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Changing student learning focus in natural resource management education - problems (and some solutions) with using problem based learning

Lisa Lobry de Bruyn
Julian Prior

School of Rural Science and Natural Resources
University of New England
To produce competent students who can support the rapid changes occurring in natural resource management you need to get them to do more than listen: students must read, write, discuss, analyse, synthesise, evaluate, solve problems and work together. There is a growing need to include other strategies and skills development in classroom teaching. Both authors have attempted to use problem based learning (PBL) to strengthen and develop student competencies in the areas of information literacy, communication and solving "real-world" problems. Our teaching approach is to integrate knowledge acquisition and teaching strategies to actively engage students in the learning process. The authors present class activities and student and lecturer evaluations of PBL in two units: Land Evaluation and Land Degradation (Lobry de Bruyn), and Rural Extension Science (Prior).

The use of PBL has identified some generic learning issues in a natural resource management context and they include:

To develop a successful PBL teaching framework requires frequent monitoring of student learning progress and perceptions, and a considerable degree of responsiveness on the part of the teacher. In conclusion PBL can provide effective strategies for strengthening and developing student competencies in a number of desired learning areas.

PBL within a Natural Resource Management Context

The following definition of Problem Based Learning (PBL) was adopted because it best suits our understanding and application of PBL within a natural resource management context:
Problem Based Learning is a strategy for encouraging critical thinking and problem solving skills along with content knowledge through the use of real world situations, or problems (Littlejohn 1998).
There are also several characteristics of PBL that appealed to our teaching philosophy and make PBL distinctive from subject-based teaching. The characteristics (Table 1) can be summarised as follows (Boud and Feletti 1997):
Table 1: Comparison of subject-based and problem-based learning paradigms
(modified from source:

Subject-based learning paradigmProblem-based learning paradigm
Lecturer assumes the role of expert or formal authority.Lecturer role is as a facilitator, guide, co-learner, mentor, coach, or professional consultant.
Lecturers work in isolation.Lecturers work in teams with one another and staff outside discipline.
Lecturers transmit information to the students.Students take responsibility for learning and create partnerships between student and teacher.*
Lecturers organise content into lectures based on context of discipline.Lecturers design course based on "ill-structured" problem empower students, and select concepts that will allow students to transfer knowledge.
Lecturers enhance student motivation by providing real life problems and by understanding students' problems.
Students are viewed as "empty vessels" or passive receivers of information.Lecturers seek to encourage student initiative, empower students, and select concepts that will allow students to transfer knowledge.
Students work in isolation.Students interact with lecturer/s to provide immediate feedback about performance for improvement.
Students absorb, transcribe, memorise, and repeat information for content specific tasks such as quizzes and exams.Lecturers design course based on "ill-structured" problems that provide a role for the student in learning.
Learning is individualistic and competitive.Students experience learning in a collaborative and supportive environment.
Students seek "right answer" to achieve success on a test.Lecturers discourage only one "right answer" but help students learn to frame questions, formulate problems, explore alternatives, and make effective decisions.
Performance measured on content specific tasks.Students identify, analyse, and resolve problems using knowledge from previous experiences and courses, rather than simply recalling it.
Grading is summative, and the instructor is the only evaluator.Students evaluate their own contributions as well as other members and the entire group.
Lecture based on one-way communication; information is conveyed to groups of students.Students work in groups to solve problems.
Students acquire and apply knowledge in a variety of contexts.
Students find resources, and faculty guide students to information and resources.
Students seek useful and relevant knowledge to be able to apply toward job skills and employment.
* Cambridge, B. L. (1996). The paradigm shifts: Examining quality of teaching through assessment of student learning. Innovative Higher Education, 20(4), 287-297.

