eCoaching Tip 58 Reaching the Heights of Learning — Authentic Problem-Solving

April 09, 2008

eCoaching Tip 58: Reaching the Heights of Learning — Authentic Problem-Solving

This tip focuses on activities and strategies that you can use to create effective problem-solving experiences in your online course. The general rule of thumb for problem learning is to incorporate problems that are as “authentic as possible.”  What is meant by authentic? One definition is that authentic learning “uses real-world problems and projects that allow students to explore and discuss these problems in ways that are relevant to them.” (Carlson, 2001)

This tip explores ways that you can take practical steps towards incorporating authentic problem-solving into your courses.  The references provide some starting points for examining the role of simulations and games that you may want to pursue in looking towards the future. You may also want to refer back Tip 48 on “What-if” scenarios.

Refreshing Our Thinking about Types of Course Content

As you may recall from previous tips, one model of content resources categorizes course resources into four types: (1) core concept content; (2) simple application content; (3) more complex applications and problem-solving for which solutions are available and (4) authentic, real and immediate problems for which solutions may not be known.

In the face-to-face classroom simple problem-solving activities are often modeled synchronously, and taking the learners step-by-step through a problem solution. In the online environment, this modeling of problem-solving is often done with prerecorded tutorials, spontaneous online classroom or text materials.

More complex problem-solving activities are usually done with a combination of individual and small group work followed by sustained synchronous conversation.  In other words, more complex problem-solving is often not one activity but usually a sequence of activities. These activities take learners through a series of activities, first focusing on some initial independent exploratory thinking; then sharing some of this “thought work” with others and then processing possible solutions and alternatives in a group setting.

Steps in Problem-Solving

Your learners can often benefit from help in understanding the phases in problem-solving.  You may want to adopt one of problem-solving “step” approaches that are recommended for general real world problem-solving. Here is a seven (7) step process that you might consider using, if you don’t have one that you are already using. A website with descriptions of each of the seven steps is available here —  For math problems and other engineering types of problems, a four (4) step process initially developed by G. Polya might be preferred.

Here is the seven-step process.

  1. Define and Identify the Problem
  2. Analyze the Problem
  3. Identify Possible Solutions
  4. Select the Best Solutions
  5. Evaluate Solutions
  6. Develop an Action Plan
  7. Implement the Solution

The next part of this tip details examples of how you may want to approach problem-solving strategies in your course. For example, one strategy to keep as an option is to only do parts of the more complex and authentic problem-solving in any one course, particularly if you have a short eight-week term. But more on that later.

Problem-solving Phase One — Individual Starting Points

Let’s assume that the end goal of this authentic problem-solving assignment is to do one of the following:

o  Create a vision for the next stage of growth for a company

o  Develop a report on possible alternatives for solving a leadership problem

o  Critique and provide alternatives to the statistical methods used in a study

o  Develop recommendations for a problem — tied to the course content, of course — in the workplace that one or more of the learners is experiencing

o  Identify and analyze environmentally-safe or friendly products for cleaning in your area

The first steps to solving any problem involve analyzing the problem and envisioning what a successful outcome might look like.  As this is a skill that we want all learners to develop, it is good to have the students spend some time analyzing just what the problem is and what that end result might look like.

So the first phase is to have the learners approach this problem individually and record or capture their initial thoughts about what the problem is and how to approach it. This first step can be done as an assignment that is then posted in a learner’s blog or in a discussion board. This assignment is not intended to be long or complex, but a starting point that shows thought, questioning and possible initial research.

Another option, of course, is to have the students work in small groups or teams in this initial phase as well, depending on the maturity of the learners and the complexity of the problem.

Problem-solving Phase Two — Small group or Team Collaboration

In this phase of the process the learners work in small groups or teams and bring their initial thoughts, questions, observations to a brainstorming meeting. This is what is sometimes difficult to do in the online environment. The best brainstorming is synchronous or almost synchronous. So the best online tools might be the Wimba online classroom, or a chat room. Another alternative is to use our cell phones, combined with widely accessible wi-fi combined with free collaborating applications, such as Google. A wiki or blog environment, although asynchronous, can work if synchronous just doesn’t make sense.

