Teaching Problem Solving

The other day, a physicist friend was working in the lab with her summer research students. They were talking about the work they’d been doing that summer and how there was no manual or instructions of any sort for any of it; no textbook, no lab procedure. It was as if they were making it up as they went along. Laughing about this, one of the students said, ‘You know what we need? We need an entire course with nothing but problems. Just give us one problem after another, and we figure out how to do them. Because that’s what real research is.’ The rest of the students laughed. And then all of them nodded.

-Hanstedt, 2018, p. 41

Employers, college presidents, faculty, and students demonstrate remarkable consensus that problem solving is one of the most important outcomes of a college education (Bok, 2017; Hart Research Associates, 2015; Hora, Benbow, Oleson, 2016; Passow & Passow, 2017). At the time of this newsletter, there were 28 courses offered this year that included the words “problem*” and “solving” in Courses@Brown. Course descriptions ranged from focusing on how to apply techniques or skills, to solving problems, to tackling common problems encountered in the field, and concepts that included “problems” within their title. There are undoubtedly more courses that implicitly and explicitly focus on problem solving across campus. In light of this emphasis, it is important to ask, “What is a problem and what is problem solving?” and “How do I foster problem-solving skills in my course?” and eventually, "How will I be explicit about problem solving in my course and course description?" Although problem solving is often associated with STEM courses, this newsletter offers perspectives and teaching approaches from across the disciplines.

What is a “problem” and problem solving?
Problems and problem solving may be context and discipline specific, but the concept and process have overarching components and similarities across contexts. Jonassen (2000, p. 65) defines a problem as an “unknown entity in some situation (the difference between a goal state and a current state)” such that “finding or solving for the unknown must have some social, cultural, or intellectual value.”  Within courses, students may encounter a wide variety of current (e.g., a problem statement) and goal (e.g., a solution) states with different motivations for solving them. Students will be exposed to “well-structured” problems at one end of the spectrum, which have a typical solution path and solution, and “ill-structured” problems, which are highly context dependent and have no one solution path (Jonassen, 2000).

We bring in common case scenarios for students and try to develop the frameworks they need to approach a problem rather than just finding the answer. To help students think about the process, we scaffold scenarios over the years through self-study modules that students can complete on their own. The scenarios stay the same, but students can come back to them with new information and frameworks they have learned, a deeper toolbox to pull from in different clinical settings. This allows students to be lifelong learners and more flexible and adaptable in the future.

-Dr. Steven Rougas, Director of the Doctoring Program, Alpert Medical School

Problem solving is a “goal-oriented” process that includes creating and manipulating problems as mental models (Jonassen, 2000). Brown faculty from a variety of disciplines were interviewed by Sheridan staff and asked, “What skills do students need to problem solve effectively?” They responded that students need to be able to do the following:

  • Reason, observe, and recognize patterns
  • Use current information to understand the past
  • Know how to break complex problems down into smaller, more manageable components
  • Make connections between concepts and disciplines
  • Creatively think of multiple solution paths

These skills, among others, target the following problem-solving steps (Pretz, Naples, & Sternbergy, 2003):

  1. Recognize or identify a problem
  2. Define and represent the problem mentally
  3. Develop a solution strategy
  4. Organize your knowledge about the problem
  5. Allocate mental and physical resources for solving the problem
  6. Monitor your progress toward the goal
  7. Evaluate the solution for accuracy

Problem solving is an iterative process, and as such, these steps do not necessarily progress in a linear fashion. When creating homework assignments, projects, exams, etc., it is helpful to identify the specific skills you want students to practice, the strategies they should use, and how you will evaluate the solutions they produce.

How do I foster problem-solving skills in my course?
Instructors can signpost the problem-solving skills students should develop in their courses by adapting existing problem sets to fit recommendations from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project (TILT). The process of increasing transparency in assignments includes communicating the assignment’s purpose, task, and criteria to students (Winkelmes et al., 2016):

  • The purpose usually links to one learning objective for the course, the skills students will develop as a result of completing the assignment, or a real-world application that students might experience outside of your classroom. In this way, the problem you have presented to the student becomes relevant because it has “some social, cultural, or intellectual value” (Jonassen, 2000, p. 65).
  • Next, the task states the strategy or strategies students should take to complete the assignment. This includes guiding students through organizing the information available to develop a strategy.
  • Finally, the criteria could be a rubric or annotated examples that are given to students before the assignment is due, so they are aware of the standards for the assignment.