This paper is dealing with the experiences and lessons learnt by two lecturers teaching in two units in the discipline of natural resource management for three different degree programs (Rural Science, Natural Resources and Urban Regional Planning). The two units in question are Rural Extension Science (AGEX 310/510, Julian Prior), and Land Evaluation and Land Degradation (EM 311/511, Lisa Lobry de Bruyn). Both units are taught internally and externally. Problem Based Learning (PBL) was applied in the Classroom for Land Evaluation and Land Degradation, while Rural Extension Science used PBL as a Field-based approach in the form of a professional consultancy with an industry client. The following outline of paper summarises the topics covered:

Reasons for using PBL in Natural Resource Management

There are several reasons for using PBL in natural resource management education. They are to: practice and develop group skills, information literacy (students ability to access, read, synthesise and interpret information), improve alignment of content, class activities and assessment tasks, improve and provide for student motivation and finally to acknowledge prior learning and encourage "intellectual prospecting".

Many undergraduate students on completion of their degree will find work in land management agencies either at local, state or federal level, and will often find themselves working in teams with disparate backgrounds and experiences in problem solving. Graduates must function effectively as a group member, as well as achieve progress within the project upon which they will be working. Thus they must understand how to work as part of a team, delegate tasks, make joint decisions and allocate resources. Hence PBL involves students in learning about team work and implementing a range of tasks to achieve an outcome (eg of tasks are interpersonal skills, time management, report writing, communication and active listening).

An important unit learning goal was to allow students to develop skills in problem identification, and PBL was considered a suitable approach for developing such a skill. In the real world graduates will be confronted by not one, but several, land degradation problems. They will need to be able to separate the various strands that have led to their development so they can advise clients on appropriate forms of remediation or preventative action. The provision of real-life examples in the classroom and field allow students to gain experience in interpreting and identifying the true cause of the problem. Using PBL was also an approach for promoting the development and practise of learning skills such as acquiring knowledge and critically evaluating its worth, relevancy and currency rather than emphasising the recollection and regurgitation of "facts". The series of PBL exercises in Land Degradation and Land Evaluation relies on individual students developing an argument and being able to justify it based on various forms of evidence, after having worked in groups discussing the issues. This approach gives students a sequence of skill and knowledge development (description to explaining, synthesis and evaluation) (Bloom Taxonomy, Bloom et. al., 1956, and SOLO Taxonomy, Biggs and Collis 1982).

Implicit in the use of PBL was the desire to demonstrate to students that their learning needs were a priority as was their ability to demonstrate competencies relevant to the workplace. PBL provides a framework for cohesion and integration of unit curriculum, class activities and assessment tasks. In the Field-based Professional Consultancy students identify their own workplace-relevant training needs as they progressed through the consultancy. Then hopefully, students work towards meeting these training needs. Finally, students applied their learning outcomes within the context of their extension project. Their performance in the Field-based Professional Consultancy was assessed by self, peer, client and lecturer upon the quality of the application of these learning outcomes. Hence, PBL allows the lecturer to align assessment tasks, content delivery and learning outcomes so that all three areas complement each other and assessment activities were not considered "gratuitous".

This alignment of teaching and learning goals and actions is especially important since both units do not have an end of unit exam and using PBL approach in the classroom and field-based activities was a technique for motivating class attendance and participation. For example, the replacement of an end of unit exam (30%) with PBL exercises in Land Evaluation and Land Degradation provided the opportunity to give students more feedback, highlight conceptual errors, and focus on improving learning skills and written expression, especially in explaining or justifying their chosen solution.

The Land Evaluation and Land Degradation unit caters for two different degree program students with varying levels of prior knowledge. Hence the unit needs to be designed so that it can provide intellectual stimulation for both groups of students, those with a greater foundation in soil science, and still support the alternate group who are less confident about the subject material. PBL allows for the disparity in prior knowledge by encouraging students to share what they know as well as identify what they need to know and where are they going to find it. Thus, each student could choose to explore a different area deeply, to find their own level of learning, and pursue areas of interest to them, hence encouraging intellectual curiosity and discovery.

