Instructional design/Generate PBL Problems/2.1 Ill-structured problems

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Ill-structured Problems[edit]


What kind of problems can enhance students’ critical thinking skills? Compared to well-structured questions (have certain number of solutions and correct answers), ill-structured questions can better serve this mission. Ill-structured problems are complex and ill-defined. There are many ways to solve an ill-structured problem, and you cannot simply identify a “best answer” among many possible answers.


To bring up an ill-structured problem, ask how to effectively clean up the RiverX in X (a badly polluted area), instead of which is the most polluted river in X? The latter question is a well-structured problem, which only has one correct answer, and students can easily get the answer from a quick Google search. On the contrary, how to effectively clean up the RiverX in X (a badly polluted area) is ill-structured. To answer the question, students may need to collect water samples from that river, bring them into labs to test contaminants, interview people, search information online or in the library, and do other things till they can suggest possible solutions. Examples of Ill-structured problems about water pollution can also be (questions in the parenthesis are corresponding well-structured problems):

  1. People in a small fishing village are recently catching a highly contagious digestive system disease. Can you identify the exact causes of
  2. A leather factory located at the upstream of a river badly threatens the lives of creatures in and alongside the river. But this factory is the back bone of the economy in that area. Is there any way that the area can keep this factory, but control its pollution? (Instead of asking “what are the chemical pollutants that a leather factory always produces?”)

You may have noticed that well-structured questions usually ask about facts (“what”, “when”, “where” and “who”), which mainly relies on the memorization of information. Whereas, ill-structure questions ask about reasons and solutions (“why” and “how”), which requires analysis, reasoning, and making decisions based on acquired knowledge and information. Put it in a sentence: solving ill-structured questions make students to be critical thinkers.


1 Which understanding about ill-structured problems is INCORRECT?

Ill-structured problems are more complex and difficult, compared to well-structured problems.
An ill-structured problem usually has many possible solutions.
There is always only one correct way to solve an ill-structured problem.
Problems used in PBL should be ill-structure to help students build critical thinking skills.

2 Dr. Bowman is a psychology professor. He is enthusiastic about applying PBL into his Human Development class. Here are several questions he prepared for teaching the attachment theory (a psychological theory describing the strong emotional attachment infants build with their caregivers). As an instructional designer in the same university, can you help Dr. Bowman choose the appropriate question for PBL?

What is attachment?
How does attachment differ from the concept of “bonding?”
What are the three major categories of attachment, and what kind of parenting is theorized to lead to each?
How does attachment differ across cultures, and why?

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