Design of Problems

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Design of Problems

Roots of Problem Design
What Constitutes a Problem?
Establishing Your PBL Goals
Design Features of Problem

Roots of Problem Design

In the late 1980s, whilst working as a mathematics educator, I was dissatisfied with the way mathematics was taught, particularly the overemphasis on drill and practice, learning by memorization and number crunching. What followed was my co-authorship of a series of mathematics textbooks published in the early 1990s entitled Mathematics: A Problem-solving Approach. In the preface to teachers in Book 2 of the series, I wrote: “The societal and industrial changes of our time … call for an educational system that will increasingly produce ‘thinkers’ and problem solvers” (p. vii). The problem-solving approach I took in the book was inspired by the works of the Budapest-born mathematician George Polya (1887–1985), who advocated a four-step approach to a problem: (1) understand the problem, (2) decide on a plan, (3) carry out the plan, and (4) look back and reflect. What I like about Polya's ideas are the heuristic approach (looking at strategies) and the development of rules of discovery and invention.

Apart from emphasizing the problem-solving process, the other thing I did was to make mathematics applicable to everyday life by using real-world problems. I presented problems involving floor plan calculations, costing, loans and interest computations and so on, where applicable. Similarly, problems of real-world surveys and statistics were incorporated where relevant. Those were puny efforts and the impact was marginal as there were limitations to what one could put in textbooks.

In the mid-1990s, as a staff developer in a newly established higher education institution, I tried to advocate the use of teaching methodologies that would engage active learning and thinking through the use of cases, simulations and problems. Although I was aware of the potential of the use of problems at that time, I did not put much thought into the use of real-world problems in relation to the larger goals of education.

Having worked in tertiary education for some time, my observations concur with those of Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein (1999), who noted that “disconnection between academic knowledge and physical experience continues to plague education today” (p. 17). The Bernsteins cited professors from some of the best universities lamenting about students who had mastered calculus in final examinations but were unable to apply the calculus to the solution of practical problems in physics.

The roots of problem design are real-world problems. It seems obvious and common sense that engineering professors should be teaching students how to deal with the engineering problems that engineers face in industry today. The medical faculty should be teaching students the problems of medicine that they will encounter in practice, including how to deal with new diseases where remedies have yet to be found. The teacher educator should be showing trainee teachers how to handle situations in the real world of the classroom (Robinson, 1993). Yet, all too often the gap between theory and practice remains.

It is interesting to consider the history of higher education. Universities were traditionally hubs of philosophies, deep thinking and inquiry. In the early days, many philosophers in the sciences were also scientists who made great discoveries of natural laws and principles and laid the foundations of the scientific approach and the rigours of inquiry. Developments in the arts, humanities and political and social sciences have similar beginnings in the universities where critical thinking, reasoning and appreciation made their mark. I am presenting an oversimplified picture here. It can be said, however, that traditionally professional education was about apprenticeship. The training of engineers, medical doctors, architects, accountants, legal professionals and so on had its beginnings in the apprenticeship form of learning. The apprentice learnt by seeing how experts solved real-world problems and subsequently taking up the problems themselves. When professional training was incorporated into higher education, the training process was meant to accelerate learning as well as inject multidisciplinary and deeper reasoning and inquiry. Real-world problem solving in the apprenticeship model was not meant to be replaced. One can get caught up here with the debate on the dangers of academics becoming more engaged in problems that could easily yield journal papers than keeping in touch with real-world problems in their professions. The point I would like to make, however, is the need to be cognizant of real-world problems and challenges in order to bring good problems into the curricula.

I mentioned in Chapter 3 that in the early years in Europe technical universities in Denmark and the Netherlands had a tradition of giving students problems that were encountered in industry then. It was of course not uncommon for professors in these institutions to have a foot in both industry and the universities. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to discuss with Professor Dietmar von Hoyningen-Huene, Rector of Fachhochschule Mannheim (a university of applied science in Germany), about the challenges of education for the future. We noted that it is really important for academics to be exposed to the latest problems in their industry and that any chasm between academics and professionals would only render the former obsolete.