In one study, researchers found that in courses where at least two assignments had features of transparent assignments, students self reported increases in their academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of skills, such as problem solving (Winkelmes et al., 2016). Below are examples of different skills needed for problem solving with suggestions on how you can foster these skills through adapted or new assignments and in-class exercises.

A key skill for problem solving is knowing how to define and represent the problem and its solutions. This is true for all students, regardless of discipline. For example, Berkenkotter (1982, p. 33) states, “A writer is a problem solver of a particular kind. Writers’ ‘solutions’ will be determined by how they frame their problems, the goals they set for themselves, and the means or plans they adopt for achieving those goals.” To help students understand and connect to research in their field, instructors can assign short articles and guide students through rhetorical practices to make expert thinking more explicit. Provide students multiple opportunities to refine their writing allows them to learn “how to frame their problems.”

The distant past can seem uncomfortably strange to modern observers. As we discuss our class readings, one thing I like to do with my students is to explore what seems weird or even offensive to them about our texts and the societies that produced them. Thinking about the disconnect between ancient and modern attitudes, outlooks, beliefs, and values can be an incredibly productive way to think about cultural difference over space and time.

- Professor Jonathan Conant, History and Classics

Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is the “ability to assess your assumptions, beliefs, and actions” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p. 222) with the intent to change your actions in the future and is necessary when solving problems. It is a skill required during all steps of the problem-solving process. Fostering critical thinking in your students is one way to create a more inclusive classroom because you are inherently asking students to challenge their assumptions and biases.

Instructors can use the following conditions to promote critical thinking in your classroom (Merriam & Bierema, 2014):

  • Foster critical reflection by examining assumptions (see Promoting Metacognition for specific reflective strategies), e.g., ask students to read a research article and identify possible assumptions that are made in the questions asked, methods used, or the interpretation of the results. For example, to foster critical reflection you could ask students to identify the sources of knowledge they value and use when completing homework and write a reflection on what assumptions they made about those sources. What are the identities of the people creating those sources of knowledge? What systems or people are gatekeepers of that knowledge?
  • Build a learning community where the expectation is that students can be wholly present, honest, ask questions, and productively fail (Kapur, 2016).
  • Practice dialogical conversation by teaching an awareness of power relations in the classroom such as microaggressions or micro-affirmations and how to use active listening (see Microaggressions and Micro-aggressions for examples and specific practices).
  • Provide students the opportunity to make connections between content and their experiences, e.g., by asking students on homework assignments how they apply concepts to a recent experience or asking students why they took your course and how it relates to their career goals.

Instructors can develop aspects of problem solving by being intentional about team building, connecting students to alternative perspectives, and being explicit about the expectations of teamwork in the field (e.g., as a researcher, industry partner, consultant, etc.). You can create homework assignments using the TILT framework, which asks students to evaluate both their own and peers’ interactions in teams. There are several models or rubrics for how to assess teamwork, such as the AAC&U Teamwork Value Rubric, which focuses on students’ behaviors or the Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness (CATME), which is a free packaged tool that gathers information from students and groups them into teams.

We use team-based learning exercises and collaborative problem solving. Students are assigned pre-reading to expand their knowledge so they are able to think through different aspects of a scenario before they come to class. In class, the discussion focuses on a team deciding and agreeing on what the next steps in a case will be. The problem-solving skills that this team discussion focuses on are interpersonal communication, being an active listener, and a collaborative team member. It is not high stakes, but together the team will succeed or fail.

