European Political Science

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 165–174

Implementing Problem-Based Learning in Politics


  • John Craig
    • Department of Behavioural Sciences, University of Huddersfield, Queensgate
  • Sarah Hale
    • School of Continuing Education, Birkbeck College, University of London, 26 Russell Square

DOI: 10.1057/eps.2008.6

Cite this article as:
Craig, J. & Hale, S. Eur Polit Sci (2008) 7: 165. doi:10.1057/eps.2008.6


Problem-based learning has a long history of successful use in disciplines such as business, law and medicine. In 2005, a team at the University of Huddersfield received government funding to develop the technique, and a range of related resources, for teaching politics. This article describes the experience of putting these resources into practice with a range of different student cohorts.


problem-based learningstudent-centred learningcase scenariosdistance learning

The history of, and rationale for, a problem-based approach to teaching and learning in the discipline of politics has been considered at length elsewhere (Hale, 2006). In this article, the authors describe and evaluate the process of developing and implementing such an approach across a range of courses – beginning with two modules, of which one is described in detail here – at a UK university.

The authors of this article were the lead members of the team which developed and implemented problem-based learning in politics at the University of Huddersfield. The aim of the project was to explore the potential contribution of problem-based teaching and learning methodologies within the politics subject area. These approaches have been successfully used in a range of other discipline areas, such as medicine, nursing and law. Research in these areas has demonstrated that students have benefited through the acquisition of transferable skills and a deeper engagement with concepts and principles (Savin-Baden, 2000). However, despite this, problem-based learning has been used less widely in politics. The aim of the project was to see if we could address this by transferring a problem-based learning approach from one academic area to another.

The first stage of the project was to develop the rationale for expanding the use of problem-based learning in politics, and to undertake, and write up, a survey of good practice in problem-based learning more generally, which could then be applied to politics. This resulted in a 7,000-word ‘Review of Good Practice’ (Hale, 2005), and also served further to demonstrate the need for developing the approach within and for the discipline of politics. This is not to suggest that its use in the field is unprecedented; there are some notable examples, particularly from the US, of problem-based learning having been developed in a variety of ways, but these tended to involve very long and complex scenarios that were unsuited to the requirements of teaching politics at Huddersfield – and thus by implication, in many other British institutions – in a number of ways.

While there were a few – maybe half a dozen – well-developed examples of forms of problem-based learning being used in politics, most of the academic interest in problem-based learning (at least in the UK) was based around more vocational areas, particularly nursing, as we discovered when attending conferences to try to share and learn from others' experience. Very often we found that the approaches, student cohorts and learning outcomes were all very different from what we were trying to achieve. It seemed very clear that this represented a wasted opportunity, as one of the strengths of problem-based learning is the way it can provide an opportunity to explore potentially daunting theoretical and philosophical questions in an accessible way. Thus convinced of the need for, and the value and potential of, a problem-based approach to teaching politics, we set about developing our own particular version.

‘…one of the strengths of problem-based learning is the way it can provide an opportunity to explore potentially daunting theoretical and philosophical questions in an accessible way.’

We needed, and set out to develop, scenarios that could be used with students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds; that could be integrated with workplace learning (one of the first student cohorts were taking the B.A. (Hons) ‘top-up’ to a Foundation Degree in Community Governance and Public Sector Management); that could be delivered, in part at least, through a virtual learning environment (VLE) (in Huddersfield's case this was Blackboard), and which could be used over short time periods as well as longer ones. As well as the Public Management students on whom we concentrate here, problem-based learning scenarios were also utilised in a module for second-year undergraduate students from the disciplines of politics, sociology and criminology that was taught via face-to-face rather than distance learning.


The original intention was to produce a range of case scenarios closely based on ‘stories’ collected from the local governance sector. In practice, cases were drawn mainly from local government and the voluntary and community sector, but could also have included health trusts, Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) etc. In fact, interviews were conducted with LSP managers, but the issues that emerged were too complex to use.

