Problems encountered in life range from well- to ill-structured. Well-structured problems require the application of a limited number of concepts or information, and the goal or path toward the solution is clear. These types of problems are often found in textbooks in which students are required to replace equation variables with values from the problem to get the correct solution. Ill-structured problems have elements that are missing or not defined. The problem is situated in a specific context, but the path toward the solution is unclear. There may be multiple solutions that could satisfy the problem. Ill-structured problems are more common than well-defined problems (Jonassen, 1997).
Jonassen (2000) argues that students are inadequately prepared to solve ill-structured problems because they rarely are required to do so during their education or training. Recognizing the need for students to develop competencies in problem-solving, current trends in pedagogy emphasize student-centered learning and increasingly involve problem-based learning (Jonassen, 2000). Recently, many medical schools have modified their curricula to include, or to be entirely based in, problem-based learning (PBL) (Jolliffe et al., 2005). Practitioners of medicine must recognize patterns and traits of a disease without all the related information, an example of an ill-structured problem. Similarly, horticulture professionals must often solve ill-structured problems as part of the landscape management process. Initially students struggle with ill-structured problems (Chin and Chia, 2006) but gain confidence in their ability to solve them and an appreciation for the nature of the problems as they acquire more experience (Akinoğlu and Tandoğan, 2007). Concept understanding and academic achievement are improved through the use of PBL (Akinoğlu and Tandoğan, 2007).
Case studies provide valuable PBL experiences for students, especially when hands-on experiences are not feasible. Colleagues in the workplace share their experiences and what they have learned by telling stories to each other. These stories are like those used to develop case studies and encourage students to reflect on, interpret, and share information as they solve problems (Jonassen and Hernandez-Serrano, 2002). Problem-based learning experiences promote development of higher-order thinking skills, like those identified in Bloom's taxonomy (Jonassen, 1997; VanDerZanden, 2005). Unfortunately, these types of real world-based, ill-structured problems require substantial time investments to create and assess learning. They also present class scheduling difficulties because students work through problems at different rates (Akinoğlu and Tandoğan, 2007; Chin and Chia, 2006).
The combination of case-based problem-solving and computer-based instruction has the potential to meet educational goals and limit financial and time restrictions that had previously prevented instructors from including these techniques in their classrooms. Unfortunately, current computer packages and online course management systems do not support pedagogy required in PBL. Consequently, existing software must be supplemented or new software must be developed to support PBL (Jonassen, 2002).
The Problem-solving Learning Portal (PSLP) online environment was developed by faculty at Iowa State University in the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering and the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (Ryan et al., 2004). The environment includes a database with resource documents, an Internet interface, and instructor-provided questions to promote higher-order problem-solving among students. The PSLP environment can be customized to scaffold students thinking through the problem-solving process with periodic check-in points where the instructor can review the students' work. Automatically populating some fields with previously submitted student work streamlined the whole process for students. The PSLP environment also includes a function for students to share documents back and forth as they work through the problems. Currently, instructors in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, physics, and curriculum and instruction use this online tool in several courses. The PSLP environment is flexible enough to accommodate well- and ill-structured problems. A pilot of the system in a large physics course proved successful, inspiring further research into other subjects that could benefit from using the tool. One of the additional subject areas was horticulture.
The objectives of this study were to 1) learn how junior- and senior-level horticulture students perceive their problem-solving skills when presented with ill-structured problems; and 2) to evaluate the online PSLP environment for use in solving an ill-structured horticulture case study online.
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