Student characters for a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach to university life

Dr Jessica Clare Hancock

Group of students working

What is the idea?

A Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach to student journeys has been used for a module in an MA in Higher Education – the module examines student support. The participants on the module are allocated to groups and are given a particular ‘student’ with a profile indicating potential support needs (for example, being first in their family to attend higher education). The groups hear from their student throughout the course of the module, via ‘emails’ from the student which are posted to group forums on the VLE. The emails reveal how the student is getting on with their course, and some of the problems that they experience. The groups meet to discuss these messages and how the student might be responded to, before sharing the student’s update and their group’s reply with the rest of the class. This activity could easily be used with students directly, to enable them to examine their own student journeys and transition points – this chapter will now explore how this might work in practice.

Why this idea?

Transition is tricky for students (Austen et al., 2021; Collings et al., 2016; Denovan & Macaskill 2013), and it is more and more frequently recognised that factors that affect student success are myriad and do not always relate to direct problems with the subject material of their degree (Gurbuz et al., 2019; Jacklin & Le Riche, 2009; Kettell, 2020). This PBL exercise with an imaginary (but authentic) student enables the discussion of different issues that might be experienced by students at a distance (because they are talking about their character and not themselves), and allows students to arrive, through peer support (and the support of the lecturer in class), at some solutions to common issues. The small-group discussions prior to the session enable collaboration and research into solutions at students’ own pace, and whole-class discussions provide valuable opportunities for peer learning and insight into a range of issues (Boud et al., 2013). The PBL approach also makes the issues align to learners’ interests as they will be more receptive to insights from the lecturer having already grappled with their own responses to a problem (Schwatz & Bransford, 1998).

The longitudinal nature of the activity means that problems can be discussed at relevant points in the term, rather than transition activities taking place mainly at the beginning and students being overwhelmed by all the different sources of help for particular issues. For example, the initial character issues could centre around starting university (perhaps what to do if the character is unfamiliar with UK education, has arrived late and missed some information, or how to become part of their course community if they are a parent or commuter student), and then later in the term the character could experience health issues, problems with completing assessments or financial difficulties. Through the use of authentic messages and problem descriptions, students might also become aware of effective ways in which they might seek help, through the recognition of gaps in information, or appreciate that there might be different perspectives other than their character’s on a particular incident.

How could others implement this idea?

This idea was successfully trialled on a module addressing student support which was part of an MA in Higher Education, so the content of the discussions had direct applicability to the learning outcomes and assessment. Participants reported that the PBL approach worked to engage them with the kinds of issues that different students might experience, and several commented that they became quite attached to ‘their’ student and looked forward to the next ‘email’ update to find out how they were getting on.

This approach of using PBL to examine student support issues would also work well directly with students. In this case, it could either form part of a core module, perhaps if students have a relevant module, such as one on personal development planning, or it could occur alongside subject material if the learning outcomes (and perhaps also the assessment) were adjusted to accommodate learning about student support needs, or transition issues as well as the disciplinary content. Alternatively, this activity could be run as part of group personal tutoring sessions or similar which sit outside of programme content.

You would need to decide how many groups are needed (perhaps around 5 students per group) and then work out how many characters are required. If the cohort is large, it could be quite effective to give the same character to several groups – this would enable comparison of the different groups’ responses to the same issues.

Each character requires a name, brief bio (such as background before joining the course, age, gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, any disability or neurodiversity, personality). They should be chosen to represent the diversity of students on the course. A collaboration with current students and/ or the Student Union would be ideal to ensure authenticity of the characters, their problems, and how these are expressed.

Emails from each character would need to be composed and sent out a week before time in class is allocated to discussions, to enable the group to meet and formulate their response. This could be done quite easily using the group function available on most VLEs, or using Teams channels for each group. Feedback on responses would be given during class discussions, which might involve inviting a relevant professional (such as someone from student support) into the class.

Transferability to different contexts

This could be used for any course, and although it might be particularly beneficial as a transition activity for first year UG or taught masters students, it is something that could be returned to at key points throughout a degree course, during different modules, so perhaps looking at employability issues towards the end of the course. This could be a formative activity, or linked to a summative assessment using a reflection on the character’s issues, or the process of the activity.


Austen, L., Pickering, N., & Judge, M. (2021). Student reflections on the pedagogy of transitions into higher education, through digital storytelling. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(3), 337–348.

Boud, D., Sampson, J. & Cohen, R. (2013). Peer learning in higher education: Learning from & with each other. Routledge.

Collings, R., Swanson, V., & Watkins, R. (2016). Peer mentoring during the transition to university: assessing the usage of a formal scheme within the UK. Studies in Higher Education, 41(11), 1995–2010.

Denovan, A., & Macaskill, A. (2013). An interpretative phenomenological analysis of stress and coping in first year undergraduates. British Educational Research Journal, 39(6), 1002–1024.

Gurbuz, E., Hanley, M., & Riby, D. M. (2019). University students with autism: The social and academic experiences of university in the UK. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49(2), 617–631.

Jacklin, A., & Le Riche, P. (2009). Reconceptualising student support: from “support” to “supportive.” Studies in Higher Education, 34(7), 735–749.

Kettell, L. (2020). Young adult carers in higher education: the motivations, barriers and challenges involved – a UK study. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 44(1), 100–112.

Schwartz, D.L. & Bransford, J.D. (1998). ‘A time For telling’. Cognition and Instruction, 16(4) 475-5223.

Image Attribution

People-Girl-woman-students by StockSnap is used under Pixabay Licence

About the author

Dr Jessica Hancock is Head of Learning and Teaching at the University of Winchester, where she is programme lead for the MA in Learning and Teaching in HE, and CASTLE (Celebration and Recognition Scheme for Teaching and Learning Expertise – supporting HEA fellowship applications). She has published on academic writing, and compassionate and identity-focused approaches to developing teaching in HE.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Dr Jessica Clare Hancock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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