The European Union Simulation: From Problem-Based Learning (PBL) to Student Interest
- First Online:
- Cite this article as:
- Kaunert, C. Eur Polit Sci (2009) 8: 254. doi:10.1057/eps.2009.8
- 4 Views
The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that, contrary to a commonly held view, it is possible to teach the European Union (EU) in a way that makes students enthusiastic about the subject. The paper is informed by my experience of leading a EU simulation module, based on a modified problem-based learning (PBL) approach. The idea is to share my experience and prompt a debate on (1) how the EU can be taught in exciting ways for students, and (2) how an adapted PBL approach in the form of a simulation can significantly help to deepen students’ interest in the EU as a subject.
What we have today is a European Union that is effectively ruled by unelected bureaucrats based in Brussels, issuing directives and regulations with which this House can do nothing other than tamper. (Farage, 2004, MEP UKIP, 11 October 2004)
Popular discourse often depicts the European Union (EU) as an ‘undemocratic and bureaucratic monster’ imposing its will upon the unwilling and ‘sovereignty-less’ member states, as indicated by the quote above. Consequently, students are often thought to be ideologically opposed to, or, at the very minimum, not interested in studying the EU. The political debate across European countries during the ratification process of the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in December 2007, revealed these old stereotypes. The media focus was upon all the negative attributes accorded to the EU – undemocratic, bureaucratic, and, ultimately, ‘not sexy’ for students. Like it or not, students cannot find this subject very interesting.
This paper argues that this is not necessarily the case. It aims to demonstrate that it is possible to teach EU politics to putative a priori ‘non-EU friendly’ students and make them enthusiastic about this subject. My argument is informed by my experience of teaching various modules on EU politics, including an EU simulation module based on the problem-based learning (PBL) approach. The main focus of PBL is to generate students who are independent, enterprising problem solvers. To achieve this, they study real-life problems in small groups, where they analyse a problem and try to find the best solution. A tutor sits in the group meetings to guide the teaching and learning process and monitor the level of the discussions.
I have found an adapted version of PBL to be of significant use in my teaching and learning practice. The idea of this paper is to share this experience with other scholars in the profession in order to prompt a debate on (1) how the EU can be taught in exciting ways for students, and (2) how an adapted PBL approach in the form of a simulation can significantly help to deepen students’ interest in the EU as a subject. At the same time, this can then help to facilitate a deeper understanding of the workings of EU institutions.
The next section explains the PBL approach inherent in the design of the module ‘EU Simulation’, and the way it has been adapted in the light of student teaching and learning experience. The susequent section explains how this approach is implemented in the teaching of the module ‘EU Simulation’. The conclusions will forward some recommendations for those interested in running such a module.
OUTLINING PBL – A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
‘PBL is now used world-wide in Higher Education in many different areas’
The aim of this section is to outline the essence of the PBL approach, as well as my personal experience of applying it to my teaching and learning practice.I will outline the foundations of the ‘problem-based learning’ approach and my personal teaching experience in order to highlight some problems in the PBL approach and how these can be addressed in order to improve its beneficial impact on student learning.
WHAT IS PBL?
‘Problem-based learning’ is learning that is centred on ‘a problem, a query or a puzzle that the learner wishes to solve’ (Boud, 1985: 13). PBL is one of the most innovative developments in higher education and originated in medical schools at Case Western Reserve University in the United States in the 1950s and McMaster University in Canada in the 1960s. Originally, it was developed in order to improve the quality of medical education. In 1969, McMaster University replaced its traditional lectures in first year basic science courses by an integrated curriculum structured around ‘real life’ problems stemming from patient cases (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006: 221). PBL is now used worldwide in higher education in many different areas, in particular through the use of case studies in business schools, as well as international relations simulations (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006: 222).
Cumulative learning: a subject is introduced repeatedly and with an increase in the levels of complexity during the course of study, which leads to an increase in the student's capacity to remember the knowledge presented. The accumulation of knowledge works extremely well with students in simulations when they are provided with a ‘minimum threshold of a priori knowledge’, for example, the EU decision-making process, before they embark upon solving the precise problem.
