Problem Solving Education in the University


This is my fourth reflection on the ISTE Standards for Students. This week I explore the fourth standard. As with my previous reflections, I use a four-step process to reflect broadly at first and then when the focuses is narrowed I dive deeper. First, I pose a triggering question; second, I explore various resources and research the topic in an effort to answer my triggering question; third, I integrate conversations from my DEL cohort; finally, I seek a resolution–at least an attempt. If this is your first time visiting my blog a grand welcome to you! I invite you to read my other reflections on the ISTE 1, 2, and 3. These will help give you an idea of the context. As always, I invite your feedback in the form of comments or mention me on Twitter.

ISTE 4 Standards for Students 4: Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

The fourth ISTE Standards for Students states, “Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.” My interest this week is unpacking the concept of problem solving skills. In particular, what are the key problem solvings skills college graduates need before entering the workforce and how might universities equip them. My research of this topic is mainly focused on general needs in the higher education field, but I am also interested in specific problem solving skills that can be taught in my university.

Triggering Question

I formulated the following question to guide my exploration, integration, and resolution phases. What are key problem solving skills needed by college graduates entering the workforce and what resources are available for students to learn these problem solving skills to be successful?


In 2013 Hart Research Associates conducted research for The Association Of American Colleges And Universities. After interviewing over 300 employers they discovered that 93% of employers agreed to the following statement, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” (p. 1). Reading this point sparked my interested in this particular topic.

My research this week is focused on learning about the problem solving skills needed by college graduates and how students can learn the skills they need. Jozwiak (2004) discusses the need for college professors to implement problem solving into all courses in the particular context of what a student is learning. There isn’t a need for a specific problem solving course, per se, but rather an comprehensive integration throughout a college curriculum. Jozwiak recommends a two-prong approach for teaching problem-solving skills, “First, adult students must be introduced to theories, methods, and terminology of structured problem-solving…second, and by far most important, part of teaching problem-solving skills is incorporating the use of open-ended activities into as many of the existing classes as possible (p. 28). Furthermore, Kuo, Chen, & Hwang (2014) emphasize the important connection between critical thinking and problem solving. The two are connected and critical thinking is the impetus to problem solve well, “Creative thinking is the process of surpassing learned principles and creating new methods for solving problems (p. 221).

Jonassen (2000) introduces Robert Gagné, the american educational psychologist, at the beginning of his article and quotes him as saying, “[T[he central point of education is to teach people to think, to use their rational powers, to become better problem solvers” (p. 63). Jonassen’s article is a primer on the various problem-solving techniques and serves as an introduction to the complex understanding of the various types of problems and ways to solve the problems. Furthermore, the article discusses the need for education to move beyond “well-structured” simple problem solving techniques to more complex “ill-structured” problems that can’t be taught in simple arithmetic problems, for example. Jonassen’s rationale is stated early, “graduates are rarely, if ever, adequately prepared to function in everyday and professional contexts following education and training” because of college students are only taught to solve well-structured problems (p. 63). Jonassen offers a wide and comprehensive overview of the various types of problems and discusses whether they are typically well or ill-structured. The problems covered are: logical, algorithmic, story, rule-using, decision-making, troubleshooting, diagnosis-solution, strategic performance, case-analysis, design, dilemmas, and metaproblems.

These two article state the case for university education to better prepare students and advocate the need for professors to implement specific types of problem-solving education into their courses. Yet, I wonder if the university can really implement strategic enhancements to the curriculum to include these components. Especially when the very method of university teaching, as Bates (n.d.) discusses in the fourth chapter, is at the center of debate. Bates offers one explanation, “Faculty in post-secondary education have no other model for teaching…they have no knowledge of how students learn or confidence or experience in other methods of teaching” (p. 67).

In my preliminary research I found a for-profit company called Koru that markets itself as a partner with liberal arts schools to help teach skills needs for “high growth” employers. For just under $3,000 college graduates take part in a 4-week real-world problem solving activity with a team to meet the needs of a real-world company. In Koru’s words the intensive program provides, “practical skills, real experiences, continues mentorship, and a powerful network.” Kuro promises a job interview with a high growth employer at the end of the intensive program and boasts a 85% placement rate. Koru’s outposts are in Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston and has partnered with a number of universities, including Whitman College. I find the prospects of a program like Koru exciting for the potential to build on a liberal arts education and give college graduates real-world experiences. However, I am not convinced that universities should outsource soft-skill education.


Throughout my exploration phase a number of concerns and questions arose. First, should liberal arts universities figure out an in-house solution for problem solving educatio or is it more cost-effective for a university to partner with an organization such as Koru? Second, how might a Seattle-based university fair if internships and/or real-world problem-based learning environments were integrated into the curriculum in relationship with business in the area? Finally, should we start expecting college graduates are unemployable and need something more than their undergraduate degree or should we adapt and change our college undergraduate education to meet the need of employers today? In particular, I am thinking about this statement from the survey, “A candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” (Hart Research Associates).


