ICBL Strategy 6: Define Problems

Initial Publication Date: December 31, 2003

"One of the greatest challenges in biology is to frame appropriate and productive questions that can be pursued by the technology at hand. You have probably had a great deal of experience in solving pre-posed problems, such as those found at the end of textbook chapters. However, if you were asked to go into a lab or out in a field and pose a research question, you will find that this is often difficult to do without some practice..."
(The BioQUEST Library IV: A Note to the Student. 1996)

Students will better define problems and frame specific questions to investigate as they learn more about the case. At this point it will be important for them to consult with others, most likely members of their group or other classmates. Talking about ideas and plans with peers is an important step in refining problems. This can lead to different perspectives that might help shape good research problems. Such conversation and collaboration is a hallmark of the work of scientists.

Why are some research questions considered better than others? What are the cultural, personal, and political biases that influence what questions are posed and how they are posed?
(The BioQUEST Library IV: A Note to the Student. 1996)

Setting aside time for students to share ideas in lab or class or asking students to meet outside of class or online are good strategies. Note: The case author met with students (via telephone!!) once a week and shared ideas in a class meeting.

Examples of problems defined for Goodbye Honeybuckets.

After learning more about the arctic and tundra from lectures as well as library and web sources, and after completing a lab on soil types, students proposed the following problems for further investigation:

  • comparisons of climatic conditions in various biomes
  • drainage in arctic soils
  • temperature effects on decomposition
  • temperature effects on relevant microbes
  • role of microbes in decomposition