Integrated learning: subjects are introduced only insofar as they relate to a problem. This leads to an increase in students’ capacity to link subjects to one another. Consequently, the precise case on which the ‘EU Simulation’ module is based integrates a number of policy areas in the EU into one concrete problem. The intersection between policies tends to be the most beneficial area for case studies.
Progression in learning: what and how students learn changes as students acquire skills and knowledge inherent to the subjects related to the problems presented. Although students may be insecure at the start of the simulation, their confidence in their own abilities will grow with the accumulation of knowledge and routinisation of procedures, for example, the institutional mechanisms of EU institutions. Students will gain the impression of becoming an expert in their own right. Although the role of the tutor will be crucial in the early stages of the learning cycle, students will become more independent learners towards the end of the module.
Consistency in learning: the teaching aims of PBL are integrated into all aspects of teaching and learning, including the learning environment in the classroom and assessment practices. Consequently, it is crucial to replicate the ‘real world’ as much as possible, even in apparently trivial aspects. For example, in the EU simulation, the procedural aspects of Council-of-Minister negotiations are to be replicated as realistically as possible, including the seating arrangements, the chairing of sessions, and the speaking arrangements.
PBL is a radical way of putting tasks at the centre of learning and is based on the assumption that students are motivated to solve problems (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006: 222). It is believed that, faced with a realistic problem, students will seek and learn whatever knowledge is necessary for a successful resolution of the problem. My experience of leading an EU simulation has confirmed this assumption. In practice, students on a PBL-based module are generally given authentic and complex tasks to solve in an organised process, which involves a focal problem, group work, feedback, class discussion, skill development, and final reporting. The tutor needs to design and organise all activities and support skills development within the context of those activities.
The aim of PBL is to cover the same material as with traditional methods of teaching, but to organise and deliver it differently according to ‘real-life’ problems;
PBL emphasises understanding, problem identification, problem working and action, and thus counters what can be described as the memorising of facts or ‘surface learning’;
it requires students to become more independent and collaborative learners, which can support their learning throughout their career (and the rest of their life);
PBL requires a change from transmission pedagogies (lectures) to what educational literature (Knight, 2002) calls ‘active’ learning, which consequently also requires a shift away from traditional methods of assessment, such as exams and multiple-choice tests, towards the writing of independent research essays and problem reports.
Clarifying concepts: in order to avoid confusion or misunderstanding, the concepts – which play a crucial role in political science – need to be discussed and clarified in order to enable students to share common foundations in terms of knowledge and understanding.
Defining the problem: after the initial task has been set, the group needs to debate the problem in order to set the boundaries of the topic.
Analysing the problem: the task is first analysed based on the a priori knowledge present in the group, which is then followed by a process of providing as many explanations/alternative hypotheses as possible for the underlying problem.
Systematic classification: the generated hypotheses are classified, indicating their inter-relationships.
Formulating the learning objectives: based on the generated hypotheses and competing alternative explanations, the students themselves begin to analyse the aspects of knowledge that they are still lacking, and on this basis, formulate their own learning objectives.
Self-study: on the basis of the formulated learning objectives, students leave the classroom to seek and read the relevant literature that is necessary in order for them to acquire the knowledge necessary to fulfil their own learning objectives. On the basis of this self-study, the problem is re-discussed in class in a much more focused fashion.
However, despite all its advantages, it rapidly became clear to me that the theoretical steps involved in the PBL approach cannot always be adhered to in practice. Although the PBL approach brings many significant advantages, an overemphasis on the rigidity of the seven steps can actually be counterproductive in practice. The following section will establish the experience I gained with the PBL approach and the lessons I applied to the design of the module ‘EU Simulation’.
