A Problem-Based Learning Approach to Teaching Introductory Soil Science

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At most land-grant universities in the USA, Introduction to Soil Science is traditionally taught using a combination of lecture and laboratory formats. To promote engagement, improve comprehension, and enhance retention of content by students, we developed a problem-based learning (PBL) introductory soil science course. Students work in groups to solve five real-life problems during the semester for approximately five class periods each. Every problem is contained within a study unit that has learning objectives, relevant resources, as well as a description of the problem. As students work through problems, they go through a PBL cycle of: (i) understanding the question, (ii) identifying what they know and do not know, (iii) finding the information they need, (iv) sharing new information, and (v) identifying new questions. Each group produces a synthesis paper describing their approach and solution to the problem. Tests are based on the learning objectives and students can recapture points by explaining wrong answers. They can also revise synthesis papers. Most students reported improvement in verbal and written communication skills, ability to interact in groups, and problem solving skills. They identified writing and revising synthesis papers, and preparing for, taking, and revising exams as very helpful in learning course content. More than three quarters of students indicated a positive response to the PBL format for Introduction to Soil Science. Exam scores for students taught using PBL were 1 to 8 percentage points higher than those taught earlier by the same instructor using traditional methods.