Contextual attributes to promote positive social interdependence in problem-based learning: a focus group study

I. Shimizu*, Y. Matsuyama, R. Duvivier, C. van der Vleuten

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background Problem-based learning (PBL) is classified as a collaborative learning approach, wherein students learn while contributing meaning to experiences and interactions with others. An important theoretical fundament of PBL is social interdependence theory (SIT) because positive social interdependence within a group has been found to be key to better learning performance and future attitudes towards team practice. However, most previous studies in health professions education focused on cognitive outcomes, and few studies have focused on collaborative behaviors in PBL groups. The lack of this empirical insight makes implementation of PBL difficult, especially in contexts where there is limited experience with collaborative learning. Therefore, the aim of this study was to elucidate what promotes or hinders positive social interdependence and how the attributes work during PBL. Methods We conducted four focus groups among clinical year medical students (n = 26) who participated in PBL tutorials in the formal curriculum. We asked semi-structured questions that corresponded with the overall concept of SIT. We analyzed the transcript using constructivist grounded theory and developed a model to explain contextual attributes that promote or hinder positive social interdependence in PBL. Results Two contextual attributes of "academic inquisition" and "desire for efficiency" affect social interdependence among a student group in PBL. Academic inquisition is students' desire to engage in their academic learning, and desire for efficiency is students' attitude toward learning as an imposed duty and desire to complete it as quickly as possible. These attributes are initially mutually conflicting and constructing social interdependence through multiple steps including inquisition from a case, seeking efficient work, sharing interest in problem solving, expecting mutual contributions, and complementing learning objectives. Conclusion These findings will contribute to understanding collaborative learning environments in PBL and may help explain contexts where PBL is less successful. The model can also be used as a tool to support innovation of PBL as collaborative learning.
Original languageEnglish
Article number222
Number of pages9
JournalBMC Medical Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 21 Apr 2021


  • Collaborative learning
  • Health professions education
  • Problem-based learning
  • Social interdependence theory
  • Qualitative research


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