The thought about using problems as an innovation in education came to me when I was visiting Chicago in 1999. It probably helped when one was sitting by the Great Lake Michigan and enjoying the summer breeze in that windy city. I had just visited some of the splendid museums and enjoyed the city tour. The city of Chicago, with its many magnificent buildings, is itself a great site and museum of modern architecture. It is well known that about 130 years ago the Great Chicago Fire devastated and destroyed everything in that city. The devastation became an opportunity for the city to rebuild in new ways. Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, and its architects initiated international architectural styles and movements that continue to inspire budding architects. Perhaps we need a fresh approach to education, I thought. Perhaps change should be more drastic than incremental. Perhaps we need to innovate the academic architecture.

Incidentally, it was in Chicago where I first held discussions with Dr Martin Ramirez, President and Chief Learning Officer of IDEAS at Naperville, Illinois. We talked about problem solving in the real world, educational reforms to transform learning and particularly about how to use real-world problems for learning. A who's who in science and engineering, Martin had helped the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) develop and use PBL for their K–12 curricula. IMSA has since become a centre known for its effective use of PBL in secondary school curricula. In our conversations, we became convinced that the ability of educators to make use of problems creatively would be a major aspect of educational innovation in the 21st century. That year I also met some of the PBL-pioneering staff at IMSA and observed how educators themselves were refreshed and challenged as they sought to bring contemporary and relevant problems into the curriculum. The need for educators to design and bring good problems to their students means that they have to be constant learners themselves to be in touch with the challenges of society and industry.

The roots of problem design are real-world problems. Professors need to have up-to-date knowledge of the problems that professionals in their disciplines are working on today. Teachers need to be in touch with real-world challenges in the society. The ability of educators to use problems creatively is a major aspect of educational innovation .

What Constitutes a Problem?

According to Michael Hicks (1991), four things are implicit when we talk about a problem: (1) we recognize that there is a problem, (2) we do not know how to resolve the problem, (3) we want to resolve it, and (4) we perceive that we are able to find a solution. A problem presented to students in PBL should therefore evoke a recognition of the problem, an awareness of the existing gap in the students' knowledge, a willingness to resolve the problem and a perception that they can find a solution. In many cases, it also implies that they are able to implement the solution. The following are examples of the types of problem triggers and stimuli.

Failure to Perform

A problem could be a malfunctioning system. It could be something that is not working according to order. It could be a person's performance that falls short of expectation.

For example, in a vehicle servicing course, the trainer can present a real-world problem that trainees will face:

Jane has a four-year-old car. She has just attended a meeting in town and discovered that she could not start her car.

In a computer engineering course, students could be given circuit plans and diagrams of a local area network together with a problem like this:

The company Total Ed Consultants Pte Ltd has a network of computers as shown in the given diagrams. The various systems in the network have been gradually upgraded and have been in operation without major problems in the last two years. Recently, the entire network has drastically slowed down, possibly due to virus attacks.

In a teacher education course on teaching thinking, a problem like the following could be posed:

Ms Sally Lin has taught normal-stream students at both lower and upper secondary levels for the past two years. She finds that these students often have difficulty learning concepts and content in mathematics (the subject she is responsible for). It appears to her that many of the intuitive thinking processes and habits that she takes for granted are often not in the repertoire of the students' thought processes. For example, the students are not systematic and analytical. Furthermore, they do not plan or check and would not persist in working towards solutions. She is wondering what she should do.

Situations in Need of Immediate Attention or Improvement

There are many problems in the world that are situations in need of immediate help and improvement, such as hunger, poverty, lack of health care, and diseases. In PBL, however, the problem situation presented should be specific. Many problems in medicine and nursing are presented as situations in need of immediate attention. For example:

Mr Power Eski, 33, a marketing manager, has just arrived at the airport from Hong Kong. He has difficulty breathing and appears to have a fever.

