Juggling institutional and social demands : a conversation analysis of engineering students’ interactions in self-managed problem-based learning

Rights statement
Awarding institution
  • University of Strathclyde
Date of award
  • 2020
Thesis identifier
  • T16043
Person Identifier (Local)
  • 201651623
Qualification Level
Qualification Name
Department, School or Faculty
  • There has been an increase in the use of problem-based learning (PBL) - a student-centred approach involving authentic problem cases and collaboration - within the engineering disciplines in response to the demands of 21st century industry. The vast majority of PBL research over the years, however, has either focused on determining its effectiveness, or reported on staff and students’ perceptions about the approach. Much less attention has been given to the group practices that lie at the heart of PBL. Ironically, then, as a pedagogical approach that is so dependent on social interaction, we know very little about its interactional elements - about how it actually works. With the aim of opening this interactional ‘black box’, this study analysed almost 100 hours of naturalistic video-recordings involving seven groups of engineering students undertaking PBL at a UK university. This thesis reports on the findings of the floating facilitator PBL model, in which learning is effectively tutorless, with only intermittent tutor contact. Conversation analysis was used to examine students’ actual social interactions in this learning setting; to finely unpack the conversational mechanics behind PBL that have long been overlooked. Although the student-centredness of PBL made the educational experience less formal in nature, this democratisation of institutional structures also allowed ‘outside’ social norms to percolate through. Added to the absence of the tutor, PBL thus made matters more complicated for students, forcing them to balance wider social values with their newfound institutional responsibilities (i.e. to self-manage their group work). Ironically, the groups co constructed themselves as being largely detached from academia; as ‘playing it cool’ in blending in as (‘non-academic’) equals. At the same time, however, with no guiding tutor, the students also oriented to their collective need to ‘do education’. In managing this dilemma - and in an apparent resistance against being substituted for the absent tutor - they treated the workload as a collective burden to be eradicated, neutralised all displays of authority, and made use of subtle interactional strategies in self-managing the likes of knowledge disagreements and social loafing. Such findings show that students do not always engage with (tutorless) PBL as intended, and provide a case for the continued naturalistic study of such conversational intricacies.
Advisor / supervisor
  • Wiggins, Sally, 1975-
  • Ventura-Medina, Esther
  • Anderson, Tony
Resource Type