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Problems and Problem-solving

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page is a brief note collecting points about the notion of problem-solving in education; and as a graduate attribute.

Everyday and school meanings of "problem"

  • Anything which the speaker doesn't immediately know how to solve.
  • A maths or science problem given in English, not in technical notation.

    PBL: problem-based learning

    (See also this page.)

    PBL is teaching not by didactic exposition, but by setting "problems" whose solutiom the learners must discover given resources to read. Generally involves:

    Here, "problem" is from a pedagogical viewpoint a student assignment designed to focus learning for a week; but which also from the envisaged professional (and also the academic disciplinary) viewpoints is usually a task or case for which knowing the solution (and/or how to discover it from available reference sources) is required.

    Problem-solving: The three phases

    Although "problem-solving" is often seen as a general skill e.g. in job ads, it actually has 3 different major aspects or phases, each requiring 3 quite different skills, and typically only one of these is central in any given academic discipline.

    Thus there are really 3 contrasting component skills:

    a) Problematising: taking what others are letting slide by as OK, and flagging it up as something that needs treating as a problem. Every time a big fraud in a firm emerges, it is because people (auditors, ...) let it by. In fact employers need problem-spotters, although not all realise this.

    b) Redefining an identified but ill-specified problem into something specific that can be addressed. [e.g. anxiety; Malaria]

    c) Solving it: pushing through to an actionable decision and conclusion. Generally speaking, the Sciences drill their graduates on this all the time (because the store of solution methods is a large part of disciplinary knowledge), and the Humanities do not; (or perhaps the applied disciplines do but the pure ones do not.)

    Problems: Three categories of hard problems

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