CONTEXTUALISING THE PBL TEACHING EXPERIENCE
After working as a seminar tutor and Ph.D. student for three years in the Department of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, I took up a position of Lecturer in the same department. At the time, I became interested in running a module called ‘EU Simulation’, which had been developed by a colleague a few years before, but had become ‘dormant’ after the departure of this person to another institution.2 I resuscitated the module and offered it to second- and third-year undergraduate students. The module proved to be very successful, as students ranked it as one of the best modules that year. Some of them even enjoyed it so much that they decided to embark on a Ph.D. programme in the area of EU politics. For my part, I enjoyed experimenting with a teaching and learning style very different to my previous practice, although I had not grasped all its complexities at the time. For example, I had not thought of this module as being based on PBL principles.
Student Chair and tutor expert: in order to increase the benefits from devolving responsibilities for learning to students, it is vital to appoint one eager (and capable) student to chair the sessions and enforce discipline. This student automatically feels a strong ownership of the learning process and will encourage other students to take part continuously in the debate. It is very easy as a tutor to commit the mistake of ‘driving’ the problem definition stage. However, this will decrease students’ involvement in the process, and as a result, diminish learning benefits. It is better for the tutor to be there as the ‘outside expert’, who will answer any factual (knowledge) question, but will leave the ownership of the learning process to the students. ‘Mini-lectures’ must be avoided at all costs.
Front-loading of some lectures: despite the previous point, experience taught me that often the a priori knowledge of students about the EU is not enough. Consequently, the debates can become tiring for students who do not always manage to define the important issues. As a result, the first sessions of the re-designed module notably include two lectures about the EU political system and its institutional procedures, which will have to be applied by the students in the course of the simulation.
Front-loading of research skills: in the same way as they often do not have enough knowledge about the EU, students tend not to possess the research skills required in such a module. As it is a vital part of the module to develop those research skills, a single session on searching for EU documents and for literature in the library is necessary. Of course, the module handbook contains all significant academic literature on the institutions and policy issues relevant to the simulation exercise, but it is vital to equip students with the tools necessary to go beyond these sources.
Merging of the first five stages of the seven-step approach (the so-called ‘preliminary discussion phase’): in practice, it is almost impossible to follow the exact order of the seven steps of PBL described above. Implementing PBL is already challenging when students are taught according to the PBL approach across all their modules, as it is the case at UM. Outside such a special teaching and learning environment, it becomes even more necessary to be flexible in the implementation of PBL, as it represents such a departure from the ways in which students have been used to learning.
Assessment alignment: given the nature of the learning process in PBL, it is vital to use methods other than traditional exams. Exams tend to focus on memorising factual knowledge and are consequently not very suitable to test the learning involved in a PBL-based module. Research assignments, such as research essays and research reflective reports, are more adapted to assessing students’ learning.
‘PBL is one of the approaches to teaching and learning that is most able to encourage deep learning.’
It is important to note that one of the main arguments in favour of PBL (in its original or modified version) is that it is well positioned to influence students to shift from ‘surface learning’ to ‘deep learning’ (Biggs and Tang, 2007: 22). The former refers to a situation where students use low-level cognitive activities when high-level cognitive activities are necessary in order to do a task properly. According to Biggs and Tang (2007), this arises out of a situation where students engage in ‘strategic learning’ in order to ‘cut corners’ and to give the appearance of learning rather than demonstrating the actual fact of learning. For example, they learn selected content instead of understanding it; they list points instead of addressing an argument, etc. It is not the memorising of knowledge that constitutes ‘surface learning’, but rather the fact that students stop at that stage of learning, without processing the information and understanding it. In contrast, the ‘deep learning approach’ concerns a situation where students engage in tasks meaningfully and use the most appropriate cognitive activity for dealing with it. When students consider that they need to understand a subject, they automatically try to focus on underlying meanings, on main ideas, big themes, etc. In his seminal work Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Biggs and Tang, 2007), Biggs has contrasted these two types of approach to learning by referring to two archetypal students: ‘Robert’ (who is less committed and academically able, who naturally tends to use a surface approach to learning) and ‘Susan’ (the bright and academically-minded student, who naturally uses a deep approach to learning). ‘Good teaching’ in Biggs’ view is about teaching students in such a way that Robert'slearning becomes, over time, closer to Susan's learning. One can argue that, by shifting the ownership of the learning process to students, PBL is one of the approaches to teaching and learning that is most able to encourage deep learning.