Generally, a situation in need of improvement draws on disciplinary knowledge to understand the nature and context of the problem and requires systematic problem solving or intervention.

In a course on counselling skills for management, a scenario such as the following may be presented. In this case, the scope of learning issues expected may include understanding personality, working style and workplace counselling techniques.

Ms SS (37 years old) and Ms AK (32 years old) are lecturers in an engineering department of a polytechnic. SS is a coordinator of one of the engineering modules and has been with the polytechnic for four years, while AK has been there for one year. Both have working experience in the private sector but decided to join the polytechnic for a more stable career. The head of department has just discovered that they have not been talking to each other when he assigned SS to form a task force with a number of staff and SS insisted that AK be excluded. The head of department, on further probing and talking to staff, found that AK and SS have been having communication problems since day one.

According to AK, SS has been totally unhelpful from day one and has turned her away many times when she tried to be friendly. She was not even asking for help but needed to find out about the programme from her. She has heard that SS is very ambitious, only “socializes upwards”, is cold and does not share with her colleagues.

AK, however, has now found her own circle of friends from the department and feels that she does not need to go to SS anymore.

According to SS, AK expected hand-holding from day one and wanted to be given all the details of what and how to teach. Everything was given to her through e-mail attachments, although all the information she wanted is on the Web and she could have checked it out herself. Other new lecturers do not need to ask the kinds of questions she asked. AK had on several occasions put the blame on the coordinator when she failed to pay attention to notices given. There were several finger-pointing incidents and AK went around talking behind her back about things that were not accurate.

If you were the head of department, how can you help them?

A course in logistic operations may have a problem scenario such as this:

The engineers in a computer manufacturing plant are increasingly frustrated that the gains they have achieved at their plant are being frittered away in the distribution system. Some 30 per cent of the cost of the product has been attributed to distribution and sales.

Finding Better and New Ways to Do Things

Often, normal-functioning business operations and operation systems present a problem situation where we want to raise standards, improve quality or obtain better results. Many businesses have to continually improve their company image, create higher value and so on in order to survive. Similarly, companies often seek to improve their operation systems in terms of reducing cycle time, eliminating errors and so forth. Rather than teaching the subject matter and content, we could present relevant cases, data and information to students. The students' knowledge gaps will create the need for learning the content and at the same time stretch their creativity in applying the knowledge.

For example, detailed reports of an anonymous company can be given, such as its annual report, balance sheet and profiles of its management team. The problem could be posed as follows:

XYZ is a private limited company whose major products and services are as given in the portfolio and reports. It plans for public listing to raise funds of $50 million for international expansion. You and your team members are tasked by the management consultancy you work for to undertake feasibility studies and present reports and executive summaries based on the studies.

In an electrical engineering course, students can be provided with detailed building and electrical plans of the air-conditioning circuitry, power consumption reports together with a problem as follows:

ABC is a plant that manufactures special computer chips. In the current system, most of the air-conditioning in the plant is left on 24 hours. You have been tasked to propose improvement to the existing systems and to install new controls to reduce electricity consumption in the long run.

Unexplained Phenomena or Observations

It has been said that discovery is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought of. Breakthroughs in science and technology are often a result of understanding phenomena and observations. Problems can be presented in the form of a phenomenon or observations and students are required to seek explanations to these observations. In some cases, it could be problems where causes are actually unknown and current explanations lacking.

