Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The PBL of futures past . . . ?

I quite like PBL. I got very lucky, and the members of my group work hard and all contribute well. They are all easy-going and pleasant, and our facilitator is experienced and helpful. I'm getting a LOT out of it. (N.b. over the following post, I may use the words "tutor" and "facilitator" interchangeably.)

However, a few weeks ago we experienced a trial tutor who is looking at gaining a position in the PBL program at our university. Whilst he was qualified, polite and highly intelligent, we didn't get anything out of his session, except when our regular tutor took over.

It frightened me a little, for a number of reasons. I wondered, how much would the group actually get out of PBL if we had a terrible tutor? For anybody unfamiliar with the PBL process, the tutor "facilitates" the sessions, meaning that he or she is meant to guide you through the process without actually telling you the racts involved. You are supposed to learn to think through things sytematically and logically and learn to access the information yourself and be able to present it in a clear way that shows you understand the information and how it relates to the case.

If the discussion veers off course, or if the information is blatantly wrong, the tutor is there to correct you.

One of the worst possible ways I can imagine a PBL session being run, is if the tutor turns it into a didactic teaching session, talking about all of the topics as they come up and not giving the PBL ample time or prompting to work through the logic. Apart from the fact that the tutor may potentially be incorrect (and yes, this did happen during our trial tutor's session - he disagreed with both the main tutor and one of the students who majored in the area of disagreement), it is not teaching the group how to think through things. Being able to think through things not only helps the learning process, but helps you work out why what is happening to the fictional patient is actually happening, and turns rote learning into practical knowledge.

Unfortunately I feel that most of the problems encountered by our trial tutor were caused by an insurmountable language barrier (English was not his first language), with potential cultural differences. We couldn't understand his accent (and I have a LOT of experience working and socialising with people from non-English-speaking backgrounds), and he had difficulty following us, evidenced by his asking us questions that a member of the group had just answered. I have nothing against accents of any kind, but there needs to be some level of mutual understanding for group teaching to be possible. On the bright side, we would learn to be more independant.

As bad as I felt for him, it was a huge relief when the regular tutor took over in the weeks afterwards. I don't know what the outcome was (we're not privy to that) but I sincerely hope we don't get him as our next PBL facilitator.


Milk and Two Sugars said...

Ah, tutors. Over my PBL years, I have had:
- A tutor who stationed himself in a corner of the room and went to sleep, every session.
- A tutor who encouraged us not to study or put a lot of effort into Medicine.
- A tutor who knew Harrison's from cover to cover, and expected us to glean all our knowledge from it. Anything from anywhere else was wrong.

I've also had several decent, and one exceptionally good, tutors. But all in all, I'm very jealous of the group you describe. It'll be a great advantage to you to learn to work PBL with a great tutor; regardless of the quality of the tutors to follow, you'll always know what you're supposed to get out of PBL.

The Girl said...

That sounds, terrible, m&2s!

I know how lucky we are now, which makes me sad that things won't stay like this, but happy that we have had the chance to have our tutor and that other people will get to learn from her as well. :)

Is there any opportunity for you to register complaints about PBL tutors at your university if they are bad enough? The university is paying them to teach, they would hopefully not take kindly to the fact that their employee was sleeping while on the job!

Milk and Two Sugars said...

There was a feedback form we lodged twice each semester, and any very serious problems could be promptly taken up with the administrative staff (an example would be tutor bullying, or someone having a romantic relationship with a tutor). But by and large, our tutors were not very involved in our groups - we really were expected to teach ourselves. There aren't enough good candidates for tutor positions, so unfortunately average or below average tutors tend to stick around. The Harrison's guy actually turned out to be okay, once we learned to assert ourselves (not a skill most 18 year olds have mastered!).

LL said...

I was really lucky with my PBL group and tutors in first year medicine. I'm now in second year and there are some definite flaws in my PBL group this year. The good thing is that you'll learn to facilitate your own group so even if your tutor is a fruit loop (as regularly happens) the group can bunch together and run the PBL in a highly effective way that suits them.