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Center for Innovation in Teaching & Research
Member, Texas Tech University System The Princeton Review - 373 Best Colleges, 2011 Edition

Connect Instructional Activities - Problem Solving

Description: Problem Solving activities require the learner to apply what they have learned to develop a viable solution or solution paths to a complex, real-world problem. Problem solving helps students connect theories and take responsibility for knowledge. Problem solving requires deductive powers, inferential reasoning, testing assumptions, and decision making skills (UMUC, “Instructional Strategies”). Jonassen (2011) argues that the:
The only legitimate cognitive goal of education (formal, informal, or other) in every educational context (public schools, universities and [especially] corporate training) is problem solving. Problem solving is the most authentic and therefore the most relevant learning activity that students can engage in. Research has shown that knowledge constructed in the context of solving problems is better comprehended, retained, and therefore more transferable (p. 1)
Types of Problem Solving Activities

  • Story Problems. Story problems are the most common kind of problem encountered by students in formal education. Story problems are normally solved by identifying key values in the short scenario, selecting the appropriate algorithm, applying the algorithm to generation a quantitative answer (Jonassen, p. 27).
  • Decision-Making Problems. Decision making is the most common form of problem solving in everyday life. We make countless decisions every day, many without conscious awareness. The various types of decisions we make are choices, acceptances, rejections, evaluation, and constructions (Yates & Tschirhart as cited by Jonassen, p. 49).
  • Troubleshooting and Diagnosis Problems. Troubleshooting is the most common type of problem solving. Troubleshooting is normally linked with the repair of physical or mechanical systems. However, organizational ombudsmen, such as employee-relations managers, customer-relation specialists, consumer advocates, public-relations specialists, and human-resource directors are troubleshooters (p. 77).
  • Strategic-Performance Problems.  Complex, dynamic decisions that frequently must be made by experienced practitioners under conditions of time-induced stress such as military commanders leading troops in battle while under fire or an arbitrator conducting negotiations among litigants (p. 106).
  • Policy-Analysis Problems. Complex, ill-structured decision-making problems that normally are not time pressured. Policy problems usually involve a host of city planners, policy analysts, community managers, local, state, and national legislators, citizens, agency leaders, and many other stakeholders, most of whom have fundamentally different positions of an issue (p. 122).
    • Best Practices for Designing Problem Solving Activities (Jonassen, p. 154)
      • Problem solving requires intentional learning. Human behavior is goal-driven. Goals for solution should be made clear for meaningful learning.
      • Design authentic problem-solving tasks which apply to students’ lives, current or future jobs. Students will be more likely to retain knowledge learned from solving an authentic, real-world problem.
      • Require learners to:
        • verify, define, and detail the problem
        • establish evaluation criteria
        • identify alternative solution paths
        • evaluate alternative solutions
        • display and distinguish among alternatives solutions
  • Require learners to make decisions made at critical junctures in a real project.
  • Provide learners with an online journal or require a blog where they can collect decisions and reflections into an ongoing document that they can review and take away at the end of the course.
  • Design problem solving activities to be student-centered. Faculty cannot dictate learning.
  • Design the problem solving activities to be self-directed where students individually and collaboratively assume responsibility for generating learning issues and processes. Students can accomplish this through self-assessment and peer assessment, as well as accessing their own learning materials.
  • Include a self-reflective component where learners monitor their understanding and learn to adjust strategies for learning.

Suggestion: Blogs and Wikis are excellent tools allowing instructors to design complex problem scenarios and students to collaborate and design a viable solution path(s). Refer to Section Three: Online Learning Tools/Wikis or Blogs for more information and resources on how to use these tools.