Designing Problems for Web–enhanced Problem–based Learning

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Designing Problems for Web–enhanced Problem–based Learning

Key Characteristics of Good PBL Problems
Context for PBL Problem Development
Roles of Team Developers in Designing Problems
Six Steps in Creating a PBL Problem
Formative Evaluation of the Developed Problems

Hae-Deok Song
Barbara L. Grabowski


Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered instructional strategy to promote active learning through investigating authentic problems. It is characterized by the use of real-world ill-structured problems—problems that are complex and may have multiple solutions—and requires learners to acquire critical knowledge, self-directed learning strategies, and team participation skills in the problem resolution process (Hmelo & Lin, 2000; Stepien & Pyke, 1997). Building a successful PBL unit begins with finding a situation or constructing a scenario that will present an ill-structured problem for students to solve. Thus, selecting and crafting appropriate problems and materials is crucial if students are to be encouraged to engage deeply in the exploration of the concepts being covered in PBL lessons (Duch, 2001). As more and a greater variety of learning resources become available for e-learning environments, the challenge of designing PBL problems that are good becomes greater. Despite the importance of this issue, guidelines on designing problems for PBL lessons are lacking. Identifying the essential steps in writing PBL problems that will maximize learning can help educators build successful PBL lessons. To address this need, we will first analyze the characteristics of good PBL problems. Next, based on these characteristics, we will identify six key steps in creating effective web-enhanced PBL problems.

Key Characteristics of Good PBL Problems

Developing PBL problems can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes frustrating, as good examples are not typically found in traditional texts (Duch, 2001). The lack of problems may deter educators from integrating PBL into their teaching. In order to develop PBL problems that will be useful to teachers, it is important that we first identify the key elements that make PBL problems good. Research on PBL suggests that four elements are particularly important (Delisle, 1997; Glasgow, 1997; Harbeck & Sherman, 1999).

First, good PBL problems are ill-structured in nature. Usually, students are given well-structured problems. Since well-structured problems have low complexity and their solution is straightforward, they provide a limited context with little opportunity for students to integrate the new information with previous learning. Students who are used to working with well-structured problem scenarios are likely to regurgitate answers instead of developing processes. Ill-structured tasks, on the other hand, involve undefined problems with incomplete information that present uncertainty and have multiple solutions, and their resolution requires the application of concepts, rules, and principles (Jonassen, 1997). As an ill-structured problem involves more than one path to a solution, students need to explore the situation, identify and learn about missing background information, build hypotheses that initiate inquiry into the numerous aspects of the problem, analyze their own learning, and develop and defend their solutions.

Second, good problems should be curriculum based. Problems should promote the acquisition of skills and knowledge required by curriculum standards. Therefore, the relevance of the selected problems to the curriculum should be examined. The more the problems are related to the subjects being studied, the more knowledge and skills students are likely to acquire during the lessons. Well-designed problems can also promote interdisciplinary inquiry. Thus, successful PBL lessons should include integrated and interdisciplinary problems that help students make connections between disciplines (Glasgow, 1997).

Third, good problems should be developmentally appropriate and grounded in student experience (Harbeck & Sherman, 1999). Given their complexity, ill-structured problems that are created without considering students’ development levels could hinder, as a result of cognitive overload, rather than support the construction of meaningful knowledge (Song et al., 2006).

Finally, good problems should encourage the exploration of diverse learning resources. In PBL, students deal with complex tasks by formulating questions, locating resources, and solving problems. Thus, the learning resources should be helpful to students in problem solving. Problem scenarios should be structured to get students to explore diverse learning resources, and the resources needed to solve the problem should not be predetermined but, rather, open so that students can generate various possibilities for the solutions.

These four elements provide valuable clues to creating good PBL problems. Determining the procedure for incorporating these elements into the problem development process should make this process less time-consuming, challenging, and frustrating for educators, instructional designers, and curriculum developers.

