Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Genetics, Development and Cell Biology

First Advisor

Thomas S. Ingebritsen


Problem-based learning (PBL) is a pedagogical tool that uses a "real world" problem or situation as a context for learning. PBL encourages student development of critical thinking skills, a high professional competency, problem-solving ability, knowledge acquisition, the ability to work productively as a team member and make decisions in unfamiliar situations, and the acquisition of skills that support self-directed life-long learning, metacognition, and adaptation to change. However, little research has focused on the use of PBL in on-line "virtual" classes. We conducted two studies exploring the use of PBL in an on-line biotechnology course. In the first study, ethical, legal, social, and human issues were used as a motivation for learning about DNA testing technologies, applications, and bioethical issues. In the second study, we combined PBL pedagogy with a rich multimedia environment of streaming video interviews, physical artifacts, and extensive links to articles and databases to create a multidimensional immersive PBL environment called "Robert's World". In "Robert's World", a man is determining whether to undergo a pre-symptomatic DNA test for an untreatable, incurable, fatal genetic disease for which he has a family history. In both studies, design and implementation issues of the on-line PBL environment are discussed, as are differences between on-line PBL and face-to-face PBL. Both studies provide evidence to suggest that PBL stimulates higher-order learning in students. However, in both studies, student performance on an exam testing acquisition of lower-order factual learning was lower for PBL students than for students who learned the same material through a traditional lecture-based approach. Possible reasons for this lower level of performance are explored. Student feedback expressed engagement with the issues and material covered, with reservations about some aspects of the PBL format, such as the lack of flexibility provided in cooperative learning. We conclude that on-line PBL is a powerful tool in helping to develop higher-order learning in students. The reasons for the decrease in student understanding of factual information are unclear. However, there are certain circumstances unique to on-line classes to keep in mind when implementing on-line PBL. These are summarized in concluding recommendations.



Digital Repository @ Iowa State University,

Copyright Owner

James Daniel Cheaney



Proquest ID


File Format


File Size

200 pages