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Problem-Solving Activities

Problem-Solving Activities


Problem-Based Learning is used frequently in inquiry classes to give students practice thinking their way through problems with the guidance of the teacher. This equips students to better tackle their own inquiry research individually.

Traditionally, Problem-Based Learning has differed from the Case Method of instruction in that problems are generated by the teacher and students generate solutions, while Cases are real historical events and students analyze/critique the decisions made by the people in those events. In the classroom, one may certainly blur this distinction with positive instructional effect.

The activity

Weiss (2003) reviews the principal features of problems that require higher-order thought. These problems should be:

  • Ill-structured - problems that are "messy" like everyday life require real thought about real, not necessarily perfect, solutions
  • Challenging - so they extend the students' current knowledge
  • Collaborative - Students must work together, but not in a segmented way: the focus must be on consensus and synthesis.
  • Authentic - The problems must not be too theoretical; they must resonate with the students' lives or how they might imagine their lives in the future.

These problems can be found almost anywhere in the professional life of someone in your discipline. Tapping one's professional networks for "good teaching problems" can generate many options from which to choose.


Emphasize to students the importance of fully understanding a problem and generating the criteria for a "good" solution to it before they start developing a solution. These kinds of problem-solving activities do not necessarily need to be for a grade, but students should understand the general direction in which they are expected to take their solutions.


Weiss provides an example of the kind of problem she recommends:

"Smalltown is one of the fastest growing towns in the area. It prides itself on its new bike trail that includes paved areas and beautifully landscaped natural settings. According to the Smalltown police chief, the bike trails are the targets of vandals who have painted graffiti on the asphalt trail and on trees in more scenic and natural parts of the trail. Furthermore, the bike trails are constantly littered with empty water bottles, old tires, broken skateboard wheels, and rusty bicycle chains. There have even been two arrests for public drunkenness on the trail. The chamber of commerce has hired you to launch a local advertising campaign that will inspire some civic pride in the trail and develop a sense of ownership of the trail.

Based on this information, work as a group to reach consensus on the exact nature of the problem, analyze an audience for the advertising campaign that you could likely reach, develop criteria for measuring a 'good' campaign for reaching that audience, and develop an outline for three different campaigns that meet your criteria and thus might be successful." (p.29)

From Weiss, R.E. (2003). Designing problems to promote higher-order thinking. In Knowlton, D.S. & Sharp, D.C. (Eds.) New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 95: Problem-Based Learning in the Information Age. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.