Context for PBL Problem Development

In order to determine the ideal context for PBL problem development, we developed a prototype web-enhanced PBL tutorial to look at the key steps involved in developing good PBL problems. The tutorial is part of a web-enhanced PBL program called KaAMS (Kids as Airborne Mission Scientists, KaAMS, funded by the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Learning Technologies Project, was designed to help teachers conduct lessons that would inspire middle school kids to learn science, mathematics, technology, and geography by allowing them to participate as scientists in tasks involving bursts of online and offline interactive activities and culminating in an analysis of actual data from NASA’s airborne missions.

The PBL lesson plans in KaAMS were developed starting with a problem situation arising from an environmental phenomenon such as coral reef destruction. This particular tutorial consisted of 12 lesson plans along with two pathways investigating a coral reef problem: an aeronautics science path and a remote-sensing science path. The PBL tutorial guided students through six modified learning phases adapted from a traditional PBL design framework (Barrows, 1986): (1) identifying the problem scenario, (2) proposing ideas to explore the problem, (3) searching for key information to support the planned exploration, (4) collecting data, (5) analyzing data, and (6) going public with solutions.

Roles of Team Developers in Designing Problems

The problems for KaAMS were developed by interdisciplinary teams consisting of scientists, instructional designers, web developers, assessment experts, and middle school subject matter experts, both in aeronautics and remote sensing. Among these members, the key figures in the development of problem scenarios were subject matter experts, instructional designers, and educators. One important consideration in the pre-planning phase was establishing and coordinating the roles of team members. Table 4.1 lists the specific roles of these members. An educator developing a problem might think of himself or herself in each of these roles in order to develop a better problem.

Although the team members worked collaboratively, their main responsibilities differed somewhat. They worked collaboratively to develop the main question in the problem situation by assessing the central idea, which was formed around the goals of the PBL lessons.

Table 4.1 The roles of subject matter experts, instructional designers, and educators in designing problems
TaskPrimary responsibility of
Determine problem: create an exact statementSME
Describe information relevant to the problem that you already have: What is known about the problem scenario?SME
Develop questions that need to be answered in order to solve the problem: What is unknown about the problem scenario?SME, ID/E
Identify resources needed for background information and learning activities SME
Develop a task list and divide tasks among student group membersID/E
Gather information related to assigned tasksSME, ID/E
Integrate new information into the context of the problem and the lesson planID/E
Generate possible solutions to the problem scenario based on all the known informationSME
Develop student assessment criteria, responses, and expectationsID/E
Revise problem scenario as neededID/E
E = educator,
ID = instructional designer, SME = subject matter expert.

Since the subject matter experts had expertise in the selected topics, such as coral reefs, remote sensing, and aeronautics, their main responsibilities included determining the problem content based on the goals of the lessons, describing information known about the problem situation, identifying learning resources needed for background information and learning activities, and generating possible solutions to the problem based on the known information. The instructional designers and educators, on the other hand, were asked to design content according to the format of PBL problems. While the role of the instructional designers centered on planning learning activities for PBL lessons, that of the educators focused on reviewing the proposed problems in terms of curriculum standards. The main responsibilities of both instructional designers and educators included developing task lists, dividing tasks among student group members, integrating new information into the context of the problem and the lesson plan, developing assessment criteria for evaluating student achievements, and revising the problem scenario as needed.

Six Steps in Creating a PBL Problem

Based on an extensive literature review and development meetings with the team members, we identified six essential steps in creating problem scenarios (Delisle, 1997; Duch, 2001; Glasgow, 1997; Stepien & Pyke, 1997). The main objectives and processes for each step are shown in Table 4.2.

