done, or not done enough of, elsewhere in the degree program. The course is often designed using the McMaster model [14] of students engaging with one problem at a time and meeting two or three times over the course of the problems. There may be few, if any, supporting lectures, but the tutor may act as a resource for the team. Students may not always have a facilitator allocated to each team; instead, the tutor tends to move around the teams or allows the students to run the sessions themselves. This course is invariably very different from all the others that the students have encountered earlier in the degree program.

Mode 2: Problem-based Learning on a Shoestring

This type of problem-based learning is implemented at minimal cost and interruption to other areas of the program. It is a model that can be seen in many subjects and disciplines and tends to occur where it has been agreed that some lecturers can use problem-based learning in some areas of the curriculum. The McMaster model is used as a blueprint for implementation, and the courses are designed almost in isolation from the rest of the curriculum. The initiative for using problem-based learning usually comes from two or three professors who are keen to implement it, others in the discipline may be less keen, and several professors may openly disagree with its use. The result is that problem-based learning may be used in a few or many courses throughout the curriculum, but there is little real rationale for its implementation in particular areas. Thus, the problems used tend to be subject- or discipline-based and rarely transcend disciplinary boundaries. The course may have several problems occurring concurrently, and professors may use lectures to guide the learning. Students may not understand the rationale for its use, and professors implementing it may often feel frustrated by the lack of departmental and institutional support for their problem-based learning on a shoestring.

Mode 3: The Funnel Approach

In this mode, the decision has been to design the curriculum in a way that enables students to be funneled away from a lecture-based approach that is probably more familiar to them, toward a problem-based learning approach. They start with a lecture-based first year, then move on to problem-solving learning in the second year and finally problem-based learning in the third year. Thus, in the first year students will receive lectures and tutorials and attend tutor-led seminars. The second year will comprise problems that are set within, and bounded by, a discrete subject or disciplinary area. In this year, students will be expected to discover the answers expected by the lecturer, answers that are rooted in the information supplied to them through lectures, and workshops and seminars. The solutions are always linked to specific curricular content, and it is expected that the students will cover this information before they can funnel into the problem-based learning approach, in the third year. The third year is designed with a cohesive framework, using problems that build upon one another.

Mode 4: The Foundational Approach

The foundational approach is invariably one that is seen in science and engineering curricula. Here the assumption is that some knowledge is necessarily foundational to other knowledge and therefore it needs to be taught to the students before they can begin to solve problems. Thus, in the first year of a program adopting this approach, the focus is on providing students with lectures, tutorials, and laboratory time that will enable them to understand the required knowledge and concepts. In the second and third year, students then utilize problem-based learning. One of the underlying principles of this in many curricula is the assumption that if basic concepts are taught first then the knowledge will be decontextualized and will therefore be available in the students' memory for use in solving new problems. For example, it has been suggested [13] that in problem-solving the theories about how knowledge is transferred by students from one context to another fall into two broad areas:

  • Abstract induction: which presumes that students learn principles or concepts from exposure to multiple problems by abstracting a general rule, thus it is independent of context;

  • Conservative induction: which assumes that the rule is not separated from the problem context but that expertise emerges from having the same principle available in multiple problem contexts.

Thus, in many problem-based medical programs, the view is taken that by teaching principles of problems such principles will be used by students in solving other similar problems. Inevitably this raises questions about the extent to which problem solving can be classed as a generalizable skill and whether some knowledge is necessarily foundational to other knowledge.

In the foundational approach, the second year will generally begin with an introduction to the concept of problem-based learning and, possibly, some team building activities. The problems presented to students are ones that demand the use of knowledge and formulae presented to them in the first year. This mode tends to focus on students developing solutions to problems that may be strongly tutor-guided in the second year. However, by the third year, students are encouraged to take a stance toward knowledge and are often given problems that are from, or relate directly to, practice.

Mode 5: The Two-strand Approach

In the two-strand approach, problem-based learning is seen to be a vital component of the curriculum that has been designed to maximize the use of both problem-based learning and other learning methods simultaneously. This approach also tends to be adopted in universities where professors might want to implement problem-based learning wholesale across the curriculum but who are prevented from doing so because the curriculum is serviced by other disciplines. For example, in such serviced modular curricula [4] what occurs is that a curriculum is designed in business studies or social work, and both of these curricula require that students study law and psychology. Instead of these subjects being taught in the context of business studies or social work, by professors that have worked and researched in those fields, belong to the department and teach students at other times, they are serviced by academics from law and psychology. Students are thus taught law and psychology in a way that is decontextualized from their subject. The information that is taught is rarely applied to practice, and students find it difficult to understand how it is related to other learning that has occurred in different courses. The two-strand approach may also be adopted where there is a university requirement for students to undertake shared courses across the disciplines, such as research courses, that are not necessarily problem-based.

In the two-strand approach the curriculum is seen to have two clear strands running alongside one another, a problem-based approach and a mixed approach. The problem-based courses are designed to build on each other but also to draw from the courses in the mixed approach strand. What tends to happen is that courses in each strand are designed with interlocking themes so that the knowledge and capabilities in the mixed approach feed in to support problem-based learning rather than working against it.

Mode 6: Patchwork Problem-based Learning

The patchwork approach is a complex mode that is often experienced as difficult and confusing for students. Here, the whole curriculum is designed using problem-based learning but because of institutional requirements the courses do not run consecutively but concurrently. The result is that students undertake two or three problems simultaneously in different but not necessarily related subject areas. Furthermore, courses are unlikely to be the same length so that students may do one problem over a period of 4 weeks, another over 2 weeks, and another within a week, simultaneously.

Students in this form of curriculum experience problem-based learning as both a disparate and a demanding process that tends to result in the compartmentalization of knowledge, rather than as a means of helping them to integrate it across disciplinary boundaries. This mode often emerges out of prescriptive university requirements for curricula to be defined in particular ways, while at the same time the professors involved feel that they need to cover vast amounts of material within the course. The result for the student is a patchwork of knowledge and experience.

Mode 7: The Integrated Approach

The integrated approach is based on the principle that problem-based learning is not merely a strategy but a curriculum philosophy. In practice, there would seem to be relatively few instances of this mode of curriculum in existence, although it appears to be an approach that many espouse. In this model, problem-based learning is grounded in the McMaster model whereby students work in teams, encounter one problem at a time, and are facilitated by a tutor. The curriculum is designed in an integrated fashion so that all the problems are sequential and are linked both to one another and across discipline boundaries. Students are equipped for the program through explanations of the approach and team building activities. However, assessments are not necessarily structured to match the aims and values of the curriculum, although this is desirable. For example, in many integrated programs, multiple choice questions and examinations may still be used to assess students despite the focus on the process of learning in this mode. Such assessment can thus undermine the student-centered, self-directed focus of this kind of curriculum.

These modes of curricular practice are probably just a few of the many in operation worldwide. What is important about recognizing such modes is that they can help us to see how knowledge is perceived within a curriculum and the impact this will have on learning.


Problem-based learning is an approach that remains contested ground. I would argue that asking students to become self-directed learners and encouraging them to be knowledge managers rather than knowledge consumers is an issue that still remains problematic. There are disciplinary differences in the way in which problem-based learning is used and this causes disjunction for professors and students in professions, such as medicine, that draw on a variety of disciplines. However, the question we need to be asking ourselves is, is our education about producing critical professionals who can take up a stance toward knowledge, or is it about providing them with prefabricated bricks of knowledge that they will find difficult to argue against, never mind contest?