An International Conference on Problem-Based Learning
in Higher Education

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Maggi Savin-Baden

Maggi Savin-Baden is co-chair of the Clinical Research Group, School of Health and Social Sciences, Coventry University, UK. She first began using problem-based learning in 1986 and commenced research into it in 1987, focusing on staff and student experiences of PBL in four universities in the United Kingdom. Her book, Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education: Untold Stories, which explores the complexities of using PBL for staff, students and institutions, was published with SRHE and Open University Press in March, 2000. Her current research explores ways in which staff manages disjunction and conflict connected to personal and organizational change in the shift towards PBL.

Deconstructing problem-based learning facilitation

It seems that the whole notion of being a lecturer/professor in higher education is becoming an increasingly complex task. This is not just because we have to be multi-skilled, multi-task beings who lecture, research, administrate, budget, publish and consult, to name but a few, but because the nature of what it means to be a teacher in higher education is changing. The shifts towards a culture of improving teaching through forms of training which focus on behavioural rather than personal and attitudinal change are at odds for many of us with our beliefs that "learning to facilitate" is a complex and multifaceted capability that often demands personal shifts away from long held beliefs about the nature of knowledge and notions of learning.

In many universities the adoption of problem-based learning is adding another dimension to what it means to be a lecturer in higher education. Many staff feel that when implementing problem-based learning they have an intuitive understanding of what it means to be a facilitator. Some of us may be able to articulate what it means, but few of us have ever really explored the relationship between our different notions of teaching in higher education, or been able to take the risk to share such personally challenging perspectives in a public forum. To do so would be to invite criticism of the role confusions and conflicts that many of us feel, as the boundaries of our jobs change and move, with the shifts in the organisational cultures that we experience daily. Yet there is not only little help available for those who are in the process of becoming facilitators of problem-based learning, but also little real acknowledgement of the impact of the current global shift towards problem-based learning.

The argument I will present here, which seeks to deconstruct the notion of facilitation in problem-based learning contexts, centres on three main concerns. First, that not enough attention has been paid to the role and impact of the facilitator in problem-based learning. Second, that there is little understanding of, or research into, the complex interplay of group and facilitator and the ways in which both change and adapt their roles and relationships as the problem-based learning group matures. My final point is that the impact of the facilitator on student learning is under researched. For example, there has been an underestimation of the impact of individual staff members' personal stances and motivations as teachers on their ability to facilitate problem-based learning. There is an assumption that all staff can facilitate a problem-based learning group effectively when in fact some may have greater strengths elsewhere such as being an excellent lecturer. This has resulted in a lack of understanding about what it means to facilitate problem-based learning in ways that promote learning for all students. To conclude I will offer some of the findings of my recent research and suggest some possible ways forward.

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