PBL – Qualitative Article Critique


Spruijt et al’s 2013 paper, Teachers’ Perceptions of Aspects Affecting Seminar Learning, is a qualitative study that investigated ways to optimize problem-based learning (PBL) approaches with seminar classes, defined as learning groups of approximately 25 students.  They note that this type of class is gaining popularity at the university level due to budget constraints, especially within medical schools that tend to espouse social constructivist viewpoints.  However, PBL has previously been delivered in tutorial settings with smaller numbers of students, and there is not much data that explores ways to maximize student engagement and learning with larger groups.

The study participants included twenty-four teachers with prior experience as seminar facilitators from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.  The participants were invited out of a total pool of 174 eligible faculty members, were offered a small stipend for participation, and were assigned to individual focus groups based upon personal scheduling preferences.  They participated in semi-structured focus group interviews, in which three focus groups met twice with an interval of two weeks led by one moderator.  Each session lasted approximately 90 minutes. The sessions were audio-taped, fully transcribed, and then independently coded by two researchers using thematic analysis.  An iterative process of data reduction resulted in an understanding of the aspects that influence seminar learning.  The sessions themselves used predefined open questions formulated from prior active learning research, were new to the participants, and allowed the moderator to ask additional follow-up questions for clarification.  At the end of each session, the moderator summarized key points and had the participants verify for understanding.  One week after the session, participants were provided with a summary and request for corrections and comments, which further validated the data.

To analyze the data, Spruijt listened to the recordings, read the transcripts, and composed a descriptive summary.  She then discussed her findings with the session moderator to ensure consensus.  Then, the data was entered into a software program that used a latent thematic analytical method to report themes, or the key contributors to seminar learning reported by the teachers.  Since this process included interpretative data, a second researcher independently coded a portion of the transcripts and ran this through the software to ensure validity.  The teachers described the PBL as successful, with aspects positively affecting seminar learning identified by the teachers falling into seven categories: teacher, students, preparation, group functioning, seminar goals and content, course coherence, and schedule and facilities.  Importantly, teachers measured their ownership in curriculum development, the quality and quantity of preparation materials, the classroom climate, group continuity, student predisposition to seminar learning, the number of course questions, and alignment of course activities.

Critical Analysis

The use of a qualitative focus group study to explore the research question of how educators viewed the seminar approach and its impact on students was ideal, as it allowed for group interaction that provided robust data and a wide-variety of responses related to the previously unexamined topic.  White (1995) endorses such an approach by explaining that this type of method can “give rise to a synergy that is lacking from individual interviews” and ensure validity of experiences.

However, the number of educators who participated in the study compared to those who were invited was quite low.  There is a chance that the respondents were more highly motivated and that this influenced the success of their personal seminar approach.  Further, since all of the focus group participants were from one university and one general field within the university, further research would need to be conducted to ensure the generalizability of the findings.  Spruijt et al (2013) mention that it would have also been helpful to independently interview the participants outside of the group setting to enrich the data further.

An interesting finding from the study suggested that interpersonal group relationships did not affect engagement in the course and that most success came from interaction with the teacher and materials.  Theoretically, problem-based learning is often thought of as relying heavily on small group dynamics to construct knowledge and explore issues, so this finding is somewhat counterintuitive. The study’s use of anecdotal teacher feedback as its independent variable may not have captured students’ perspective on the importance of group dynamics in learning. Therefore, further research examining both student and teacher feedback on learning could be useful.

The study found that PBL can be successfully implemented in the seminar-sized classrooms that are common in US universities and high schools.  Educators so inclined should move forward with this instructional strategy, placing an emphasis on quality content, cohesive curriculum design, and strong teacher-student interactions.  In active learning approaches, emphasis is often placed on interpersonal, student-to-student group dynamics, but this study suggests that teachers must still be considered an integral part of the learning process even in PBL settings that might involve a significant amount of small group work.


Spruijt, A., Wolfhagen, I., Bok, H., Schuurmans, E., Scherpbier, A., Beukelen, P. V., & Jaarsma, D. (2013). Teachers’ perceptions of aspects affecting seminar learning: a qualitative study. BMC Medical Education, 13(1).

White GE, Thomson AN: Anonymized focus groups as a research tool for health professionals. Qual Health Res 1995, 5(2):256–261.

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