The next section will examine in greater detail how the ‘EU simulation’ module functions. It will also demonstrate how a PBL approach, such as that underpinning the simulation, can get the ‘Roberts’ closer to the ‘Susans’ by encouraging a deeper approach to learning.
THE CASE STUDY – SIMULATING THE EU
The ‘EU Simulation’ module aims to provide students with a practical and grounded experience of decision making and negotiations in the EU. Students are assigned within national teams and as part of EU institutions. These teams are provided with supporting briefing material, reading lists, and an overall scenario. Instead of the usual combination of lectures and seminars, the simulation works on the basis of weekly ‘plenary sessions’.
According to Biggs and Tang (2007), good curriculum design needs to be in ‘constructive alignment’ (2007: 52). The constructive dimension of the ‘constructive alignment’ is based on constructivist educational theory. In this conception, learners use their own activity to construct their knowledge. Thus, activities need to be built into the module delivery. In addition, the tutor is responsible for constructing the learning environment in which the student can perform this activity. By ‘alignment’, Biggs and Tang (2007) mean there should be a correspondence between three aspects of the teaching and learning process: the intended learning outcomes, the teaching methods and learning activities, and the assessment tasks.
‘students simulate the negotiations that take place within the Council of Ministers of the EU’
- 1)Among the intended learning outcomes are an ability to:
• describe and analyse the dynamics behind EU politics and decision making;
• demonstrate an informed understanding of the EU's role in policy making;
• demonstrate a practical understanding of decision making in the EU;
• demonstrate acquired negotiating skills and transfer them into different contexts.
- 2)These intended learning outcomes are acquired in a particular learning environment: at the first session, participants are assigned a specific country or institution of the EU that they will represent during the simulation. Students are then expected to carry out the following tasks in relation to ‘their’ country or institution:
• researching background information and the specific interests of the country that they represent;
• researching the academic literature on the topic of discussion;
• preparing policy positions for the weekly plenary meetings;
• consulting with other participants in order to agree joint positions and develop coalitions;
• drafting submissions for adoption at the plenary sessions;
• negotiating a final agreement within the parameters set by particular interests and possibilities for compromise.
In order for the module to work well, students will have to negotiate ‘special deals’, perhaps in ‘special meetings’. To a large extent, therefore, the module demands that participants also involve themselves in the relevant issues outside of the formal weekly meetings.
There is a set scenario provided by the module convenor, which concerns a specific EU policy area. Examples include EU foreign policy, EU enlargement, EU counter-terrorism or the EU institutional reform, and the Treaty of Lisbon. In addition, a reading list comprising the key works on the relevant policy area and institutions is provided in the module handbook. On that basis, a successful simulation requires all participants to research the background to the subject matter and to enter seriously into the negotiations that are being simulated. There is no pre-defined result, only the ‘reality’ created in the course of the simulation. However, all participants are expected to remain realistic and to act ‘in character’ with the country that they represent. This is ensured by making all students write, before the start of the negotiations, a small research assignment on the position of ‘their’ country towards EU integration in general and the specific policy issue at the heart of the negotiations in particular.
‘students simulate the negotiations that take place within the Council of Ministers of the EU’
Finally, the assessment needs to be aligned with the intended learning outcomes and the learning environment provided. In fact, the assessment needs to enable the tutor to judge if and how well the student's performances meet the criteria of achieving the intended learning outcomes within the set learning environment (Biggs and Tang, 2007: 55). Consequently, this module is assessed through two assignments. The first is an academic essay, which represents 40 per cent of the final mark and aims to test students’ academic understanding of the literature on EU integration. The second is a reflective report, which represents 60 per cent of the final mark. It requires students to provide evidence of constant participation and reflection on the EU institutional literature on the basis of their practical simulation.