To summarise, the use of PBL was designed to create an learning environment for the student that:

How to use PBL in Natural Resource Management?


Problem based learning (PBL) in Land Evaluation and Land Degradation was applied in the following way. Firstly an introductory class on PBL was given - what is it? How is it different to subject based learning? And how it would be utilised in the unit? (Table 1). PBL scenarios were dispersed with structured learning activities (consisting of 100 minute interactive classes with 25 minute presentations followed by activities in groups). The problem based learning exercise was given in class 2, 6 and 10. For each scenario a three page synopsis was submitted three weeks after the problem was revealed. Each PBL synopsis was worth 10%, and was assessed using a marking framework. The problem based scenario was woven around the class content over the three week period, and was designed to encourage class participation and self-directed learning activity ie reading and research outside class. My intention was to follow the approach (Appendix 1) and to discuss the questions raised by students in class. In the class that followed "meet the problem", a week later, a rejoinder was supplied that attempted to "flesh out" with information some of their questions. It was emphasised in these classes that to give meaning to information given to them they needed to either conduct further reading outside class or utilise class activities. It was stressed there would be no right or wrong answer and that they would be assessed on the realism of their solutions and their ability to advocate a solution.

Field-based Professional Consultancy

The nature of the Field-based Professional Consultancy is that student teams are placed within a real world problem-based-learning environment. They must agree to deliver real outcomes to a real client in a defined time period that gives the learning activity immediacy and relevance. The first step is that each of the teams was allocated a project and a "Client" such as developing strategic extension plan and materials for the New England Weeds County Council. In preparation for their first meeting with their Client the teams are given a brief description of the project. However the student teams are responsible for defining the nature of the project and its planned outcomes by consulting and communicating with the client, and to formalise this process by a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that documents the expectations of both the client and the students, as well as the expected outcomes of the project. The next step was for student teams (six people) to develop a strategic plan (Action Plan) for the implementation of their extension activities. As the strategic plan was implemented students were asked to identify their learning (information and training) needs as required to progress their plan and deliver its outcomes. Once those needs were identified then the role of the lecturer was to support students in meeting these training needs. Student teams were also encouraged to seek advice, informally from the lecturer, whenever they felt it was necessary. As part of the formative assessment task, fortnightly debriefing presentations from each team were delivered to the class to indicate the extent of progress on the consultancy, what they had learnt so far, and to discuss any problems they had encountered. The debriefing sessions also allowed the lecturer to give feedback to each of the teams. Summative assessment is based upon a final oral presentation to the client and lecturer and written report by the teams worth a total of 25% of the overall unit grade. The team was awarded a group mark rather than individual grades as it gave credence to the effectiveness of group dynamics and skills by producing a group report. The lecturer in conjunction with the client assessed each Field-based Professional Consultancy (50:50 split). In addition a within-team peer assessment was undertaken, and used to assess individual effort within the group, especially in situations where group performance had suffered Evaluation of the Field-based Professional Consultancy was completed mid-way through the semester and the end of the semester.

What were students' reactions to PBL?