Science is full of such inquiries as: How does a dragonfly remain stationary in the air? The problem presentation could be accompanied by field trips to watch dragonflies in action. Depending on the age group of the students, the level of the problem and the innovativeness of the teacher, a simple problem like this can stimulate a great deal of learning. Students could take photographs and videos of dragonflies to study their motion. This may sound like a trivial expansion of a natural phenomenon, but scientists have just recently applied successfully the secret of the dragonfly to fighter jet flying. You see, dragonflies are able to dart to and fro at high speeds to target their prey despite having very delicate bodies. Their secret lies in a water sac. Fighter jet pilots executing diving manoeuvres while flying at high speeds experience a tremendous gravitational force, which pulls the pilot's blood downwards from the head to the toes. This often triggers life-threatening tunnel vision and blackout. This force is many times what you would experience on the most challenging drop on a roller coaster. By copying the dragonfly's way of battling gravity, flying suits were designed with liquid-filled channels. The liquid in the suit's web of channels rushes to the pilot's feet as the gravitational force increases, squeezing their legs tightly so that blood stays at the top of the body. This high-speed flying suit thus protects pilots in their daredevil zooming.

Many problems in science can be presented, such as:

  • Why do air bubbles in a tank appear to grow bigger as they rise from the bottom towards the surface?
  • Can we produce a magnetic field without using any iron?
  • If we use a magnifying glass under water, how will its magnifying power be affected?
  • How does a hurricane come about? Can we know when one is coming?

A trigger in a biology or physiology course could be as follows:

It has been claimed that nitric oxide is of great biological importance. You are working as a research assistant, and you have been asked to provide as much accurate information as possible from reported research on how nitric oxide might be produced in the human body and how it affects the various systems and functions of the body.

Apart from scientific and natural phenomena, similar problems could be used for social sciences. For example, a problem such as this may be posed in a psychology course:

We all know that children play. Is playing important for adults too? H.G. Wells played with models and miniatures all his life—they seemed to be significant inspiration for his war-game stories. The physicist Richard Feynman was once quoted as testifying: “Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing—it didn't have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. So I got this attitude—I'm going to play with physics whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.”

Incidentally, Alexander Fleming used to play with bacterial paintings produced by brushing variously pigmented bacteria onto agar plates. The bacteria developed colour as they grew, producing a piece of art. His playing got him into trouble with the scientific community of his time. However, it led to the accidental discovery of penicillium and the life-saving penicillin.

Gaps in Information and Knowledge

We can also present the current state of knowledge or the state of the art in practice as a problem in terms of a gap in understanding.

In medical or biological science, we may want to trigger learning about vaccines:

Prior to the discovery of the smallpox vaccine by Jenner in 1796, every year about 80,000 people reportedly died from smallpox. Today, smallpox has been practically eradicated. In 1963 the vaccine for measles was developed. However, in the 1990s there continued to be some outbreaks of measles. In 2003 an unusual flu-like disease called severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in Guangdong, China. In less than six months, the virus infected about 7,000 people and caused over 600 deaths across some 30 countries. This new form of atypical pneumonia has a fatality rate estimated at about 15 per cent, and there is widespread concern over the success of containing the virus in the countries affected. Can a vaccine be developed quickly? What do we know about how vaccines were developed in the past? How are new vaccines developed and how do we know if they work?

The lack of valid and reliable data and information can also be a problem situation. To teach nutrition in secondary schools, we may use a PBL approach by presenting a problem such as the following:

Eden Chang is a school badminton player. He is 14 and his coach has mentioned to him about his potential to be selected for the national team. Apart from rigorous training, Eden is wondering if nutrition would help increase his chances. One day he walked into a nutrition store in a shopping centre. The salesperson told him that what he needed was more muscle without gaining a lot of weight. He ended up buying a jar of creatine tablets that cost $60 and various other supplements costing $80. Eden learnt subsequently that creatine comprises amino acids and is taken by many athletes. Someone, however, told him that there are side effects and that got him worried. Many athletes are in situations like Eden's. You and your group have been selected as “young scientists” for a project on sports nutrition. Your team has been tasked to come up with a report and presentation to advise school sportsmen and sportswomen on nutrition.

Sometimes habits, routines and practices are taken for granted. However, a junior high school student was concerned and asked: “Does microwave cooking with plastic-wrapped food pose any problem to health?” Such questions can be interesting problems.

