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January 21, 2008

E-Coaching Tip #55 Spring 2008

First Week Challenges: Jumping Quickly into Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

What do we know about engaging students in sustained discussion about significant ideas? What do we know about what they already know? We often want to wait until the middle or even the end of a course before students start solving more complex or difficult problems, but today's students want to dig in and become involved in "real" stuff from the very beginning. It helps them to see how valuable the course will be!

So, here is a way to get your students doing complex thinking much more quickly! Start with a Challenge! What do we mean? Rather than starting your course with the easier, less complex problems, start with the expected end performance goals. Here's one strategy to do this.

In your introductory discussion, require each of your students to describe a problem, question or difficult question they have about the course content. This may mean that they start at the back of their textbook -- with continuing issues, problems, or future directions and research.

Direct them to select a case study or scenario that is challenging and that they want to know how to either (1) address, (2) manage, (3) resolve, (4) develop expertise, (5) develop a set of alternative strategies.

Yes, there can be problems with starting with this Challenge in First Week strategy. What are they?

Possible Problems with this Strategy

1. Students might complain that they do not know enough to know what they want to know. This is actually a valid complaint. To ask really intelligent questions requires knowing enough to frame a question.

A possible response is that the problems and tasks and goals they specify only need to fit where they are in their current state of knowledge. The problems do not have to be perfect or even make sense within the discipline. The purpose of this challenge is to get them actively engaged, waking up their brain cells and doing an initial mapping of the upcoming course content with how it might apply to them, to their lives, and future ideas and challenges.

Another response is that over the course of the course these problems, questions and goals will serve as touchstones or measures of what they have learned and skills, areas of knowledge yet to come.

2. Students might complain that this will take too much time. Well, it may take a bit longer than they had planned for the first week, but it will be worth it.

3. Students might respond that they would like to do this task with someone. Actually that is a good strategy as students can begin talking and expressing their ideas verbally or in print immediately. Students can be encouraged to work in teams of two for this task. Teams of three might work, but the goal is to really engage the students, so two is recommended. Working in teams for this task requires students to get to know at least one other person well enough to get a sense of what the other student does professionally and the potential relevance of the course content.

Benefits of This Strategy

This Challenge in the First Week strategy also has many benefits. Here are a few and we suspect that you can come up with many more!

  1. Developing a question requires thinking, reflecting, and broad ranging panic usually - but is a powerful strategy in helping the students look forward and getting a sense of the course content, problem space, and discipline perspectives and then fitting it into what they know or don't know.
  2. You will get a look inside your students' heads -- getting to know their zones of proximal development as Vygotsky would say. You will get a sense of the depth and breadth of any preexisting knowledge that students have about this topic through the problems and challenges identified by the students. This can be good news, bad news as you may want to change your course!
  3. Developing a list of the problems, tasks, and issues identified by the students creates a personalized, customized problem set for the course. By creating their own set of problems, the students are providing teaching directions for themselves and they can -- over the course of the term, come back to them, and revise, address, change, etc, in light of the new knowledge, content, and perspectives of the course.
  4. The set of problems also provides a base of common experience for the class as a whole, developing a basis for community and sustained conversation. As new topics are discussed, critical questions focusing on relationships, issues and directions can refer back to these challenges. For example, a common on-going course question might be one of these relationship questions, such as
  • How does this content help illuminate or recast any of our course challenges?
  • How is this content related to XX?

5. These types of questions lead to another benefit -- the course is quickly set up as a "Community of Inquiry Model." (Garrison and Arbaugh, 2007 and Garrison, 2004) We talked about this model as a problem-solving model in an earlier tip. www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip36.html

Here is that model again for your convenience:

  • Triggering event -- the problem, challenge, task proposed by you, the faculty member as part of the design of your course. This means a focus on problem-solving for part of your course goals.
  • Exploration -- the process of both individual reflection by the students and the discourse through which the problem formulation occurs. Remember the course tip from last week. Some of the indicators that exploration is occurring are divergent ideas, exchange of information, brainstorming, requests for feedback on ideas, etc.
  • Integration -- the process by which the members of the community reflect individually and as a group and then reach some convergences by connecting ideas, identifying relationships and patterns, and proposing solutions
  • Resolution -- the group or larger community applies and tests solutions in the real world scenarios. Learners defend their resolutions and the thinking that supports them.

Tools for Supporting First Week Challenges

As mentioned in the first part of this tip, you can use the discussion board and have your students post their problems, challenges, and questions in that space. Another option is to use one of your new Blackboard tools -- the Blogging tool -- that is very well suited to this as it provides for some ownership and identity of the blog and sustained conversation over time. Each of your students or teams of students can use their blog for their own particular challenge, question or problem and you and all the students in the class can return to that blog space as the question, challenge becomes clearer or ideas and resources to help with it are found.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. (2004). Critical Thinking and Computer Conferencing: A Model and Tool to Assess Cognitive Presence. http://www.communityofinquiry.com/files/CogPres_Final.pdf Accessed January 19, 2008 at the web site for Communities of Inquiry at the University of Calgary

Garrison, D.R. & Arbaugh, J.B. (2007). Researching the Community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and Future directions The Internet and Higher Education. 10(3), 157-172.


First Week Challenges: Jumping Quickly into Critical Thinking and Problem Solving



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013