- Sarita Warrier, Assistant Dean for Medical Education, Alpert Medical School

A jigsaw is another collaborative approach to teach students how to break up a problem into smaller components. For example, in a class on Romanticism and Romantic philosophies, three groups of students would each be given the following questions about five poems: “How does the writer view nature?” (Group 1), “How does the writer view society?” (Group 2), “How does the writer view the purpose of poetry?” (Group 3). After discussion, three new groups, with representatives from each of these three clusters, might discuss a broader question, such as, “Using the information gathered in the first groups [...] what are Romanticism’s goals? What’s the agenda of the Romantic poets?”  (Handstedt, 2018, pp. 121-122).

Reflection Activities or Assignments
Expert researchers, practitioners, and educators incorporate reflection and iteration as part of their practice. Key steps of the problem-solving process include being reflective about the process and what is working or not working towards a goal. In a previous newsletter, Promoting Metacognition, the Sheridan Center provided a list of several activities and assignments you could use to help students be reflective in your course. These activities range from short minute papers, to semester-long reflective journals. Think-alouds, or having a student verbally solve a problem with another student, can also help students develop reflective problem-solving skills because it “provides a structure for students to observe both their own and another’s process of learning” (Barkley, 2010, p. 259).

For more strategies on how to engage students in these skills and topics, please see the Sheridan Center’s newsletter, Inclusive Teaching Through Active Learning. It is important to be explicit in how you approach problem solving and convey that information both through your course description, syllabi, and content.

Opportunities at Sheridan for Development of Problem Solving
Problem solving is a necessary skill in all disciplines and one that the Sheridan Center is focusing on as part of the Brown Learning Collaborative, which provides students the opportunity to achieve new levels of excellence in six key skills traditionally honed in a liberal arts education ­– critical reading, writing, research, data analysis, oral communication, and problem solving. To help you think through how to integrate opportunities for students to problem solve effectively in your course, the Sheridan Center offers problem solving professional development opportunities for faculty and students in an effort to engage intergenerational, faculty-student teaching teams.

Problem-Solving Course Design Institute
Increasing assignment transparency is at the core of Problem-Solving Course Design Institute (PSCDI). PSCDI is a two-day workshop for faculty, staff, postdocs, and graduate student teams to (re)design assignments that engage students in the problem-solving process. Upon successful completion, faculty participants will receive a $2,000 grant to implement their ideas. For more information on PSCDI and past recipents, please see this Sheridan web resource.

Problem-Solving Fellows Program
Undergraduate students who are currently or plan to be peer educators (e.g., UTAs, lab TAs, peer mentors, etc.) are encouraged to take the course, UNIV 1110: The Theory and Teaching of Problem Solving. Within this course, we focus on developing effective problem solvers through students’ teaching practices. We discuss reflective practices necessary for teaching and problem solving; theoretical frames for effective learning; how culture, context, and identity impact problem solving and teaching; and the impact of the problem-solving cycle. For more information, please see this Sheridan web resource and contact Dr. Christina Smith, Sheridan Center (via [email protected]).



Berkenkotter, C. (1982). Writing and problem solving. In T. Fulwiler & A. Young (Eds.), Language connections: Writing and reading across the curriculum (pp. 33-44). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Barkley, E.F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bok, D. (2017). The struggle to reform our colleges. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students: Designing courses for a complex world. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. Survey carried out for AAC&U. Available: https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2015employerstudents…

Hora, M.T., Benbow, R. J., & Oleson, A. K.. (2016). Beyond the skills gap: Preparing college students for life and work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jonassen, D. H. (2000). Toward a design theory of problem solving. Educational technology research and development, 48(4), 63-85.

Kapur, M. (2016). Examining productive failure, productive success, unproductive failure, and unproductive success in learning. Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 289-299.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. John Wiley & Sons.

Passow, H.J., & Passow, C.H. (2017). What competencies should undergraduate engineering programs emphasize? A systematic review. Journal of Engineering Education, 106(3): 475-526.

Pretz, J.E., Naples, A. J., & Sternbergy, R. J. (2003). Recognizing, defining, and representing problems. In J. E. Davidson & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), The psychology of problem solving (pp. 3-30). New York: Cambridge University Press.​

Winkelmes, M.A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31–36.