Examining self-managed problem-based learning interactions in engineering education

Robert McQuade, Esther Ventura-Medina, Sally Wiggins, Tony Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
21 Downloads (Pure)


With the increasing complexity of the engineering role, today's graduates must be capable of confronting both technical and societal problems which are underpinned by effective teamwork at their core. Problem-based learning – one of a range of collaborative pedagogies – has been implemented in engineering teaching as an avenue to better prepare students for the realities of modern industry. However, there has been limited research which examines the complexities of the social processes involved in PBL tutorials, and even less so within tutorless contexts. The present study, therefore, reports on how students working in tutorless PBL groups – owing to teaching limitations – must effectively self-manage their team efforts if they are to succeed. This PBL arrangement involved a 'floating facilitator' – offering students only minimal contact – but the analysis focuses exclusively on the students' tutorless interactions. The data collected is from 22 third-year chemical engineering undergraduate students in four groups, and consists of naturalistic video-recordings over the course of 32 PBL meetings, resulting in 35 hours of video data. This large data corpus was examined empirically using conversation analysis to elucidate students' recurrent communicational practices. The microanalyses showed how students continuously established the PBL tasks as being the collective responsibility of the group. Furthermore, students maintained 'average' – and equal – social identities (e.g. not outperforming one's peers within the public space) and used displays of humour/self-deprecation as means of constructing an informal learning environment. It is argued that – in the absence of the tutor who would normally maintain cohesion – these interactional strategies offer a means through which students adapt to the unfamiliarity of the tutorless PBL setting, where no one member is positioned as the substitute tutor (i.e. 'othered' by their peers).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)232-248
Number of pages17
JournalEuropean Journal of Engineering Education
Issue number2
Early online date30 Jul 2019
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2020


  • problem-based learning
  • teamwork
  • interaction
  • conversation analysis
  • tutorless groups
  • students
  • engineering
  • psychology
  • social
  • identity


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