eCoaching Tip 35 Structuring Online Discussions Using Problem Formulation and Resolutions Behaviors

February 9 2007 (Checked Nov 11 2019)

eCoaching Tip 35:  Structuring Online Discussions Using Problem Formulation and Resolutions Behaviors

I hope that you all enjoyed Tip 34: Threaded Discussions and Knowledge Construction that extended our look at communities and just what makes communities work. The core characteristic of a community that was identified was the sharing and comparing of perceptions, experiences and beliefs. We also used the image of a crystal to envision how a threaded discussion might grow and develop and suggested that you or your students think about how you might describe one of your discussions. Be sure to post or share your results if you did on the blog.

This week’s tip examines another step in developing a community of learners by looking at the processes of problem formulation and resolution.  These processes are rich in their possibilities for structuring online discussions to encourage critical thinking, interaction and problem-solving. These types of discussions also are rich in the potential contributions from the faculty member — further supporting the key role of the faculty with his or her expert presence and voice.

Don’t miss the example strategy adapting the three-part post to problem formulation.  Mid-point of a course is a good time to use this focus on problem formulation.

Fitting Problem Formulation and Resolution into the Evolution of a Learning Community

You may recall that the sharing and comparing of information is step one of the Interaction-Analysis Model proposed by Gunawardena, Lowe and Anderson (1997) referenced in Tip 34. The other steps in that model of interaction include the following:

  • Discovering/exploring of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts or statements
  • Negotiation of meaning and co-constructing of knowledge
  • Testing and modifying of proposed synthesis or co-construction statements
  • Agreeing on final statement and applications of newly constructed meaning or insights

All of these steps involve identifying and then attempting to resolve areas of dissonance and inconsistency in course content, other resources and learners’ and teams’ beliefs. To translate this model into specific behaviors, it is helpful to look at another study identifying cognitive specific behaviors used in problem formulation and solution.

Problem Formulation and Solution Behaviors

The study (2006) by Murphy and Manzanares identified a set of nineteen (19) behaviors that might be used in formulating problems and then resolving problems. These behaviors are categorized in behaviors for Problem Formulation (11)  and behaviors for Problem Resolution (8).

Problem Formulation Behaviors

The two highest level cognitive processes for problem formulation are (1) defining the problem space and (2) building knowledge. These two processes lend themselves well to an online discussion activity, either individual or team activities. The three part post model — (1) What I know; (2) Why I know what I know, and (3) What I wish I knew can be readily adapted to a discussion focusing on problem formulation using these three prompts: (1) What I think the problem is; (2) What I know now that supports that formulation and why, and (3) What knowledge do I need to find, search out, etc. to clarify the problem further.

As noted above, Murphy and Manzanares identified 11 behaviors in problem formulation from their analyses of the transcripts of online discussions. These behaviors can also be used in providing suggestions and guidelines for students, clarifying expectations, for example.  These behaviors are also useful for developing rubrics for assessment.

1. Problem Formulation Behaviors
  • Agreeing with problem as presented
  • Specifying ways in which the problem may manifest itself
  • Redefining problem within problem space
  • Minimizing and /or denying the problem
  • Identifying extent of problem
  • Identifying causes of problem
  • Articulating problem outside problem space
  • Identifying unknowns in knowledge
  • Accessing and reporting on sources of information
  • Identifying the value of information

Problem Solution Behaviors

Murphy and Manzanares also associate three high-level cognitive behaviors with problem resolution, the second step in addressing problems:  (1) identifying solutions; (2) evaluating solutions; and (3) acting on solutions.

2. Problem Resolution Behaviors
  • Proposing solutions
  • Hypothesizing about solutions
  • Agreeing with solutions proposed by others
  • Weighing and comparing alternative solutions
  • Critiquing solutions
  • Rejecting /eliminating solutions judged unworkable
  • Planning to act
  • Reaching conclusions or arriving at an understanding of the problem

Developing Problem-Solvers and Critical Thinkers

Most reports and studies on the state of higher education stress the need for graduates who are good problem solvers and effective team players.  This set of behaviors — embedded into the processes of online discussions — helps students to see the processes and the knowledge needed for first, formulating the problem, and then secondly, solving the problem. Of course, in many cases, the work that is done in formulating and clarifying a problem often takes us halfway to a solution to a particular problem.  And this is a valuable lesson on its own. The sustained and thoughtful interaction and the teamwork required to clarify and solve problems results in the shared knowledge discovery and co-creation that are also indicators of a successful learning community.

We have promised previously that we would do more about the instructor role and cognitive presence.  We’ll work on that soon. In the meantime be sure to share your questions, successes, and stories!


Gunawardena, C. N., Lowe, C. A., & Anderson, T. (1997). Analysis of a global online debate and the development of an interaction analysis model for examining social construction of knowledge in computer conferencing   Journal of Educational Computing Research, 17(4), 397 – 431. Retrieved from

Murphy, E., & Manzanares, M. A. R. (2006). Profiling individual discussants’ behaviours in online asynchronous discussions. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 32 (2). Retrieved from

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2019