17 January 2012

Paper Review: Emotional responses of tutors and students in problem-based learning: lessons for staff development (Bowman & Hughes, 2005)


This article was first published on 31 January 2005.

Paper Review: Emotional responses of tutors and students in problem-based learning: lessons for staff development (Bowman & Hughes, 2005)

Bowman, D., and Hughes, P. (2005) Emotional responses of tutors and students in problem-based learning: lessons for staff development. Medical Education, 39, 145-153.

The authors detail a number of “emotional” risks of problem based learning and the possible group processes from which they may arise. Such processes can subvert the primary aim of PBL courses and lessen the effectiveness of how PBL might otherwise operate.

The group processes are explained with reference to psychotherapeutic groups: overrelianace on other group members, encouragement to the tutor to lower professional distance ("join the gang"), and secondary group concerns subverting the completion of the primary task. The authors conclude that attention should be paid to tutors’ emotional responses (anti-task behaviour).

Anti-task behaviour in tutors stems from five different areas:

When tutors act as therapists (tutors are not therapists);
When tutors want to “join in” with the students (they should have a professional distance from their students, i.e., be mentors and not friends);
When tutors try to keep control of the students (the risk of wanting to use their expert knowledge instead of letting the students guide themselves);
Subverting the primary task with a secondary one (often interpersonal conflicts);
Having a personal relationship with the students (again, professional distance is required);
The authors suggest solutions:

Agreement and clarity about tutors’ primary task (to prevent a secondary agenda);
Staff responsibilities have clear boundaries (prevent transgression by both parties);
Ongoing review and monitoring (reflection on group dynamics can help with current issues and bring awareness of potential problems);
Sociability that is not intimate (not distant, but professional);
Personally, I find the paper very conforming to PC standards. However, this is churlish for the aspect of maintaining a professional distance is laudable, as is insight into group processes and the possible risks that lie therein.

I would personally recommend that the findings of this paper are promulgated to tutors and faculty who use problem-based learning.
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