Decision-making Problems

In the real world, decision making represents one of the most important forms of challenges. It often involves taking into account rational as well as emotive aspects of reasoning. Issues of policies, public opinions, human rights and ethics are examples that can be used in PBL curricula. Specific issues such as the rights of the minority, the rights of people with disabilities, abortion and euthanasia are often raised in the news. A newspaper cutting on a specific case or incident can be a problem trigger.

Take for example the issue of euthanasia. We can take a newspaper article or use a simulated case scenario such as this:

Ozama's uncle was involved in a truck accident three years ago. He became paralysed from the neck down and recently lapsed into a coma. He is basically kept alive by medical equipment. The medical cost of thousands of dollars each week is putting a heavy strain on the family. Some relatives tell them that it is money thrown down the drain and doctors do not expect him to wake up. The family feels guilty about pulling the plug.

Students in this PBL exercise may want to conduct a survey for the medical authority by inviting people from all walks of life to give their views on euthanasia. They may need to find out what the population thinks and gather facts and information on ethical and moral issues and finally present a case of their own based on their reasons and consensus.

Need for New Design or Invention

Creative problems that lead to a new system design or an invention represent an important category of problems in the knowledge-based economy. Are there new ways of doing things? What are the possible consequences and impacts? Industries and businesses are always looking for new designs, inventions, new combinations, new products, new ways of branding and so on.

In biotechnology, one may pose problem triggers such as the following:

A venture capitalist wants to invest in research on ornamental plants. He is particularly interested in cross-breeding that would produce new flowering plants of multiple forms and colours with characteristics of high rates of flower production, stem resilience, etc.

You are with a team of researchers investigating the composition of the ultimate made-to-order multi-vitamin, multi-mineral pill, which is customized according to individual DNA profiles.

There is nothing special about a pair of running shoes or a loaf of bread. Yet, we know that new brands, new designs and new features of running and sports shoes appear on the market year after year. Problems could be posed on the incorporation of new features: What else can we put into a loaf of bread apart from vitamins, fruits and nuts? It is amazing when we consider the amount of innovation possible in the food industry.

In a computer programming course, a design problem may be given as follows:

You have been asked to design a Web page for a travel company that will allow clients to book hotels, plane tickets, tours and so on.

In a fashion design course, the design problem may have a scenario like this:

An association for children with disabilities has approached you about designing clothes that would be particularly user-friendly for their children with different physical disabilities.

Depending on the discipline and the relevance, a host of challenges pertaining to new designs or inventions are possible:

A handphone manufacturer is interested in the kinds of additional new features that could be put into a handphone.

To move into an inventive culture, education and training should look at all kinds of problems and learn from problem solving, whether they be situations in need of improvement, better ways of doing things, closing information gaps, understanding a new phenomenon, or new designs or inventions. Such learning should span disciplines, businesses and industries .

Establishing Your PBL Goals

PBL is about using problems to drive and motivate learning. A successful PBL programme entails sufficient planning in the selection, design and development of problems. Whether this is the first time you are introducing PBL into your curriculum or thinking about the kinds of problems to use, the first thing to do is to reflect on your purpose and goals of using PBL. There are many innovative ways to use problems as triggers as noted earlier, as well as a wide variety of learning approaches and outcomes that can be associated with a given problem scenario and trigger.

Your goals for using PBL might include content learning in a specific discipline, multidisciplinary learning, and acquisition of problem-solving skills and lifewide learning skills, as illustrated in Figure 6.1.

Learning of content knowledge is of primary importance in many curricula. Suppose the topic of learning is aerobic and anaerobic systems. We may also want students to learn basic problem

identification and problem analysis. In PBL, the idea is to look for an unstructured real-world problem to trigger learning. Figure 6.2 represents the PBL goals in this case.

