Problem-Solving Deconstructed

Problem-solving features heavily on today’s lists of most marketable work skills. Given the rapid pace at which technological progress is transforming the workforce, it makes sense that foundational soft skills such as this one have become more valuable than ever. So how can we as educators and instructional designers better prepare students to meet this real-world demand?

Problem-based education has proved to be an effective teaching strategy. As Professor Wilbert J. McKeachie points out, “…Cognitive theory provides good support for the idea that knowledge learned and used in a realistic, problem-solving context is more likely to be remembered and used appropriately when needed later” (qtd. by Barkley et. al. 224). In Collaborative Learning Techniques – A Handbook for College Faculty, professors Barkley, Major, and Cross offer helpful, researched-based advice on teaching problem-solving skills. Let’s discuss two commonly used approaches: case study analysis and structured problem-solving.

Case Study Analysis

Case studies can illustrate how abstract concepts and theories function in the real world. Those that present a problem or dilemma with no clear-cut answer are particularly useful in helping students develop their analytical and decision-making skills.


  • If you’re writing a hypothetical case study, write one related to current events. The more salient the situation is to students’ lives, the more invested they will be in it.
  • The case’s complexity and length should match your learning objectives and your students’ skill level. For example, you can start with a brief case that can be worked on in a single session. Then, progress to more complex cases as students begin to synthesize course knowledge.
  • As an alternative to a written case, present the case in video form.
  • Present the case study with questions to guide students’ focus and analysis in the right direction.
  • Break up the class into groups of 3-6 students for more manageable, in-depth discussions. Once each group has analyzed the case study, debrief the class and allow time for discussion to help students learn from different approaches.

Online Implementation

You can take advantage of conferencing tools such as Adobe Connect to hold live meetings. If live meetings are not possible, you can post a recording where you debrief students on the case and then open it up for discussion in the discussions forum.

Structured Problem-Solving

Structured problem-solving involves breaking down the problem-solving process into manageable, distinct steps to prevent students from becoming overwhelmed. This allows instructors to incorporate complex problems while managing the difficulty level through instruction.


  • If necessary, begin by assessing your students’ problem-solving skills with one of the following techniques (Angelo & Cross, ctd. by Barkley et. al. 247):
    • Problem-Recognition Tasks present students with different kinds of problems and ask them to identify the types of problems.
    • Another technique asks students to identify which principle or principles should be applied to solve a particular problem.
  • Before presenting the problem to groups of 4-6 students, work through it yourself to identify the appropriate problem-solving steps and to anticipate any roadblocks students might encounter. Barkley et. al. cite the Dewy six-step problem-solving technique as an example (244):
    1. Identify the problem
    2. Generate possible solutions
    3. Evaluate and test the various solutions
    4. Decide on a mutually acceptable solution
    5. Implement the solution
    6. Evaluate the solution
  • Have students answer guiding questions, such as “What do you know? What do you need to know? Where can you find out?” (Barkley et. al. 247).
  • Set a clear timeline for students to complete the problem-solving steps. This will help keep group members on the same page.




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