There was some initial debate within the project team over whether to pursue an ‘inductive’ or ‘deductive’ approach to designing the case scenarios. A deductive approach would entail choosing issues and themes that would potentially make good cases and then set about collecting suitable materials with which to develop them, while an inductive approach would mean collecting a range of stories from practitioners in the field and then exploring how these might be fashioned into particular case-based scenarios. In the event, a combination of these approaches emerged. The development of cases was story-led to the extent that a limited number of stories were available, and nearly all of them ended up being used. The nature of the stories, their complexity and the amount of information available also played a part in determining the length and detail of the case scenarios, which varied in these respects. However, it was always intended that the case scenarios should span a range in terms of length, complexity and degree of detail, so this was more a case of selecting which stories would be most suitable for each format. Some short cases could have been longer and vice versa. The scenarios were written with a particular audience in mind, and were consciously developed in ways that would bring out particular issues and ensure that each scenario complemented, rather than duplicated, the others, although (see below) students did find common threads running through the scenarios that were not deliberate on the part of their authors. This illustrates one of the advantages claimed for problem-based learning: the fact that it is student-centred in this way. At the same time, the scenarios were developed to bring out a wider range of issues, particularly theoretical and conceptual ones, than necessarily demanded by their initial use. Their success in raising these more complex issues has been demonstrated through their use with academics at workshops and training sessions.

Because of the availability of interviewees, stories were collected before any firm structure for the form or use of the problem-based case scenarios had been decided upon. As a result of developing a Foundation Degree in Public-sector Management and Masters level courses in partnership with local public and third-sector organisations, the project team had established a range of contacts in the field. In addition, one of the authors (Hale) had herself been a member of a local authority and a community development partnership, and was able to draw on contacts from this. It is interesting to note, however, that the case scenarios derived from these interviews, although based on experiences from local government and the voluntary sector, are not confined to teaching in those areas. In fact they have a far wider relevance, through their illustration of broader political issues.

For example, a case (no. 6) nominally about a planning application actually illuminates and facilitates discussion of a very broad range of political issues including interest-group politics, democratic theory, representation, conflict resolution and decision making, while a case (no. 2) based on school uniform policy addresses a range of theoretical issues, including multiculturalism, individual freedom and the nature of equality, as well as more practical political issues of consultation and responsibility.

The eight scenarios (all available at developed in the first phase of the project were:
  1. 1

    The Voice of the People? (consultation, representation and democracy)

  2. 2

    Diverse and Equal? (equality, diversity and multiculturalism in theory and practice)

  3. 3

    All Change! (managing change in a complex organisation)

  4. 4

    But We're all Volunteers! (managing volunteers)

  5. 5

    All in a good cause? (ethical issues around resource distribution)

  6. 6

    What goes up … (negotiation and conflict resolution based around a planning issue)

  7. 7

    Who elected you? (party politics and the policy process)

  8. 8

    Slap an ASBO on them! (approaches to ‘anti-social behaviour’)


Two of the cases (3 and 6) were based directly on stories collected from local government contacts in West Yorkshire, complemented in the case of scenario no. 6, with material from the local press; three (1, 4 and 5) were based on experiences from the south-east, including interviews with voluntary sector workers; one (no. 2) was based on a national news story, and the remaining two (7 and 8) were composites based on a combination of local interviews, national issues and details invented to bring out particular issues.

If the time (and other factors like travel) taken in conducting interviews is included, creating case scenarios is probably a lengthier process than producing more conventional lesson plans and teaching materials, but it did not feel like it. As noted by Boud and Felletti (1997), it is an enjoyable process, at least in the experience of these authors, providing a welcome opportunity to use imagination in developing both the settings and the range of characters. In any case, the difference in preparation time is not great, and scenarios can be adapted subsequently to a range of teaching situations. Once the interviews and other research were completed, each case took no more than a day to write up. After travelling to conduct interviews, the most time-consuming aspect was gathering background information, most notably in case scenario 6, but even here, it involved no more than an online trawl of the local press. In case scenario 8, in contrast, no background information is provided, the intention being that students will research it themselves.

A further point to bear in mind is that academics' own research may provide a fruitful source of ‘stories’ with no additional investment of time required. Although a basis in a true story or documented research can help contribute the verisimilitude, which is one of the major attractions of problem-based learning, it is well established that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and with practice and experience it is perfectly possible to develop cases from scratch, or develop stories from a ‘real’ starting point into whatever areas the tutor wishes to explore. Indeed, this research-led approach to case design informed a second generation of scenarios, one of which, How Green is my Footprint?, was used in the teaching discussed below.