In Ramsden's (1998) article on Managing the Effective University he asserts that students complain about too much lecturing and a failure to encourage active, independent learning. In reply to this assertion it has been our experience that students often feel they would rather be lectured to and avoid independent learning. In the Land Evaluation and Land Degradation unit students would have preferred to respond to "black and white" problems with "well-defined" answers rather than solve with open-ended, fuzzy problems (or in students' words "airy-fairy" and "vague" problems) with no "right" answer . Despite their reticence to PBL, having not experienced it before, most students' performance (ie graded obtained) did improve over the duration of the three PBL exercises (see Figure 1). The PBLs were assessed using a marking framework that covered written expression, research effort, evidence of self-directed learning and comprehensiveness and realism in the advocated solution.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Results of three PBL exercises for Land Evaluation and Land Degradation students (n =37) over 13 week semester. PBL one due in week 5, PBL two due in week 8 and PBL three due in week 13 of the semester.
The students in Land Degradation and Land Evaluation were evaluated at the end of the unit to ascertain their approach to learning using a survey instrument adapted from Biggs (1986). The two reasons for evaluating the students approach to learning was to determine if PBL was suitable teaching approach and raise students awareness of their preferred learning approach. On average Figure 2 shows that students used a mixture of the three learning approaches - surface, deep and strategic, with no one approach dominating.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Learning approaches by students enrolled in Land Evaluation and Land Degradation (n = 18), and myself evaluated at the end of the unit. 35 = always true, 21 = half the time true and 7 = never applies.
The relationship between class attendance and grade in the final PBL exercise was an interesting one (Figure 3). It shows that for those students who regularly attended class achieved a Credit and above grade, while those students who consistently missed classes achieved a Credit or lower grade for the last PBL exercise. This graph will be used to motivate students to attend class and realise the benefits of doing so.

Figure 3
Figure 3: The relationship between student grade of the final PBL Exercise and consistency of Class Attendance through the semester (n = 32)

Field-based Professional Consultancy

Student teams were asked to evaluate their own performance in terms of those things which they felt they did well (strengths) and in terms of those things which they felt they could have done better (weaknesses). These student performance evaluations are summarised below in Table 2. Those responses marked with an asterisk in the "What the team could do better" column were part of the formative assessment task. However, apart from fortnightly "progress presentation" from each team to the class, none of the other formative assessment tasks were made compulsory. Consequently, teams tended to do them either superficially or not at all. When this was highlighted to students during the final evaluation of the Field-based Professional Consultancy they recommended that all formative assessment tasks be made compulsory for next year's class. Also the students commented that the assignment should be worth more than 25% of the overall grade.

Table 2: Student Evaluations of their Team's Performance
(n =24, 4 groups with 6 team members in each, aggregated data)

What the team did well
Technical components of consultancy (background information for technical aspects).
Teams generally worked well together, communicated, and delegated and shared responsibilities.
Achieved client satisfaction and delivered project outcomes.
What the team could do better
Student Professionalism was an intended behavioural outcome and students felt they had not performed to an acceptable standard. Teams tended to view themselves as "students" rather than as adult consultants. Teams tended to develop a student-lecturer relationship with clients rather than one of equal power between all parties.
Effective Communication.* More frequent communication with client to inform of progress and seek feedback. Utilise active listening skills taught in class.
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)*. Formalise and document client's needs for the Field-based Professional Consultancy in a MOU, and avoid misunderstandings between team and client expectations regarding project's outcomes.
Interpersonal Skills. Resolve internal conflicts such as inequitable commitment of group members by revisiting ground rules (codes of conduct with consequences for non-compliance) earlier in the consultancy project.
Time Management.* Improve planning in the early stages of the consultancy and set clear objectives and milestones via the Action Plan to avoid time being wasted and causing a 'log jam' of tasks to be completed near the end of the project.
Scaffolding and support of Lecturer Learning needs for the Field-based Professional Consultancy were not always sequenced at the appropriate time for the learner. Hence teams were only realising they needed certain skills in the field after they had been taught them, but often it was too late to make effective use of the information.

How to improve on students' learning experience and performance in PBL?


There are a number of strategies that could be used to use next time to improve students' experience and performance in PBL. For most students this was their first experience of PBL and to reduce their anxiety and level of uncertainty regarding assessment the first PBL would be worth 5% with a high level of formative feedback. In subsequent PBL exercises they would gradually increase their worth by 5% each time, instead of being given equal weighting. However, if they achieved better grades in the following exercises they would be able to reallocate the weighting of them. To reinforce codes of good practice a more detailed debriefing of the PBL solutions in class will be applied.

