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Using Problem-Based Learning in International Relations Tutorials


This Learning Enhancement project has been funded through the HEA and the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.

PROJECT TITLE: Using Problem-Based Learning in International Relations Tutorials
COLLABORATORS: Dr Heidi Maurer (University of Bristol and University of Oxford)
MODULE NAME: Introduction to Political Theory and International Relations
STUDENT COHORT: Approximately 250 Undergraduate students


Problem-Based Learning (PBL) seeks to enhance student involvement in the learning process, the quality of the learning experience and the attainment of defined learning outcomes.  PBL assumes that students learn most effectively if their learning aims at the resolution of a problem and if this occurs in cooperative small group environments.  In a PBL setting, students are presented with a “problem” which they seek to resolve during several group sessions interspersed with individual research and learning activities.   As PBL students work in small groups supervised by trained tutors, it is difficult to introduce it into the lecture component of a large undergraduate module comprising several hundred students.  The aim of the project was to ascertain how PBL could instead be incorporated into the module’s tutorial component with relatively modest additional resource requirements. 

The centrepiece of the project was an intensive half-day collaborative training session for tutors who tutor for a Stage 1 core module titled “Introduction to Political Theory and International Relations” (INRL10010) which I have been coordinating for almost twenty years.  Six tutors participated, all of whom had been tutoring for this module before and will be doing so again this coming autumn trimester.   The session was recorded for the benefit of future generations of tutors.  The Covid-19 situation and the associated move to online teaching and various other related changes made it necessary to re-calibrate the project.  All training took place online and the application of PBL in the classroom had to be deferred to the autumn trimester 2021 when normal tutorials are scheduled to resume.  Despite these changes, participants agreed that the PBL training they received has significantly enriched their pedagogical skillset and that PBL will allow tutorials to make a distinctive contribution to the international relations curriculum.


Immediate goals were:

  1. To introduce tutors to the PBL method.
  2. To collaboratively develop a detailed work plan for implementing PBL in the tutorials of this module, including sample “problems,” work schedule for students and assessment strategies. 

By pursuing these aims the project sought to:

  • Enhance the role of tutorials. The traditional function of tutorials is to help students “digest” lecture content through Q&A sessions, discussions, “mini lectures,” short exercises, etc.   Yet in their module feedback students have often commented that they do not find the tutorials useful, perceiving them as a kind of “inferior” repetition of the lectures.  PBL has the potential to make tutorials more complementary to and synergetic with the lectures.
  • Foster student engagement.  PBL engages students more intensely than traditional lecture and tutorial formats as it asks them to actively chart their own path toward the solution of a problem rather than merely absorbing “pre-digested” facts.
  • Promote the professional development of tutors and improve their confidence and sense of self-efficacy through their distinctive contribution to the module.

The Innovative Approach

Training was facilitated by Dr Heidi Maurer of the Universities of Oxford and Bristol, one of the foremost experts in PBL-centred approaches in the teaching of European politics and international relations.  Six tutors and I participated.   Tutors were asked to undertake several hours of intense preparation.  This included reviewing some of Dr Maurer’s research on PBL and drafting a preliminary PBL work plan which was then discussed in the training module.  The training itself used PBL principles, thus enabling tutors to familiarize themselves with the method while practising it. 

Specific topics covered included:  

  • Formulating “problems” for PBL-based group work in relation to the specific learning outcomes of this module.
  • Cognitive and affective dimensions of small group collaboration.
  • The role of the tutor as PBL facilitator.
  • Assessment techniques – group-based assessment versus individual assessment; blended assessment strategies, etc.
  • Coping with challenges such as unruly, dominant, shy, disinterested and “freeriding” students.
  • Ways of abbreviating the traditional PBL process while staying true to its core principles, which is especially important in the context of INRL10010 and other undergraduate core modules given the small number of tutorials available.


At the beginning of their PBL training several tutors were unsure whether PBL could be applied to their tutorials.  Their scepticism revolved around the relatively small number of tutorials available, large student numbers in tutorials and significant variation in student ability and motivation at that early UG stage.  However, by the end of their training there was a consensus that PBL offers a genuinely promising way of redressing some of the problems traditionally associated with our UG tutorials as outlined above. 

Tutors’ contributions during the training module and their feedback afterwards suggests that they were inspired by Dr Maurer’s presentation of the PBL method. They were especially impressed by her rejection of overly rigid approaches to PBL in favour of treating it as a broad pedagogical method and toolkit that can be tailored to a variety of learning contexts even where conditions are not optimal in terms of student numbers and number of tutorial sessions available.  Under the guidance of Dr Maurer tutors developed a detailed PBL template specifically tailored to INRL10010 including sample “problems,” a structured work schedule for student activities and assessment strategies.  All of us look forward to its implementation in a real face-to-face classroom setting, hopefully this coming trimester or as soon as the Covid situation allows. 

Some of the tutors commented on their experience:

The instructor gave us a fantastic introduction to Problem Based Learning, covering not just theoretical aspects but also its practical application in the classroom.
PBL seems a great way of keeping students interested and engaged.  Absolutely worthwhile.
I feel that I benefited greatly from this training and so will my students.