A key aim was to keep the case scenarios relatively simple, and to a manageable length, for a number of reasons. First, requiring a great deal of advance reading undermines the approach's claim to be different from conventional approaches (and in many cases background reading for students was also suggested, and could be required). Second, overwhelming students with detail would, we felt, militate against them using their own imaginations and initiative to flesh out the problem, explore its different aspects and seek innovative solutions. In view of this, we established a policy of putting background information in appendices. These are still relatively brief, and allow the tutor to decide how much information is released to students and when.

On this basis, the eight initial scenarios were completed, without any specific plans at this stage regarding how each would be used, but aiming to supply a sufficient variety to cover all possible requirements. As well as being piloted at Huddersfield, the scenarios were made available online at this point for use by other higher education institutions, in addition to those who had formally signed up to pilot them. Now all we needed to do was bring in the students!


Problem-based learning was introduced into the curriculum through the creation of two dedicated modules: Case Studies in Public Management for students on the B.A. (Hons) Governance and Public Management course and Case Based Learning for students in the second year of the B.A. (Hons) Politics course.1

The decision to introduce case-based learning in this way reflected a number of considerations. The project team believed that embedding the new approach within existing modules might have resulted in the approach being perceived as an ‘add-on’ to the essential content, which could have discouraged engagement by learners. In addition, reflecting the initial rationale of the project, there was a desire to foreground the work-related relevance of the problem-based learning approach within the curriculum. For these reasons, the creation of new and dedicated modules was selected as the most effective means through which the approach could be introduced.

‘Each case was structured to prompt students to engage with one another and to create an environment in which they would benefit from these reciprocal interactions.’

The rationale for creating two case-based learning modules rather than one, reflected differences in the structures of the two courses into which the modules were introduced. The B.A. (Hons) Politics course is a three-year, full-time course, which is primarily delivered through face-to-face teaching on campus. By contrast, the B.A. (Hons) Governance and Public Management course is a top-up for a Foundation Degree at the University, which is delivered to part-time students through a blended learning environment. Reflecting such organisational differences, the credit weightings, levels and delivery methods of the modules varied to ensure that they fitted effectively into each course. However, in terms of the underlying problem-based approach and the case-based learning materials that have been used, the two modules were essentially similar.

For the remainder of this paper, the focus will be on the implementation of the Case Studies in Public Management module for the B.A. (Hons) Governance and Public Management course. The reason for this is that it was the module on which the initial pilot implementation occurred and for which most evaluation data have been collected to date.

The module is rated at 30 honours-level credits (NQF level 6), which is equivalent to one-quarter of the standard third year of an honours degree course in England and Wales (QAA, 2001), and aims to allow students to gain a critical understanding of problems, challenges and dilemmas in contemporary public management. There are five intended learning outcomes for the module, the first two relating to knowledge and understanding, and the remainder to skills and ability development:
  1. 1

    a critical understanding of key problems and emerging issues in contemporary public management, and

  2. 2

    a critical appreciation of the methods of analysis and their application to workplace issues;

  3. 3

    an enhanced ability to present material in a written and oral format;

  4. 4

    an enhanced acquisition of core skills relating, in particular, to working with others and problem solving; and

  5. 5

    an enhanced ability to access and utilise a range of relevant information in order to solve problems relating to the workplace.


To achieve these outcomes, learners were placed in small groups and presented with a series of problem-based case scenarios. Reflecting the blended-learning nature of the course, cases 1–3 were structured to facilitate online interaction between students through the Blackboard VLE, while the learning experience for case 4 was based on face-to-face interactions between group members within a campus setting. Each case was structured to prompt students to engage with one another and to create an environment in which they would benefit from these reciprocal interactions. This was further supported by an assessment regime, discussed further below, which built on both the experiences and product of cooperation, and therefore highlighted the importance of engagement in the group experience to even the more instrumental of learners.


Weeks 1–3

Case 1: But We're All Volunteers!

Weeks 4–6

Case 2: The Voice of the People

Weeks 7–9

Case 3: Slap an ASBO on Them!

Week 10

Case 4: How Green is our Footprint?

Weeks 11–12

Reflection and completion of assessment

The case study But We're All Volunteers!, for example, asked students to consider the challenge of managing a group of voluntary workers whose own personal goals and motivations did not easily combine with those of each other or of the organisation as a whole. The case scenario was based on a real situation that had been shared with the project manager. Thus it presented the learners with an authentic situation from the real world. The group was presented with an account of the situation facing the organisation and a thumb-nail sketch of the nine regular volunteers who carried out many of the day-to-day functions. The group was asked to work together to produce a one-page action plan that identified the long- and short-term priorities for a new full-time manager who was to be appointed. To help them do this effectively, learners were prompted to draw on their own experiences of managing and volunteering as well as accessing advice and guidance resources that were available.

