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Prolegomena to Problem Writing:
The role of "problems" in problem-based learning is largely to serve as a stimulus or focus for students to direct their learning. Much debate rages over the definition of "objectives". Although such arguments can be useful, it is sometimes more effective to be slightly more pragmatic.
I choose to follow the example of Eliot Eisner and broadly categorise "objectives" or "educational goals" into two broad categories (Instructional and Expressive). The former refers to what we conventionally regard as the "content" of a course -- i.e. the items of information/ key concepts that student must acquire from a particular course. The latter on the other hand provides the student an opportunity to explore issues of specific interest to that particular student. Clearly many courses have both instructional and expressive elements, though as students progress with their learning in any particular area, the proportion of expressive to instructional elements should be greater. It would be particularly depressing if senior level or graduate courses were purely instructional. In a PBL course, problems serve as a focus for discussion.
Instructional objectives are the temptations of the devil and difficult to resist. Faculty often lay these on so thick that the poor student who gets buried beneath the weight of the Professor's erudition, surfaces periodically only to sink again. I prefer to look at the content of a course from a different perspective. I ask myself "Would I be embarrassed if a student who has completed my course does not even know this?" This permits me to frame a list of items that form the basis of a non-embarrassing curriculum and provides scope for the provision of more expressive goals.
In writing problems for ANY course it is pertinent to ask the following questions:
A) What are the overall goals of the programme?
B) What are the specific instructional goals of this particular course?
C) At what stage in their learning do students take this particular course?
The third question is particularly important, since the nature of the problems written and consequently the expectations would to some extent depend on the level of the sophistication of the students and their background in the area covered.
It is difficult to stipulate what is a good problem for such purposes. It may be useful to ask questions such as:
How long should this problem be?
How can I ensure that students do not miss key concepts?
How can I make this problem interesting, challenging?
How much data do I provide?
How "open-ended" should this problem be?
Before I begin to write any problem, I set down a few specific content elements that must be covered. To ensure that these cannot be avoided, I include key words, phrases in either the problem or the data provided. I then try to dress up the problem so that students can explore other issues if they so choose. I try to avoid inordinately lengthy problems. However, where a case evolves, a problem can be written in stages. Even then it may be better to keep individual sections brief. The open-endedness of any problem depends on the overall objectives of the course and the degree of sophistication of the students.
In the courses that I teach, I try to strike a fine balance between the requirements of the particular course and my own whimsy. In the following pages, I have included a set of problems that I have written for several different courses. In each case, I give the background of the course, the level of the students and the particular instructional objectives. In addition, I add brief comments about each of the problems. Comparison of the problems can give a flavour of the different styles that can be adopted.