Step 1. Identify the Main Problem

The first process, identifying the main problem, consists of determining the central idea that provides background for the lessons. The central idea can be identified by examining the needs and goals of the PBL lessons. The main purpose of the KaAMS PBL lessons was to gain an understanding of aeronautics and remote sensing by exploring related NASA web resources. Once this was determined, the problem situations that best represented the central idea were identified. These problem situations were to be ill-structured in nature in order to encourage students to explore different paths to the solutions. After an extensive examination of various resources, we chose a controversial problem concerning the coral reef reserve policy in Hawaii, as this problem provided an authentic vehicle for learning about aeronautics and remote sensing. The problem was ill-structured, since many perspectives must be considered in the search for solutions. To draft focusing questions, we reviewed various sources, including science investigation books and newspaper articles concerning coral reefs, global coral reef monitoring networks, published maps and government reports on reef health, time series of remote-sensing images, and master’s theses on coral reefs. Our subject matter experts first gathered information relevant to the central idea and problem situation, and the information collected was then reviewed by the instructional designers and educators to determine the main focusing question. The focusing question that was decided upon for this

Table 4.2 Problem scenario development checklist
1Identify the main problem
  • Determine the central idea
  • Think of appropriate problem situations
  • Review relevant sources of information
  • Draft a focusing question
2Look for subordinate problems
  • Identify subordinate problems through brainstorming
  • Develop a thorough description of each subordinate problem
3Decide learners? roles and
  • Describe the roles that learners will play in investigating the problem
  • Determine authentic activities that learners will participate in to explore the problem situation
4Draft the problem scenario
  • Decide whether the problem scenario is to be authentic or simulated
  • Identify key concepts, skills, and processes to be learned
  • Determine the presentation format of the problem
5Identify learning resources
  • Describe the resources available or required for investigating the problem situation
6Review and revise the problem scenario
  • Critically review the appropriateness and completeness of the problem scenario

particular problem situation was: Which activities (if any) should be restricted around the coral reefs of Kailua Bay to ensure their lasting protection?

Step 2. Look for Subordinate Problems

Subordinate problems were explored to help students better understand the problem situation. Given the complexity of illstructured problems, it is important to provide contextual information to make the problem situation more developmentally appropriate and to aid students in developing problem-solving skills. Subordinate problems related to the overall problem were generated through brainstorming. One effective way to brainstorm is to use 5W-1H questions, or why, what, where, who, when, and how questions. Since the focus of the PBL lesson was to help students understand the concepts of aeronautics and remote sensing within the context of the coral reef problem, the subordinate problems were related to these three main areas of investigation: the coral reefs in Hawaii, aeronautics, and remote sensing. The following were the key questions raised for investigating the subordinate problems:

  • Why do we need to study the coral reef problem?
    • Why are coral reefs important to us?
    • Why is the government interested in this problem and what is the government’s role?
  • What are we studying?
    • What is a coral reef?
    • How can we protect coral reefs?
    • What is a healthy coral reef?
    • What do I need to know about aeronautics?
  • Where are the coral reefs?
    • Where is Kailua Bay?
  • Who studies the coral reef problem?
    • Who are airborne mission scientists and what do they do?
  • When can we study the coral reef problem?
    • When and to where do I fly to investigate the coral reefs?
  • How do I study the problem?
    • How can we protect the coral reef?
    • What are the tools and methods needed to study the coral reef problem?
    • How do I participate in a live mission?
    • How do I analyze the data/images?
    • What conclusions should I draw and how do I present my results?

To thoroughly develop the subordinate problems, we mapped the relationships between them. By mapping, we were able to examine the connections and gaps between the problems. Figure 4.1 presents a map of the coral reef problem, which shows that subordinate problems and their corresponding PBL lessons were identified by raising questions on the main problem.

Step 3. Decide Learners’ Roles and Learning Activities

The greater the students’ involvement in the problem situation, the greater the effort they will put into solving it. Given that ill-structured problems consist of vaguely defined situations with an element of uncertainty, it is important to help students connect ill-defined tasks to relevant concepts in their everyday lives. If learners fail to see such an anchor, the lesson will not achieve the desired effect. Providing roles creates an anchor for students to contextualize the problem situation and to tackle specific tasks. For example, to investigate the problem, the students in our project were asked to assume the role of airborne mission scientists, as well as to play the roles of stakeholders who have an interest in this problem, such as fishers, coastal developers, ocean tourists, and marine ecologists.

