Problem-Based What? A Case Study on the Learning Outcomes of PBL

Article excerpt

The spring semester of the student teaching internship has come to a close and we welcome a new class of professionals into the folds of teaching agriculture. As I reflect on the lessons I have observed over the past years from student teaching interns, and even experienced teachers, I have come to the conclusion that variability in instruction continues to be an area of needed improvement in agricultural education. According to Rosenshine & Furst (1971), Clarity, Organization, Enthusiasm, Task-oriented behavior, Provision of opportunities for students to learn criterion material, and Variability were the most promising teacher behaviors associated with student learning. As a teacher educator, I try to emphasize the importance of these characteristics to my agricultural education students. And to their credit, they do a very good job of recognizing opportunities to incorporate the first five characteristics into the learning process, but continue to struggle with variability. Most often I see the use of technology, exciting games, or group activities as a way to vary instruction. However, it has become predictable and sometime repetitive to see such instructional strategies used. Unfortunately, as these effective practices become standard, we lose variability.

Why Variability?

Why is variability so important in instruction? Well according to the Principles of Learning and Teaching (Newcomb, McCracken, Warmbrod, & Wittington, 2004), students must be motivated to learn. Instructors must take into account their students' interests, desires, abilities, and learning styles. Just as our students vary, so should the instruction used to teach them. Variability does not mean a departure from lecture, but the use of various strategies and resources to disseminate information. One such strategy that has had critical acclaim in other disciplines, such as medicine, but has yet to gain popularity and widespread use in agricultural education is problembased learning (PBL). I believe that PBL is a very effective instructional strategy and would provide variability if added to a teacher's repertoire. To this end, this article will discuss a case study on the learning outcomes of PBL in an agriculture class.

The Case

A group of 110 freshmen from the Chicago High School for Ag Sciences was selected to participate in a case study to determine the learning outcomes of PBL. The group was selected because they possessed two unique characteristics that were desirable for this study. First, the students are selected from all over the city from various social, ethnic and educational backgrounds. Second, Sheila Fowler, the instructor who would teach the students, had past experience with facilitating PBL. Therefore, the group gave us an opportunity to study a large group of diverse students being instructed by one instructor in their natural learning environment. The group was randomly assigned to one of four sections of a course on agricultural leadership. Each group was assigned an instructional strategy of either PBL or teacherguided learning (TGL) for five instructional units on leadership theory. Leadership development content was chosen as the unit of instruction because it is intercurricular, socially relevant, and would not be a departure from the course curriculum. The TGL group, which totaled 56 students, was taught by the teacher using computer generated presentations and application activities. The remaining 54 students who made up the PBL group were given a case study, reference materials and questions to guide their individual research. Each member of the group was given one of the five topics to research and teach to the rest of their group. Finally after all topics were taught, they were asked as a group to provide a recommendation for a solution to the problem presented in the case study using the concepts they had learned. At the conclusion of the 10-days of instruction, students in the PBL group were asked to reflect on their learning experience. …