Problem-based Learning

The importance of developing problem-solving skills

In plant breeding education, it is not only important to help students understand the content, but  develop problem-solving skills.  This will help students apply what they learned when they enter the workforce.

Adding problem-based learning techniques to your toolkit will allow students to gain content knowledge while developing problem-solving skills.  These techniques help students work together to solve real, complex problems that pertain to the content knowledge.  The component of group work is especially important to help students feel comfortable in a learning community, asking questions, and sharing ideas.  In order for students to be successful with this type of instruction, they must be aware of the information they already know about the problem and what they must know in order to solve the problem.  This can be very difficult for students in the beginning, and it is important that the instructor facilitate the process to help students with this awareness. 

The problems used with this type of instruction should be open-ended and offer a variety of solutions.  They should also be relevant to what students will face as professionals.  This will give students the motivation to work through the problem and find a solution.  When creating a problem it may be beneficial to use the backwards design process.  Use learning objectives and relate them to a current problem in the field.  Strive to create problems to solve that do not have one “right” answer, encourage the learner to ask questions, and contain real-world content.  The problems you create will likely change overtime as students solve them and you and other students provide feedback.  As students continue to solve problems in your course, they will gain the skills and confidence they need to solve problems in the field. 

How to structure your course to enhance Problem Based Learning?

Note that there are many ways to approach PBL- Here are a few suggestions from the Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching (2001): 

  • Brainstorm with students possible issues that are central to the course topics
  • Present the problem to students before providing formal instruction or with minimal instruction on the topic .
  • Provide class time to have groups of students work on the problem.
  • Provide resources to solve the problem.
  • Engage with students to identify any misconceptions or errors in thinking, and nudge them when they are frustration.
  • Have students write up a report on their findings.
  • Add mini-lectures throughout the course to aid students in solving the problem. 
  • Assess students by creating a rubric to determine engagement, resourcefulness, understanding of concepts, innovation in thinking, etc.

What are examples of problems you can integrate into your existing curriculum? How does problem-based learning compare with using Case studies?