Exercise of the Week #3

Problem Solving Pilates

By Erica Kosal PhD, Office for Faculty Excellence

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Problem-solving is a skill.  This skill can grow and develop over time with practice, with effort, with maturity, and with acquired knowledge.  Problem-solving can be done independently and it can occur in groups.  When people consider the value of problem-solving, we often focus on the practical application aspect.  Solving problems to help address a situation.  In this way, working through problems can help build a student’s critical thinking potential.  And certainly, critical thinking requires the ability to solve problems.  But problem-solving is also a means to grow a person’s creative thinking skills.  Finding answers to problems is also a way to put sometimes seemingly irrelevant topics into a relevant, meaningful context for students which can allow students to make connections across disciplines, grow their holistic thinking, and expand their confidence in a course.

Problem-solving, of course, doesn’t necessarily come easy to all students.  While some of our college students have had much experience with developing strategies to tackle a problem, others begin their college careers with minimal exposure.  The pandemic seems to have stalled some efforts in this area as well, such that students are entering the University without much experience with problem-solving.  Students may be used to working on a problem that is based on directions (e.g. steps in a math problem or following directions in a lab manual) with a problem confined within the scope of the lesson.  Students may also be comfortable with getting a “right answer” as a result of their efforts.  If something goes wrong, they can get frustrated, and may decide to go no further.  Students do not have as much experience with open-ended problem solving that involves critical and creative thinking.

We need to foster more of the growth mindset, where students see the value of mistakes and treat topics and concepts as the material they don’t understand yet.  Using case studies in the classroom can help in this regard.  Students can read about a pertinent story complete with data to interpret and problems to work out. Having scenarios that can be deciphered from multiple angles without one “correct” answer is helpful so students can grow their creative thinking.  Giving credit for effort rather than correctness will allow students to take more chances without fear of being “wrong”.  

Case studies play off of a student’s inductive reasoning.  The examples that case studies provide “speak” to a student, allowing them to “see” the story unfold and have an investment in solving one part to open the next part of the plot.  I prefer to use case studies in parts.  One part of the story is told, and then some questions, data, and/or problems are presented to the students.  These questions must be attempted before the second part is revealed.  Often answers to some questions are subjective; the answers do not necessarily have to be “correct”, but they need to be logical.  Following the students’ efforts and answers, the actual choice that was made in the case study is revealed in the second part, which may or may not match what the students determined.  And that is alright.  The story continues.  And after this second part is told, there are more problems to solve.  Sometimes there may be a part three, and so on, until the end of the case is revealed.  The case studies can be like a puzzle of sorts, playing into a student’s desire to find out how the story ends.  Students find the case studies interesting and enjoyable.

I also prefer to have students work in groups to solve these case studies.  This way multiple ideas can be shared, students can learn from each other, and especially when a math problem or data are presented, one student may help teach others and therefore their knowledge strengthened.  Typically, after one part of the case study is completed, the larger class will have a short discussion focused on one aspect of that section.  This allows for the groups to hear additional ideas and for concepts to be clarified before moving on to the next part of the case study.

After a case study is used in the classroom, you can springboard from the activity, building on it over the weeks.  For example, you could pair a case study with a followup reading assignment.  You could plan a followup activity, such as a debate or role playing activity in the classroom.  I often use case studies as a means of introducing a concept, framing its significance, and then elaborating on it during the next class period.  I can provide further details, go over a process that is complex, or use the case study as that introduction and continue the logical progression of topics stemming from the case study.

While working on case studies, it is clear when I walk around the classroom to help groups, to listen to their conversations, and to gain a sense of progress, that students are engaged and I could argue, are having fun.  They are growing their analytical skills, they are improving their communication skills, they may be expanding their leadership skills and collaboration skills as well, and they are certainly increasing their problem solving abilities.  When looking at the literature, case studies have been shown to help develop a student’s critical thinking skills (Popil 2011).  Additionally, there is evidence that case studies are more effective than classroom discussions and textbook reading when it comes to students learning key biological concepts and that students find they have gained in oral and written communication skills as well as the ability to see connections to aspects of life (Bonney 2015). 

One final benefit that comes from using case studies to help increase a student’s problem solving skills that I have seen many times, is the budding of a genuine interest in something embedded in the case study. This new enthusiasm can be the general, overall theme of the case study (e.g. how chemicals are negatively affecting male frogs) or it can be something more specific that was embedded in the case study (e.g. how endocrine disruptors work at the cellular level).  Regardless, this is what teaching is really all about.  Getting students excited to learn more, taking ownership of their learning, ultimately get their creative juices flowing, and getting ready to give back, consistently problem-solving along the way.

Bonney, KM. 2015. Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Preceptions of Learning Gains. J Microbiol Biol Educ 16(1): 21-28. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846
Popil, I. 2011. Promotion of critical thinking by using case studies as teaching method. Nurse Education Today 31(2): 204-207. doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2010.06.002