At the end of semester students were asked for feedback on assessment and the use of PBL, and directly asked them "How do you think you could improve on your performance in the problem based learning exercises?" and 12 out of 21 students responded by saying " by understanding what is required" or " what was expected to begin with ie the marking schedule - had no idea what format or structure was expected" and "I need to have more specific knowledge of what the lecturer wants...". A few students identified their contribution to their performance by saying, "make more concrete suggestions/ recommendations and display insights not regurgitated from text." The remainder made no comment. Personally their responses were quite frustrating as with every "meet the problem" an approach was reiterated and it highlighted the requirements of the three page submission using an asterisk. It was assumed that this was adequate direction. In class "clues" were given as to where useful information could be found and some possible solutions. Upon subsequent reflection it was decided that more scaffolding is required, and they relied too much on the lecturer to provide them with information to solve the problem, and avoided further self-directed research. To redirect student focus onto their individual and collective responsibility it was decided to establish early in the semester a set of ground rules that explicitly identify student responsibilities and consequences of non-compliance and identify lecturer, student and class responsibilities and actions to support learning. It is also necessary to reinforce the ground rules through the semester if student enthusiasm wanes.

To value the learning skills that they are expected to use and develop in the PBL exercises they were explicitly included n the marking framework. Unfortunately the original marking framework used to assess PBL 1 and 2 was not well accepted by students (several commented on this in evaluations), and they felt that feedback did not help them improve on their performance in the PBL exercise. By the last PBL exercise the marking framework had been modified and based on observable/demonstrable performance criteria, avoided jargon and provided more focused feedback on what students had done well, where they could improve and areas they had not mentioned, but needed to. To emphasise research and learning skills they were also included as part of the marking framework and students would need to demonstrate that they had done more than use the information provided to them. In future they will be asked to address the following question "How confident are you your solution is the best one and explain why?"

Field-based Professional Consultancy

Based upon students assessments of their own performance, their ex post evaluation of the Field-based Professional Consultancy itself, and the lecturer's observations, the following modifications are suggested for future implementation of the exercise to improve its educational value.

An overall summary of the following strategies is that they are: building students' confidence in their abilities (1); encouraging students to be more proactive in their learning (undertaking tasks and identifying needs) (2, 3 and 4), and reinforcing desirable outcomes by formalising them in assessment procedures (5, 6, 7 and 8).

  1. Motivate student teams to view themselves as adult, professional consultants not simply as students carrying out an assessment task to meet unit requirements.
    Supply this year's student with last year's student evaluations, and thus the present cohort can learn from the observations and experiences of their predecessors. It is the opinion of the lecturer that students are more likely to acknowledge the learning experiences and observations of their peer-predecessors than respond to the entreaties of a lecturer.

  2. Curriculum content needs to be sequenced in parallel with Field-based Professional Consultancy learning needs.
    As suggested earlier, with field-based PBL exercises there is an ongoing difficulty with sequencing of classroom learning in parallel with the timing of field learning needs highlighted by the progress of the Consultancy. There appears to be no easy answer to this dilemma within the limited context of an individual teaching unit.

  3. Lecturer to monitor student progress in implementing Action Plans.
    Students tend not to forward-plan or contingency plan. A greater degree of scaffolding and coaching is required from the lecturer in order to encourage these desirable behaviours. A lack of forward planning and contingency planning may be addressed through formative feedback on Teams' Action Plans. Lecturer to ask "what if?" questions of teams during fortnightly debriefing sessions may address this problem.

  4. Encourage teams to seek advice from lecturer and other key informants (and reward via the assessment process).
    Students tended not to seek advice from lecturer or other potential key informants. Student teams would benefit from seeking advice more widely at critical periods of their Consultancies. To reinforce advice-seeking behaviours they could be rewarded through the assessment process, especially if this advice has proven Consultancy outcomes.