PRACTICAL LEARNING OF EU INSTITUTIONS
The simulation comprises four types of participants: (1) those representing a specific EU Member State as a Head of Government or the relevant Minister (or Counsellor) in the Council of Ministers; (2) those representing an EU applicant state in the same way; (3) those representing a non-EU state which is significant for the specific EU policy concerned (e.g., Russia for the EU energy policy, the United States for EU counter-terrorism policy, etc.); and (4) those representing the European Commission or the European Parliament as a unitary actor. Indeed, these two institutions are represented as unitary actors in the negotiations as it is necessary to simplify the complexity of the EU decision-making process.
Depending on the specific interests identified by each student for the role that they perform, students are reminded that they should search for compromise and common ground, but that they may also find it necessary to block agreements and demand alternatives outside the scope of the negotiations. Generally, it is important for each participant to come to terms with the resources and strategies of their own country or institution, but also to familiarise themselves with the positions that they can expect from others – and try to influence them in the course of negotiations. In that respect, one would expect coalitions to be formed, or opposing ‘camps’ to emerge, based on the interests identified by each participant.
In practice, students simulate the negotiations that take place within the Council of Ministers of the EU, which contains ministers of the government of each of the twenty-seven member states (Wallace et al, 2005). It is responsible for adopting legislation – often with the European Parliament through the ‘co-decision’ procedure – and deals with the day-to-day details of EU policy. It is part of a hierarchy with the European Council at the top, followed by the Council of Ministers, the Committees of Permanent Representatives (COREPER), and other senior preparatory groups (Wallace et al, 2005: 58). COREPER generally prepares the Council agenda and negotiates minor and non-controversial matters, leaving controversial issues for discussion and other issues for formal agreement by the Council. Below COREPER, civil servants from the member states negotiate in Council working groups, often reaching de facto agreements which are then formalised through COREPER and the Council of Ministers (Peterson and Shackleton, 2002). The Council adopts legislation and resolutions either by qualified majority voting or by a unanimous vote. In the simulation, students simulate all different levels of Council working groups, depending on the stage reached in the negotiations on a specific policy issue.
The European Council is a meeting of all the Heads of State or Government, which is held twice a year. However, the rules of procedure of the Council of Ministers do not apply to the European Council, and its composition is slightly different. This is also simulated in the module in the form of a ‘Salford European Council Summit’, which lasts an entire day. This means that negotiations about the final agreement have to be concluded by then and the agreement – or lack thereof – will be presented to the press and the wider public through the use of a virtual learning environment like Blackboard, which enables students to connect to their learning forum and with their fellow students online.
Blackboard, in fact, plays a central role during the whole simulation. From the outset, it hosts a range of official documents uploaded by the tutor, which are accessible to all participants. Blackboard also has facilities that support communication and collaboration among participants. This includes the different ‘discussion boards’, a ‘virtual classroom’, as well as email and ‘file exchange’ facilities, which allow participants to exchange information and discuss strategy through remote access and without necessarily involving all participants. The tutor establishes the different discussion boards open for negotiations. From then onwards, students are strongly encouraged to start using this mode of communication in order to conduct their negotiations. If they wish to conduct their negotiations more discreetly, they can do so by means of emails to the students concerned (via Blackboard) or by meeting them in person. The tutor needs to follow the state of the negotiations on Blackboard and check the level of participation of every student. Naturally, in practice, this is quite time consuming for the tutor involved, as well as the students. In order to increase the participation of students in this communication forum, students have to provide evidence of, and reflection on, their consistent and constant participation in their final report.
CONCLUSION – EVALUATING PBL AND SIMULATIONS
Overall, the ‘EU Simulation’ module and the use of modified PBL teaching methods can be seen as a success. However, what are the standards for such an assessment? How can this be evaluated?