Another part of this step is to determine authentic activities in which learners will participate to explore the problem situation. For instance, students were expected to engage in a variety of authentic activities to explore the problems in the KaAMS PBL lessons, including the following:

  • Literature search to learn about coral reefs
  • Collecting data from the Web
  • Collecting, compiling, and analyzing images
  • Making inferences from data patterns
  • Writing reports and giving oral presentations

Step 4. Draft the Problem Scenario

A well-designed problem captures students’ interest by setting an intriguing context by which students can be intrinsically motivated. Once the main and subordinate problems and learners’ roles and activities have been identified, the next step is to draft a problem scenario. The first consideration here is whether the scenario is to be authentic or simulated. An authentic real-world situation puts students in the role of problem solvers dealing with an actual unresolved problem. A simulated scenario, on the other hand, puts students in the role of problem solvers in a mock situation based upon a contemporary or historical problem. In the simulated scenario, the situation is simulated rather than actual, although it is usually constructed from a real case. In our KaAMS PBL lessons, we simulated a controversial problem related to the coral reef reserve policy.

When drafting a problem scenario, it is important to identify key concepts, skills, and processes to be learned during the lessons. What knowledge do students need to have to address issues raised by the problem scenario? What skills do students need to develop to resolve the issues? What processes are needed to solve the problem? These questions are essential because they guide the development of the core content for PBL lesson plans. The following are the concepts, skills, and processes we identified during this step:

  • Concepts to understand or apply to new situations: coral reef ecosystem, aeronautics, remote sensing
  • Skills to master: image processing, map reading, web searching, graphing, writing
  • Processes to understand or apply to new situations: decision-making process to resolve the coral reef reserve policy issue, involving searching for information, developing solutions, and monitoring the implementation of solutions

Another consideration in drafting a problem scenario is the format in which the problem will be presented. Problems can be presented in various formats, such as documents, video clips, or dramas. We provided students with a problem presented in a letter, which was written to appear authentic. The following was the mission request letter developed for our study:

Dear Airborne Mission Scientist

Coral reefs provide invaluable resources to both human and marine life. However, coral reefs are currently in serious danger—due to both natural and man-made causes. In December 2000, President Clinton signed the Executive Order (EO) for establishing the reserve of the coral reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands area. It recognizes the importance of conserving coral reef ecosystems and establishes the Coral Reef Task Force to take steps to protect, manage, research, and restore such ecosystems. The Coral Reef Task Force recommended that another EO be established for preserving the coral reefs of Kailua Bay, located off the main Hawaiian island of Ohau. The recommendation from the task force led to intense debate regarding the coral reef reserve policy. Some concerned groups consider it overly restrictive and therefore detrimental to the fishing industry, coastal development, and tourism in Hawaii. Other groups worry that the review of the EO will result in the weakening of the reserve. A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) stated that current data about the coral reefs in Kailua Bay are not well documented. For this reason, the CRS has tried to collect a variety of information to help us make an appropriate recommendation of restrictions (if any) that should be applied to activities around the coral reefs of Kailua Bay to ensure their lasting protection. We would like to request your help to provide us with professional knowledge about coral reefs, remote sensing, and aeronautics in order that we can evaluate the state of Kailua’s coral reefs based on available airborne remote-sensing data. For this purpose, you and your team are requested to prepare a report or presentation with recommendations, predictions, inferences, or resolutions made from different perspectives on the problem.

Thank you for your time and cooperation in this matter. I look forward to receiving your report after you complete the study and data analysis.