  5. Formative assessment tasks should be made compulsory.
    Students tended not to complete non-compulsory formative assessment tasks (viz. action plan, signed Consultancy Agreement or MOU between client and student team, and a written statement of learning needs). During the student ex post evaluation of the Field-based Professional Consultancy, students recognised that their initial failure to complete the action plan and the MOU in particular had substantially limited their performance. The students suggested that by making all formative assessment tasks compulsory, they would more likely be completed.

  6. Reinforce expected educational outcomes by explicitly assessing them.
    Explicitly reward innovation, imagination, and evidence of deeper learning within the project by introducing these categories into the assessment criteria. Students appear to avoid what they view as risky behaviours in completing their Consultancies. Conservative strategies tend to deliver predictable and more mundane Consultancy outcomes and do not engender deeper approaches to learning. Rewarding innovation, imagination, and evidence of deeper learning by explicitly identifying these characteristics within the assessment criteria are more likely to encourage students towards adventurous behaviours. It is also important to emphasise to students that making mistakes or taking risks is part of learning.

  7. Teams must document and submit evidence of purposeful and frequent (e.g. fortnightly) communication with client.
    Failure of student teams to provide their respective clients with timely progress reports had a number of negative (though relatively minor) impacts upon team performance. Again, addressing this activity as a formative assessment task should emphasise the importance of this undertaking to students.

  8. Lecturer to provide summative qualitative assessment of each team's performance following final oral presentations.
    Each team gives a final oral presentation to the class at the end of semester at the same time as submission of the final written report. In 1999 no feedback was given at this stage. Final written feedback was given, within the assessment of the written report, some weeks after the end of semester. This is too late to be useful to the (by then dissolved) student teams. At the completion of each team's oral presentations there is an opportunity for the lecturer to give summative qualitative assessment of the performance of each team prior to the formal quantitative marking of the written work.

Implications for the lecturer when using PBL

To end this paper there are a few issues that need to be raised that affect the implementation of PBL, especially when, as in our case, we are only teaching in two units out of a potential 32 units in a degree program. Firstly the competencies that students require to conduct PBL effectively need to be introduced earlier in the degree program, and not for students to be introduced to these skills at 3rd year level. Despite this plea PBL also requires the lecturer to make a few changes and these include:


Biggs, J. B. (1986). Student Approaches to Learning and Studying. ACER, Camberwell, Victoria.

Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst E. J., Hill, W. H., and Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives 1: Cognitive Domain. McKay, NY.

Boud, D. and Felletti, G. I. Eds (1997). The Challenge of Problem Based Learning. 2nd Edition. Kogan Page, London.

Collis, K. F., and Biggs, J. B. (1983). Matriculation, degree requirements, and cognitive demands in Universities and CAEs. Australian Journal of Education, 27, 41-51.

Ramsden, P. (1998). Managing the Effective University. Higher Education Research and Development, 17, 347-370.

Littlejohn, R. (1998) A workshop on Problem Based Learning.
[verified 12 Oct 2001 at]

Appendix 1:The Approach

1. Meet the problem (scenario)

2. *Define the problem


3. Gather the Facts

4. *Generate relevant questions from the previous section

for you to go away and answer
for me to go away and answer

5. Research (Type of...)

6. *Rephrase the problem (refine the original problem statement).

7. *Generate solutions (select possible, probable and preferable solutions).

8. *Advocate solutions (choose a solution and justify it).

Those sections with the asterisk need to be written up and presented in your 3 page synopsis

Authors: Lisa Lobry de Bruyn, Ecosystem Management, School of Rural Science and Natural Resources, University of New England. Phone: 02 6773 3119 Fax: 02 6773 2769 Email:

Julian Prior, Animal Science, School of Rural Science and Natural Resources, University of New England
Phone: 02 6773 3610 Fax: 02 6773 3275 Email:

Please cite as: Lobry de Bruyn, L. and Prior, J. (2001). Changing student learning focus in natural resource management education - problems (and some solutions) with using problem based learning. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 441-451. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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