Published: 25/01/2010 14:27 

Problem-Based Learning for Environmental Management in Geography 

John Bradbeer
School of Education and Continuing Studies
University of Portsmouth
St George’s Building
141 High Street
PO1 2 HY  
Tel:  023 9284 5203

  • Course module title:  Introduction to Environmental Management: Policy and Management
  • Course title: BA and BSc Geography
  • Level: Level 2 (option)
What does the teacher do?

Problem-based learning entails a major rethink about teaching, learning, content and assessment.  At the heart of the approach is the problem to be addressed by students collaborating in small groups.  Problems are the vehicle for learning and, whilst solving the problems is desirable, it is the learning about the topic and the way that the problem is framed that constitute the principal learning outcomes.  My context was a module for which I was the sole teacher and typically recruiting about 50-60 students.  I had a flat teaching room but with tables laid out in rows and a powerful injunction not to move the furniture.  I had taught the module previously through conventional lectures.


  1. Select five case study problems to cover my original content so that students worked on a problem for a fortnight.
  2. Write up the case study problem in a text (this allowed me to use cases based on journal papers from the pre-electronic access era and resources written in foreign languages).  Texts typically of 2,000 to 3,000 words
  3. Allow students to self-form groups of four.  They remain in these groups for the semester.  If the class is not divisible by four, I have up to three groups of five members. 
  4. In the class of two hours, distribute the case study and get students to discuss the problem case, their initial knowledge about it and ideas and record tentative research agendas.
  5. At some point in the two hours, get each group to contribute something from their discussions (whether it be knowledge or questions) so that the whole class can share.  Before the end of the class, each group writes down its collective learning agenda and agrees as to who should study what.
  6. A week’s private study (although groups would be free to meet outside class time to review progress)
  7. The second week, students share their research and learning and reapply the new knowledge to the problem and report on how their understanding of the problem and its specific issues has changed.  Each group briefly reports one aspect of this to the whole class.  The class ends with consolidation of the learning.
  8. As teacher, I actively helped the students through modelling and with the first case study (not to be written up for summative assessment) I made sure that all groups got more or less the learning agenda I would have expected.
  9. One of the four students writes a report for problems 2-5 on the group’s work, its preliminary learning agenda, its new knowledge and the way they have come to see the problem and topic differently.  This is submitted for assessment.  Each student will write one such report.  If there are groups of five students, then they choose which problem will have two reports from their group.
  10. The individual student gets his/her own report mark plus the average of the other three reports submitted on behalf of the group.
  11. The summative assessment was an in-class test, with another problem case-study the focus but an individual and preliminary answer demanded. 
  12. In the other four cases, I would wander around the class, and try to spend a minimum of five minutes with each group.  Where common themes or misunderstandings appeared, I would relay them to the whole class.
Hot tips and things to look out for:
  1. Get the support and encouragement of your Head of Department
  2. The students tend to split into three unequal groups: those who enjoy this challenging way of working, say 30%; those who are rather lost by it, say 40%; those who actively resent having to learn as opposed to being taught, say 30%. 
  3. Students take a lot of weaning away from Google searches and reliance on Wikipedia
  4. Induction into PBL takes a long time
  5. It is crucial to give detailed and supportive feedback on the student case reports
  6. Many students tend to summarise and restate rather than to analyse, problematise and synthesise
Does it work?

Yes, but …

  1. PBL is so different from anything most students have done before, that it takes a while to adjust to its demands and some students actively resist anything that makes them active learners, when most of the other teaching works by them being passive learners
  2. You have to sacrifice content (you consciously do less but do better)
  3. Overall marks in PBL were comparable for most students with their marks on traditionally taught modules.  Marks for the PBL cohort were marginally better than marks on the same unit when traditionally taught
  4. I wonder if the skills do transfer.  Do students just see PBL as a weird thing that John does and not as an effective preparation for life-long learning?
What problems/issues have arisen?

Some aspects covered under 5 and 6 above.  In addition I would add:

  1. Grumbles from some colleagues and some students that PBL is not “proper teaching”
  2. Complaints from some students about “excessive workload”
  3. One of the advantages of PBL is that it is synthetic and so it is rather odd that we had an introduction to environmental management module with a focus on environmental science and natural processes taught traditionally and another with a focus on policy and management taught by PBL.  A far more logical (but politically impossible) structure would have been to have combined the science and the policy in PBL case study problems.
  4. PBL is a radical curriculum innovation and will always be awkward to accommodate within a fairly traditional curriculum.
Details of support material/course work/assessment methods

The cases and the briefing booklet for students are supplementary files to this entry

Student guide to the case studies

Case Study 1 Pagham Harbour, West Sussex

Case Study 1 Questions

Case Study 2 Braunton Burrows, Devon

Case Study 3 The Aral Sea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

Case Study 4 Tuna Fishing in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans

Case Study 5 Integrated Drainage Basin Management for the River Meuse/Maas, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands

Relevant references

There is a wealth of material on PBL.  Among the references that I particularly like are: 

Boud, D & Feletti, G (editors) (1991) The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning.  London: Kogan Page. 
Savin-Baden, M (2000) Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education: Untold Stories.  Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
Savin-Baden, M (2003) Facilitating Problem-Based Learning.  Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
Savin-Baden, M & Major, C M (2004) Foundations of Problem-Based Learning.  Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
Savin-Baden, M & Wilkie, K (eds) (2004) Challenging Research in Problem-Based Learning. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

The “PBL pages” I produced for a short-lived PBL interest group at the University of Portsmouth are listed below:

Overall principles and characteristics of problem-based learning

Philosophical underpinnings and theoretical basis of problem-based learning

The tutorial process in problem-based learning

Qualities of the tutor/facilitator in problem-based learning

Designing problem scenarios and triggers

Evaluating the problem-based learning tutorial process

Assessment and problem-based learning

Reviews of the effectiveness of problem-based learning

This case study is also available as a pdf Problem-based learning for environmental management in geography


University of Gloucestershire, The Park, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 2RH. Telephone +44 (0)844 8010001.