It is usually wise to record and report the results of this brainstorming session, as the next step will be for the small teams to collectively agree on the definition of the problem, and some of the possible solutions or approaches to the problem.

The result of the brainstorming session including work on possible solutions is then shared with the larger course community in Phase Three.

Problem-solving Phase Three  — Course Community Sharing and “Consulting”

In this third phase of a problem-solving course project, the learners share the results of their work with the rest of the community. If the learners are working on similar problems they can compare and evaluate the approaches; if the learners have selected problems that are quite different, they can serve as advisors and consultants to each other.

Tools that support this phase include general discussion forums, live classrooms, wikis, and team blogs.

Segment the Authentic Problems

Earlier, it was suggested that designing complex authentic problems into your course may be too ambitious or unwieldy — for both you and your learners.  Learners may be intimidated or overwhelmed by difficult and real problems in their course — on top of the very real problems that they may have at work and in their lives.

So, if your students are undergraduates or less experienced graduate students, segmenting the problem-solving learning experiences still provides a way to incorporate authentic and real problems into your courses.

For example, segmenting would mean focusing on the first steps in any problem-solving scenario, such as analyzing and clarifying the question and determining some potential approaches to the problem.  As John Dewey has observed, “A problem well stated is half-solved.”  In the same course the next time around, an approach would be to complete the process, and focus on the second half of the problem-solving process and select and evaluate some of the solutions and develop an action plan.

Other Resources for Authentic Problem-Solving

Many business courses and leadership courses use case studies as the focus of problems. These case studies are often readily available from sites such as the Harvard Business Online site for Educators.  A web-based simulation using the dramatic context of a Mount Everest expedition to explore processes of group dynamics and leadership is just one example of readily available case studies.

An alternative to using prepared case studies that sometimes seem very dated in our world of breaking news is to complement prepared case studies with Internet research or to have a class develop their own.  An article by James Theroux the challenges and possibilities of creating real and immediate cases by using the Internet to develop communications between the faculty, learners and a company.  A tool that can support this type of development is a wiki that can be developed collaboratively.

Closing Thoughts

A common concern about problem-based learning is that it is difficult to “cover” all the content in a course. This is a valid concern. The best way to deal with it is to analyze your course in terms of the performance goals that you have for your students. Finding enough content is no longer our biggest challenge; interpreting and using content well in incorporating authentic problem solving is.

References and Resources

Carlson, Ann. (2001) Authentic Learning: What does it really mean?Innovative Teaching Showcase from Western Washington University. Retrieved July 24, 2010 from

E-Coaching Tip 48 (Summer 2007) Using “What-If” Scenarios — Flexing Our Minds with Possibilities.  Retrieved July 24, 2010 from

Galarneau, Lisa. (2005)Authentic Learning Experiences Through Play:  Games, Simulations and the Construction of Knowledge.Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference:  Changing Views– Worlds in Play.  Retrieved July 24 2010 through

Harvard Business for Educators. Organizational Behavior & Leadership. New Leadership and Team Simulation – Mount Everest.  Retrieved July 24, 2010 through

Polya, G.  (1957) How to Solve It, 2nd ed., Princeton University Press, 1957, ISBN 0-691-08097-6. Summary retrieved July 24, 2010 from More about math success retrieved July 24 2010 from

Seven Steps to Problem-Solving July 24, 2010.

Theroux, James. (2007). What it takes to Innovate: The Experience of Producing an Online, Real-time Case Study. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11, 4, Sloan Consortium.

Van Gundy, Arthur B. The Seven Rules That Lead to Great Ideas.  Retrieved July 24, 2010 from

Note: These E-coaching 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 and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by