This study reports teacher and student experiences of problem-based learning (PBL) in three Asian countries. PBL was introduced to provide an education that would allow students to compete successfully in a changing world. Student and tutor experiences were positive and PBL was seen to work extremely well, despite the typical problems that students can experience working in groups. However, conceptions of PBL varied between tutors, and PBL as a 'method' appeared to have limited utility for guiding teaching practice. There was evidence that students were developing useful knowledge and lifelong learning skills, but there were concerns about where this occurred in the PBL curriculum. We looked closely at the PBL tutorial in each programme, and how it lived up to the idea that it should be a key site for facilitating higher-order thinking. We found that the tutorial was largely a space for reporting the outcomes of student inquiries, and there was little evidence for critical engagement. A key impediment to such engagement was the cultural inappropriateness of challenging peers or the tutor. A new type of academic socialisation may be required for Asian students and tutors to explicitly help them overcome this. A conceptual foundation for PBL is suggested, in which it is understood as a methodological idea founded on a system of principles, practices and methods. Introduced as a methodology, tutors and course teams would take the basic idea of PBL and align it with their ontological and epistemological beliefs as a starting point for instructional design and teaching.
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