For the first three cases, the case scenario was made available to students as a Word document posted on Blackboard. Additional links to further online resources that they might choose to explore were provided, with a series of prompts and questions to encourage the initial process of engagement with the resources. In addition, online discussion boards were set up to enable learner-to-learner interactions and discussions of the cases. In this way, a student accessing the Blackboard site for the module would gain access to the core learning materials, additional resources and a discussion board through which they could interact with other learners.

As noted earlier, the assessment strategy for the module was designed to support interactions between students in the learning process. At the end of the module, students were required to produce a reflective learning log that accounted for 25 per cent of the module grade. This required the learner to reflect on the cooperation between group members for each of the four case scenarios, identifying which elements of interaction had been successful or unsuccessful, and analysing the reasons for each. A further 25 per cent of the assessment mark was awarded for the fourth case study, which was based on face-to-face interactions. For this, a group was required to produce a collective presentation in response to the case scenario with which they had engaged during the session. Once again, this placed a premium on effective cooperation between group members in pursuit of a common goal.

The final element of the assessment for the module, which accounted for the remaining 50 per cent, provided learners with an opportunity for a more individualised engagement with the case materials by asking them to produce a single-authored report on any one of the case scenarios on the module. The aim of this element of assessment was to provide each learner with an opportunity to pursue their own interest in one of the cases and to explore relevant issues and concepts which they had identified as particularly significant. Yet even for this element of assessment the experience of working in a group was introduced as a potentially relevant source of material, with prompts to learners to compare their own personal responses to those produced by their group, or to further develop the product of the group work.

The remainder of this article focuses on the experiences of students on this pilot module. Student feedback demonstrated that they found the case scenarios to be engaging and that from an early stage they recognised that the scenarios introduced them to new and complex problems for which simple or stock responses would not suffice. Commenting on the first case study, for example, Alison reported:

this was an interesting case study which covered a service area I only had a limited knowledge of. It highlighted the complexity and diversity which would be faced by anyone who managed a voluntary sector organisation. Along with how difficult it is to equate the skills and enthusiasm of the volunteers against the requirement and needs of the clients.

While case 3, on anti-social behaviour, was recognised as being:

an interesting scenario and one which is also currently topical and high profile in the media. It highlights the way in which communities can become fragmented and how different people can see the same situation from different perspectives.

In addition, students also demonstrated the emerging ability to de-compartmentalise their learning and make links between their learning experiences in each of the case scenarios. As expressed by Caron:

I realised that there were common themes in each case which required the management of detail and diversity but also the consideration of complex, intangible issues like perception and intention which is probably the greatest challenge facing public sector managers today.

It should be noted that these ‘common themes’ had not been intentionally built into the module by the project team. The identification of these by a learner, therefore, reflects an active process of the co-production of the module content and curriculum by the learners which accords with constructivist principles of learning (McConnell, 2000).

Students reported that engagement with the scenarios encouraged them to re-visit course materials from earlier modules as well as identify and explore new and additional materials. For example, as John commented on the Voice of the People case:

This scenario made me re-visit the module on community leadership and public participation in order to refresh my memory about the complex issues raised in that agenda.

Reflecting this engagement, the work produced by the group for this project as well as John's individual work, demonstrated a critical application of concepts and ideas that might otherwise have remained latent.

An interesting and unexpected aspect of students' engagement with the module was the ways in which they sought to re-structure the learning environment to better meet their study preferences. For example, learners quickly identified a preference for conducting their group interactions through circular e-mails, telephone calls and in some cases self-organised face-to-face meetings rather than through the Blackboard VLE. Learners reflected on these choices and noted the apparent contradictions between their own preferences and trends towards the growth of online interactions. In addition, for the first and second case studies, the group decided to work as two sub-groups for the initial process of exploring each case, coming together to share and compare the results of their initial deliberations.