In the integration phase I received helpful feedback from my cohort and professors. In particular, my professor, Dr. David Wicks, introduced me to The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). Their frameworks includes problem solving (and critical thinking) as learning and innovation skills needed for 21st century student outcomes. On P21’s website dedicated to resources for educators, they’ve created a number of 21st Century Skills Maps that provide scenarios for integrating critical thinking and problem solving skill building in the classroom. The latest skill map, for project management learning, was created by the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, and compiles a number of examples across high school grade levels of real projects that revolve around a problem that needs to be solved. This resource can easily be adapted for the use in higher education. Furthermore, I learned about Destination Imagination from P21. This organization provides opportunities for students, across many age levels, to work together in their challenge program to solve real-world problems. Destination Imagination also has the same program for university students to create a team and compete. This type of program, sponsored by companies such as IBM and Motorola, 3M, and Oracle, might be a better way for universities to partner with an outside company to teach and practice problem-solving skills. This company is non-profit and provides more flexibility than the four week Koru course.

Also during my integration phase I learned about a 12-hour problem solving adventure, Branded. Every year the Center for Applied Learning in the School for Business, Government, and Economics at SPU hosts the Social Venture Plan competition. The competition provides a unique and powerful connection to area businesses. Students work in teams to meet social and financial needs of a particular business idea/plan. While this in itself is a great example of a university providing students connections with area business and gaining, much in-demand, problem solving skills, Branded connects the Social Venture teams with Art students for a one-day, 12-hour, branding session. In their own words Branded is, “[A] 12-hour day of intense interaction during which young designers, illustrators and other artists pair up with aspiring social entrepreneurs to create logos, web templates, venture names and other design elements for social venture plans.” There is potential for the use of this format in higher education where you combine students across a university from various disciplines to compete and practice real-world scenarios that involved the soft skills of problem solving and critical thinking. Below is video sharing about Branded.


I was initially concerned I wouldn’t be able to resolve my triggering question. I am not convinced I completely did, but through the exploration and integration phases I learned about possible ideas and a way to start and continue the conversation about how to better implement problem solving skills education in the university setting. Through research from the  various articles I found, learning about what employers need in the Hart study, understanding the benefits something like Koru offers as a cost, unpacking the potential of implementing of the P21 skills maps and implementing them into a classroom, and discovering the impact of something like Branded I have three points I move forward with. First, it is important to learn about what universities are already doing–it may be small or not heavily advertised, but their contributions are nonetheless impactful for the students involved in them (e.g., Branded and the Social Venture Plan competition). Second, when reflecting on how to implement problem solving education into a university it might be helpful to look for across discipline opportunities before looking for an outside company to provide the education. For example, the collaboration with art students in the social venture plan competition is nothing but a natural connection–but it takes someone to step back and see what potential connections exist. Finally, university educators can provide problem solving skills in their classroom by integrating projects that empower students to work collaboratively with classmates on projects. Educators may find ways to create assignments–projects–for their students that tackle real-world problems and invite their students to connect with resources outside the classroom, namely appropriate people and organizations, to accomplish the project.

I invite your feedback and ideas on this topic. Are their examples you can share about universities implementing problem solving education more broadly throughout the curriculum?

Process Graphic

For each reflection I try to find a new app or service to create or capture a graphic that represents the process. This week I used Mindly on my iPad. Simialr to the service, Mindly allows you to create a circular mindmap and integrate icons (emoticons), web links, text, and images from your device. I appreciated the clean interface and it was fairly simple to use. However, adding web links and images could be a made more intuitive. The free iPad version allows you to export as a PDF, but limits you to three mind maps, or elements as they call them.



Bates, A. W. (n.d.). Methods of teaching. Teaching in a digital age (4). Retrieved from

Destination Imagination. (2014). University level – challenge. Retrieved from

Edens, K. M. (2000). Preparing problem solvers for the 21st century through problem-based learning. College Teaching, 48(2), 55-60.

Hart Research Associates (2013). It takes more than a major: employer priorities for college learning and student success. Retrieved from

Jonassen, D. H. (2000). Toward a design theory of problem solving. Educational Technology Research and Development 48(4), 63-85.

Jonassen, D. (2011). Supporting problem solving in PBL. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 5(2). Available at:

Jozwiak, J. (2004). Teaching problem-solving skills to adults. Journal of Adult Education 33(1), 19-34.

Kuo, F.-R., Chen, N.-S., & Hwang, G.-J. (2014). A creative thinking approach to enhancing the web-based problem solving performance of university students. Computers & Education, 72(c), 220–230.

Lohman, M. C. (2002), Cultivating problem-solving skills through problem-based approaches to professional development. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 13(3), 243–261. doi: 10.1002/hrdq.1029

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2014). 21st century skills map – project management for learning. Retrived from

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (n.d.). Resources for educators. Retrieved from

Schwiet, Z. [Zac Schwiet]. (2014). Branded [Video file]. Retrieved from

Seattle Pacific University. (n.d.). The social venture plan competition. Retrieved from

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