Gradual shift to fully embrace the potential of collaborative learning

February 2, 2016 by Tamara Simić

Shift in learning

You might have already heard about the emerging learning theories making a fundamental shift – from a focus on teachers’ knowledge transfer to a focus on learner-driven learning experiences. As the CEF Collaborative Learning team, we realized that this is something we already practice in much of our work, even though we haven’t given it a title yet. We support reform processes in the region through supporting finance officials’ collaborative learning on shared challenges.

A recent online course (MOOC) initiated by Maastricht University gave us the opportunity to more systematically discuss a collaborative learning approach – Problem-Based Learning (PBL) – which allowed us to (i) fully realize the meaning of this method and underlying ideology; and (ii) get ready to better support colleagues in applying elements of such approaches. The MOOC introduced us to the concept of PBL through applying it first-hand. In this post, I’d like to share what I took away from this exciting learning experience, and suggest ways how it might fit our (your) learning environment.

Problem-Based Learning Cycle

Problem-Based Learning Cycle

Key features of PBL

  • Engages the individual learner in the learning process
  • Focuses on enhancing learners’ motivation to learn
  • Enables active, contextual, collaborative learning
  • Enables learners to not only learn, but plan, design, produce, evaluate, and refine the matter
  • Links learning to real-world concerns (challenges)
  • Fosters strong collaboration among learners
  • Develops various skills crucial for problem-solving and obtaining sustainable results
  • Establishes open climate – safe environment – freedom of speech
  • Supports learning through a guiding tutor (in our case, a facilitator)
  • Empowers learners in influencing their learning journey
  • Strengthens diagnostic reasoning, problem-solving, and self-paced learning skills
  • Provides opportunities to activate and refresh prior knowledge


Throughout the MOOC, I have backed up my understanding with solid research that PBL is used across various disciplines, especially in practice-oriented, multi-disciplinary learning, bringing significant results in training competent and skilled practitioners, and promoting long-term knowledge retention.



What aspects need particular attention when introducing PBL elements?

  • Encouraging learners to break out of their past habits (= change the way they think)
  • Managing cultural differences
  • Enhancing one’s own skills as learning facilitators
  • Constant monitoring of learning process
  • Identifying challenges that are priority to our target audience
  • Facilitating that challenges are voiced in the right format and level of detail
  • Assuring challenges have appropriate level of complexity to arouse interest and engage learners
  • Defining challenges that best match prior knowledge and experience
  • Keeping challenges regularly tested and up-to-date
  • Ensuring that the learning process keeps momentum


Main strengths of successfully incorporating elements of PBL in our work:

  • Easy access to learning resources through other learners
  • Continuous improvement and idea-generation
  • Enabling smooth cross-country collaboration and knowledge exchange
  • Wider networking and increased visibility
  • Timely actions taken by finance officials
  • Strengthening the CEF’s role as a knowledge hub in the region


Now we are at an initiation stage of our new learning methods and environment. Along the way, I have no doubts that more challenges will surface and we have to be ready to deal with them; however, each of your contributions and feedback counts! Can you identify…

  • How or where can elements of PBL fit in our activities?
  • What challenges do you face in your work