Problem-based learning: Evidencing and Evaluating the Student Experience

Problem-based learning, Seminar teaching

Brief description

Bill Hutchings and Karen O’Rourke implement problem-based learning (PBL) techniques with funding from Dr. Hutchings’s National Teaching Fellowship. This project evaluated the working of the course.


PBL has been implemented at Manchester in two third-year Literary Studies courses. As the technique was originally designed for the teaching of Medicine and is radically different from the pedagogical approaches the Manchester students were familiar with, there was an urgent need for evaluation. More generally, recent PBL research has emphasised the need for more qualitative exploration of students’ responses to PBL curricula.

Project design

Data was gathered by Bill Hutchings’s research assistant, Karen O’Rourke, from end of course evaluation forms, focus groups, peer feedback, student reflection on group work and by observation of both PBL and tutor-led teaching sessions.

Key findings

Five main issues emerged:

  1. a general anxiety about the introduction of innovatory methods
  2. anxiety about problems in group dynamics in a teaching method placing great emphasis on group cohesion
  3. the absence of a familiar framework
  4. continual pressure
  5. the rigidity of conventional PBL methods.

Each of these issues was addressed by the project leader through changes in the way in which the course worked.

Learning outcomes

The project has demonstrated the suitability of PBL for Literary Studies. PBL in all its varieties is a method which students can find difficult. Each discipline has to interpret PBL according to its own lights and adopt models that suit it. However, the difficulties encountered and the responses made to them can and do range across subject boundaries.


Project Leader

Dr Bill Hutchings – Senior Lecturer & Karen O’Rourke – Research Assistant (PBL)
English Literature 
Dept of English & American Studies
University of Manchester

Research period

September 2002 – August 2003


Completed August 2003