Both of these choices raised the issue of whether the project team should intervene in the learning process and direct learners to interact through the Blackboard VLE. It was decided that such an intervention should not take place for two reasons. Firstly, all students were in agreement that the structures that they had put in place better met their individual needs. No student expressed dissent from the arrangement and no evidence could be found that anyone was excluded from participation or was in any way detrimentally affected by the group decision. Secondly, the project team felt that the pro-active self-management of the learning experience by the group was in tune with the ethos of the module, and demonstrated an engagement with core skills relating to problem solving and working with others, which were expressed within the module learning outcomes.

In addition, it is also important to recognise that students' re-structuring of the group learning experience did not indicate a rejection of group learning itself, but rather, was an expression of it. All students recognised the benefits of group interactions as a means through which to share ideas and perspective. As Justin reported:

I found the five of us worked well together. We all listened to each other's points of view and discussed our ideas until we formed a common approach to each of the cases… [for case study three] the other group members' experiences of parenthood, and particularly teenage children, gave them good insights into the minds and behaviour of some of those in the case. I think I learnt a lot from others about the joy of parenthood that will hopefully come to me one day.

Overall, the case-based learning approach and the construction of the module proved to be an effective means through which learners can engage in critical reflection on their learning processes. This is demonstrated in feedback from both Alison and Heather:

it was also an interesting learning curve being the first module which we have undertaken as a group, with the group participation being at the focus of the module. From an individual point of view, I found the prospect of working together quite daunting and felt under pressure to be able to contribute to the same standard and level as everyone else and keep to the timescale which had been allocated. This set of reflections has been useful in analysing how people in differing locations, and having different types of personality can function together as a group. At the start I was not convinced that studying as a group would work but, as we have progressed with our studies, it has been revealing how we could all adapt and contribute as a team. Even though we have approached the study in some different ways to those initially prescribed, I feel that each case study has been successful in its own right. Though more analysis of the subject matter prior to formulating the action plans might have been beneficial to their content, the ideas produced within the group were solid and useable for the assignments if required.


A number of points can be drawn from the experience of delivering the Case Studies in Public Management module that are of broader significance for the delivery of problem-based learning and politics teaching more generally.

‘…student subjectively identified benefits in the peer-to-peer learning process, enjoyed the topicality and challenge encapsulated in the scenarios and demonstrated deeper processes of learning…’

The first point to make is that overall the delivery of the module can be regarded as successful. As demonstrated in the preceding section, students subjectively identified benefits in the peer-to-peer learning process, enjoyed the topicality and challenge encapsulated in the scenarios and demonstrated deeper processes of learning though their efforts to join up their learning in this module with that in others. Achievement data also confirms the success of the learning process, with all students successfully completing the module. Whether or not these results could have been achieved through an alternative means of delivery remains open to question, as there was no control group with which to compare results. Given the ‘live’ delivery of the module on a course and the open ended nature of a problem-based approach to curriculum design, such scientific comparisons are by their nature rare in teaching and learning innovation. With that qualification in mind, we would nevertheless suggest that there is good evidence in the testimony that has been presented that students have benefited from this learning experience.

In terms of lessons learnt in the delivery of the case-based learning by the course team, a number of issues arise, first, that the process of delivering case-based learning requires the tutor to ‘let go’ of the learning process to a greater degree than with some other delivery approaches (such as lectures and seminars). As students develop their responses to the case scenarios they will themselves construct the curriculum. While some of what they explore will be expected and may reflect deliberate prompts within the materials provided, other lines of debate, enquiry and exploration will be unexpected. Equally, the ways that groups of students choose to organise themselves for group work and structure their interactions may again diverge from those expected by teaching staff. It has been suggested in this article that such divergences are positive and represent the process through which students take control of their own learning. It is recognised, however, that such an approach may not be acceptable in all cases and that the degree of autonomy may require pro-active management.

Overall, the experience of introducing problem-based learning into politics teaching has been a positive one all round. Students have enjoyed and benefited from the experience; its implementation on the part of tutors has, so far, been relatively problem free (although it must be borne in mind that at this stage the people teaching the problem-based module are the same ones who developed it, so are clearly already committed to the approach!), and the design, research and writing of the case scenarios was a very interesting and fulfilling process. We hope that others will take the project further and build on what we have achieved so far.


Although the initial plan was for this second group of students to be cross-disciplinary, and the cases were developed with this in mind, in the pilot year, students of criminology and sociology were not available.


Copyright information

© European Consortium for Political Research 2008