Fredrick A. Daniel, Director
The Congressional Research Service

Step 5. Identify Learning Resources

Learning resources can be identified by defining the data required for solving a problem. One effective way is to determine the main learning activities in which students will be engaged during the problem-solving process. The following is a list of learning activities, with relevant learning resources, identified during our study:

  • Reading documents (Executive Order, Coral Reef Task Force reports, Congressional Research Service reports)
  • Exploring web resources (NASA web resources on aeronautics, remote sensing, coral reefs, and ecosystems)
  • Analyzing data (remote-sensing images)
  • Making quantitative measurements of reef health parameters (coral reef images)

To facilitate the exploration of web resources, we provided both teachers and students with links to relevant resources. As shown in Figure 4.2, students were expected to explore basic fact sheets on coral reefs, stakeholders’ perspectives on the coral reef reserve policy (including those of a coastal developer, a commercial fisher, and an ocean tourist), and related institutions’ web resources, such as those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Step 6. Review and Revise the Problem Scenario

Once a problem scenario has been drafted, it should be reviewed again by instructional designers, subject matter experts, and educators or teachers to ensure that it is appropriate and complete. To review the problem scenario in our project, we asked ourselves three main questions: (1) Is there a further problem that the students can work on, or are there unanswered questions even after the students have explored the problem? (2) Is the problem situation a good way for learners to approach the problem? (3) Is the problem appropriate for the intended learners?

Formative Evaluation of the Developed Problems

It was assumed that the problem created through these key design steps would improve students’ problem-solving skills during PBL. The KaAMS PBL lessons were implemented at two middle schools located in a northeastern U.S. state. Responses from teachers indicated that the provision of roles was effective in facilitating students’ problem solving, as one teacher wrote:

In KaAMS problem, kids were asked to work as an airborne mission scientist. It helped students to focus on engaging in scientific problem solving process, working in groups, and letting them ask questions, and looking for web resources for solving the problem situations.

The developed problem was ill-structured in nature and thus needed to be explored from various perspectives. To provide more contextual information for the problem, we asked students to explore various stakeholders’ perspectives with role-playing activities in the first lesson plan. Participating teachers reported that these role assignments allowed students to investigate the problem from various perspectives by letting them explore topics of interest to them. One teacher explained:

I thought it was kind of neat because kids had different roles that they had to play even though they didn’t agree with their roles. They knew they were able to identify what their topics were and to collect related facts in order to solve the identified learning topics.

More specifically, role assignments based on the problem situation helped students focus on understanding and learning about the topics. For instance, one teacher noted:

My kids loved role plays in expert groups. For instance, a group of students got together to identify what a coastal developer was. Students in the coastal developer group brainstormed their roles by listing what the developers do, explored related web resources such as U.S. Coral Reef Task Force Fact sheet web site, and recorded their responses to the questions on the activity sheet. They really enjoyed their roles and it seemed that they had a big question to answer from their perspectives.

With regard to the use of learning resources, classroom observation showed that students actively consulted NASA web resources in preparing a report evaluating the state of coral reefs off Hawaii. The problem scenario designed to facilitate the exploration of various learning resources probably helped them become involved in their problem-solving tasks. Overall, students in the participating classes seemed to have been very active in exploring web and other resources to help them understand the problem and develop solutions.


Research on PBL suggests that successful PBL tutorials begin with a good problem that gets students to engage in deeper learning. However, designing a good PBL problem is challenging, as there is a lack of information on how best to go about it. It requires an understanding of the characteristics of such problems. Therefore, we investigated the characteristics of good PBL problems and identified key problem development steps by reflecting on our experience in the development of our own web-enhanced PBL program, KaAMS.

Good PBL problems should be ill-structured, curriculum based, as well as developmentally appropriate and should encourage learners to explore a variety of resources. Establishing and coordinating the roles of team members involved in the problem development process is important in developing good PBL scenarios.

Our experience shows that the design of problems for web-enhanced PBL should consider the following elements. First, it should consider the key elements of good PBL problems. Second, it should include collaborative efforts between team members. Third, it should follow a systematic and iterative process consisting of identifying the main and subordinate problems, deciding on learners’ roles and learning activities, identifying learning resources, drafting the problem scenario, and reviewing and revising the problem scenario. These suggestions also provide us with a valuable framework for the design of PBL problems for e-learning environments. Future studies should refine and test these steps and determine whether other specific steps are also important in designing PBL problems.


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Designing Problems for Web–enhanced Problem–based Learning

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