The following is an example of a problem used by the Faculty of Medicine of Maastricht University to address these objectives:

An eight-year-old boy has been submerged in water for more than 15 minutes. Fortunately, a passerby succeeds in getting him out of the water. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is applied immediately. Everyone is astonished to see that the boy is still alive.

The problem is unstructured but yields curiosity and inquiry. The cognitive engagements lead to learning issues as students inquire with questions such as:

  • How is it possible that the boy is still alive?
  • How is it possible for him to recover completely?
  • Will there be water in his lungs?

Following such brainstorming and inquiry, students are expected to draw up their learning issues and seek the necessary information on their own. In this case, their learning issues may include the following:

  • What is the body's protective mechanism against cold and hypoxia (lack of oxygen)?
  • What is the anaerobic system (when the body is not relying on immediate oxygen supply)?
  • What happens in the shift from aerobic to anaerobic state?
  • Is oxygen needed for energy?

These learning issues should coincide with the content goals and learning objectives of the PBL problem.

Consider the example of the economics problem given in Chapter 3 involving registering and setting up a business. Figure 6.3 illustrates the possible goals of the problem. Apart from acquiring content knowledge, including understanding the purposes and characteristics of sole proprietorships, partnerships, private limited companies and public listed companies, we also want students to take a multidisciplinary perspective where they would learn about setting up a business and apply their writing and communication skills in putting together a business plan and proposal.

Design Features of Problem

Having established the goals of using PBL in your curriculum, the next step is to understand the characteristics of PBL participants, including their profile, prior knowledge, prior experience and their foundation knowledge.

Participants in professional education, for example, often bring with them rich prior experience and knowledge, which can contribute much to the learning process (Tan, 2002b). The nature and complexity of the problem posed will depend very much on the background and profile of the learners. As mentioned earlier, we need to prepare the mindset of students, who are only used to a more didactic mode of

learning. We also have to ascertain that students have the basic and foundational knowledge needed to inquire and to understand the problem. It may be necessary to ensure that they are equipped with the basic vocabulary, axioms, principles and tools of a discipline before plunging them into the problem. Productive inquiry cannot take place in a vacuum, and it is important to consider the appropriate level and type of problem to be used to make the most of the PBL experience.

When selecting or designing a problem, several features of the problem have to be considered. These pertain to the problem characteristics, problem context, learning environment and resources, and problem presentation. Table 6.1 summarizes the issues to be considered relating to the characteristics and nature of the problems to be designed.

Once we have a clear goal of using PBL, we think in terms of various problem triggers as illustrated earlier. Real-world problems can be obtained from industry, research literature, news and reports. Students, however, also need to see the real-world relevance of their training programme (Stepien & Gallagher, 1993). PBL instructors should always be on the lookout for potentially good problems and build a portfolio of relevant problems that they can use from time to time.

The problem selected will of course need to be relevant to the curriculum; this will be discussed in the next chapter. The learning issues should be aligned with the learning objectives of the course. One good way to develop the problem is to visualize what students would be going through when they work on the problem. The problem will also need to be delimited in terms of its scope. Will the problem situation be too difficult for students to understand? What about the level of complexity? Does it involve simultaneous handling of too many issues? Do I need to simplify the problem scenario to make it more manageable for students? To what extent is the problem intended to be interdisciplinary? Do I want students to demonstrate their ability to integrate multiple disciplines in solving the problem? Is this a problem with multiple solutions? Do I expect students to decide on one final solution and defend their choice? Is the nature of the problem such that there is only one solution, given the context and constraints? The PBL exercise may also involve empirical collection of data to verify claims, the construction of models or the prototyping of a design or product.

The context of the problem could be highly ill-structured such that it is not immediately obvious what disciplinary knowledge or information bases might be involved. The following are examples of illstructured problems from the discussion earlier:

Mr Power Eski, 33, a marketing manager, has just arrived at the airport from Hong Kong. He has difficulty breathing and appears to have a fever.