According to Hounsell (2000), the evaluation of university and college teaching proved to be rather controversial when it made its first appearance. However, over the years, it has become far more acceptable and normalised. There are several important reasons for which it is necessary to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of specific teaching and learning practices. First, young lecturers, like me, may find it particularly interesting to assess their own strengths and weaknesses in order to improve their practice as their careers develop. Second, the advent of quality assurance has created the routine expectation that teaching should be assessed via mechanisms of feedback in order to establish whether the students are getting appropriate ‘value for money’. Consequently, it makes much sense to evaluate one's teaching practice – either to improve it or to demonstrate that it meets required standards (or both).
‘students ranked this module in the top 5 per cent of modules on offer that year.’
At this point, most people are probably thinking of one of the most common indicators used for that purpose, that is, student questionnaires that test student satisfaction. In practice, however, there are a larger number of indicators that can help to establish the quality of teaching. First, feedback from students can takethe form of questionnaires, but also group discussion or emails. Second, feedback can also be obtained through peer observations of teaching. Third, feedback can be derived from self-reflection on one's teaching and learning practice. How did the ‘EU Simulation’ module fare with regards to these three dimensions?
First, student satisfaction has been particularly high. When I ran the module for the first time, students ranked this module in the top 5 per cent of modules on offer that year. In addition, student comments reinforced my positive impressions. ‘The best module I ever had’, ‘I wish I had had this module earlier in my university experience’, and ‘interactive’ were among the most frequently mentioned comments. Moreover, students began to form a very strong class bond through the constant interaction and sometimes heated negotiations. Some of these students are still in contact with one another years later.
However, one of the most impressive experiences in my teaching career happened only recently. A ‘plenary session’ had to be cancelled one day because I had fallen ill and was unable to attend the session. By email, the students were alerted to that situation, but it was suggested that, if they so wanted, they could already meet for informal negotiations. Formal negotiations would then take place the following week. As this was merely a suggestion, students had the opportunity not to come to class. Nevertheless, 90 per cent of the students turned up for the session anyway and the informal negotiations were led by the usual Chair in the most professional manner. This is to me the strongest indicator that student satisfaction rate is very high given that they chose to come even when given the opportunity to stay away. Needless to say that the general attendance rate tends to be very high for the module, as it stands at about 85 per cent or more in every session.
My personal observations have also been very positive. Throughout the module, I could clearly detect strong enthusiasm in most students, as well as an incredible amount of discipline and self-discipline. The fact that the general disciplining procedure is implemented through the Chair – who is a student – has also frequently led to students taking on the responsibility to police each other and to encourage other students to improve their participation. It is also noteworthy that the majority of students is often very well prepared and displays clear signs of having read at least some aspects of the literature. I would expect most of these positive observations also to be reflected in the achievement of students in their assignments. In my first year of teaching this module, the average marks were slightly higher than on other modules. In addition, I have also been told by colleagues in the department that they have heard students comment favourably upon the simulation. Thus, all things considered, the module can be seen as a success.
‘all things considered, the module can be seen as a success.’
Nonetheless, those now attracted to developing such a module should alsobear the following points in mind. First of all, the module is rather labour-intensive and keeping track of all aspects of student negotiations can be difficult. Moreover, the tutor has to accept relinquishing control over the students’ negotiations, which can lead to the unexpected. On occasions, the Chair of the Council may not time the agenda well, which means that too many items are to be discussed, whereas there are too few items on the agenda on other days. Yet, at the same time, this is precisely an advantage of the PBL approach, in the sense that students can make mistakes and learn from them. Often, this is a better learning experience than if the tutor tells them the precise formula for being efficient. In short devolving learning responsibility to students can work rather well!
I would like to express my gratitude to Sarah Leonard for inspiring me to write this paper and for providing the crucial discussions and support, as well as to Jim Newell and Alaric Searle for encouraging me to complete it.