Ms SS (37 years old) and Ms AK (32 years old) are lecturers in an engineering department of a polytechnic … The head of department has just discovered that they have not been talking to each other …

You are with a team of researchers investigating the composition of the ultimate made-to-order multi-vitamin, multi-mineral pill, which is customized according to individual DNA profiles.

Some problems are less ill-structured in that they are less multidisciplinary and more focused on a specific discipline. Nevertheless, they could still be good problems. An example is a problem that we encountered earlier:

It has been claimed that nitric oxide is of great biological importance … you have been asked to provide as much accurate information as possible from reported research on how nitric oxide might be produced in the human body and how it affects the various systems and functions of the body.

The context presented should create a sense of curiosity and mystery as far as possible. Try to choose contexts that would appeal to students. If possible, state in the problem the roles that students are supposed to play. Ownership, challenge and novelty are essential to motivate maximum engagement by students.

In designing and developing problems, we also need to take into consideration how the problem will engage group and individual learning. Does the problem generate a range of learning issues that require collaboration? Do students need to make use of a substantial amount of primary or secondary sources of information? Is it pragmatic to expect students to get the information on their own? Are the sources of information accessible? Do we need to provide possible sources, such as recommended Web-site links and professionals and experts that they can interview? We also need to consider the time required to address the problem given.

There are many innovative ways to present problems. Although most problems are presented in written form, a variety of presentations are possible. These include problem scenarios, case write-ups, video or audio clips, newspaper cuttings, magazine or journal reports, and news and information from the Web.

Table 6.1 Features of problem design
Problem featureIssues to address
  • What is the real-world relevance of the problem?
  • What is the curriculum relevance?
  • What is the level of difficulty?
  • What is the level of complexity?
  • Is it an interdisciplinary problem?
  • Does the problem call for integration of multiple disciplines (or topics)?
  • How open is the problem (in terms of possible solutions)?
  • Does it call for a final product?
  • Is the problem unstructured (ill-structured)?
  • Does it trigger curiosity?
  • Will it motivate ownership?
  • Does it appear challenging?
  • Are there sufficient elements of novelty?
Learning environment and resources
  • How can the problem stimulate collaborative inquiry?
  • What kinds of independent learning can be incorporated?
  • What is the extent of guidance needed for using the learning resources?
  • What kinds of information resources are expected (e.g. library resources, the Internet)?
  • Does the problem require further data collection?
  • Will field work be incorporated?
  • Will information gathering include interviews and experts' views?
  • What else might we need to solve the problem?
  • Do we use a problem scenario?
  • Should it be a short scene or multiple scenes?
  • Does the problem scenario come with hypertext?
  • Do we need a detailed case write-up?
  • Can we use video clips?
  • Can we use audio news?
  • Can we do a role play?
  • Can we simulate a client requirement?
  • Are there relevant newspaper cuttings?
  • What about magazine or journal reports?
  • Are there Web sites that can be used?

News, current affairs and issues reported on the Web, television, radio or the press are useful sources of problems. Scientific articles as well as industrial and business reports are also rich sources.

Suppose in a nursing course we want to cover the content knowledge of the topic homeostasis with reference to the endocrine, nervous, respiratory and renal systems. At the same time, we want to emphasize problem solving in emergency situations. An example could be the problem given in Chapter 5, which is illustrated in Figure 6.4.

We mentioned that further information would be supplied to students when they ask for it in order to train them in problem

Good problem design takes into consideration:

  • the goals of PBL
  • students' profiles
  • problem characteristics: authenticity, curriculum relevance, multiplicity and integration of disciplines
  • the problem context: ill-structuredness, motivation of ownership, challenge and novelty
  • the learning environment and resources
  • problem presentation

identification. The purpose of this case is to get students to ask for the patient's medical history. The “hypertext” represents further information provided as students ask and inquire.

Finally, when you have designed the problem, it is also good to give an interesting caption or title to the problem. In the next chapter, we will discuss the use of problems designed for larger curricula.