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Toward a Design Theory of Problem Solving

Author(s): David H. Jonassen

Source: Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 48, No. 4 (2000), pp. 63-85
Published by: Springer
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Toward a Design Theory of Problem Solving1

David H. Jonassen

Problem solving is generally regarded as the0 Gagne believed that "the central point of edu-
cation is to teach people to think, to use their
most important cognitive activity in everyday
and professional contexts. Most people are rational powers, to become better problem solv-
ers" (1980, p. 85). Like Gagne, most psycholo-
required to and rewarded for solving problems.
However, learning to solve problems is too gists and educators regard problem solving as
the most important learning outcome for life.
seldom required informal educational settings,
in part, because our understanding of its Why? Virtually everyone, in their everyday and
processes is limited. Instructional-design professional lives, regularly solves problems.
research and theory has devoted too little Few, if any, people are rewarded in their profes-
attention to the study of problem-solving sional lives for memorizing information and
processes. In this article, I describe differences
completing examinations, yet examinations are
among problems in terms of their the primary arbiter of success in society. Unfor-
structuredness, domain specificity tunately, students are rarely, if ever, required to
(abstractness), and complexity. Then, I briefly
solve meaningful problems as part of their cur-
describe a variety of individual diferences ricula. The few problems that students do
(factors internal to the problem solver) that encounter are normally well-structured (story)
affect problem solving. Finally, I articulate aproblems, which are inconsistent with the
typology of problems, each type of which nature of the problems they will need to learn to
engages diferent cognitive, affective, and solve in their everyday lives ("How can I get so-
conative processes and therefore necessitatesand-so to pay attention to me?"), professional
different instructional support. The purpose lives
of ("What kind of marketing approach is
this paper is to propose a metatheory of appropriate for this new product line?"), or even
problem solving in order to initiate dialoguetheir school lives ("Should I spend the next two
and research rather than offering a definitivehours studying for my math exam or go outside
answer regarding its processes. and play ball with my friends?"). Therefore,
graduates are rarely, if ever, adequately pre-
pared to function in everyday and professional
contexts following education and training. The
discrepancy between what learners need (com-
plex, ill-structured problem-solving experience)
1 This paper represents an effort to introduce issuesand
and what formal education (schools and corpo-
concerns related to problem solving to the instructional
design community. I do not presume that the community is
rate training) provides represents a complex and
ignorant of problem solving or its literature, only thatill-structured
too problem that instructional design
little effort has been expended by the field in articulating
may be able to ameliorate.
design models for problem solving. There are many reasons
for that state of affairs.
Why are we so inept at engaging learners in
The curse of any introductory paper is the lack of depth in
problem solving? A major reason, I argue, is that
the treatment of these issues. To explicate each of the issues
weisdo not understand the breadth of problem-
raised in this paper would require a book (which
forthcoming), which makes it unpublishable in a journal.solving
My activities well enough to engage and
purpose here is to introduce these issues in order to stimulate
support learners in them. Problem solving has
discussion, research, and development of problem-solving
instruction that will help us to articulate better design been sufficiently acknowledged or articu-
models. lated in the instructional design literature. With

ETR&D, Vol. 48, No. 4, 2000, pp. 63--85 ISSN 1042-1629 63

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64 ETR&D, Vol. 48, No. 4

few rary
exceptions, it isconception
not even
textbooks on instructional
credit, Smith environments
and Ragan (199
ter on 1994;
problem Land
solving, & H
only general narios (Schank,
tions. Gagne, and even
Briggs, andprob
edged that problem-solving
1985; Barrows l
and suggest lem-solving
only a brief temo
the events of instructional
instruction st
treat concept-learning
comes. The only
to support
systematically addresses
outcomes, but
(despite not explicateto
referring the
it na
the innovative(Jonassen,
text by 2000
van Me
focused training the on
Jonassen (1997
that are
required to solve pro
of problem-solv
ferent analysis processes that
guishing betwe
tional, hierarchical task decom
tured problems
insufficient, some researcher
design requirem
lyzing the range of problem
seeJonassen, Tessmer, & H
descriptions for
of ill-structur
Merrienboer treated all prob
assumptions wi
the most pervasive assumptio
cognition. Infor
design is that different learni
ceive of learn
sitate different conditions o
skills that can be applied across content
1980). So, instruction to supp
domains, while constructivism and situated cog-
ing learning outcomes should
nition argue for the domain specificity of any
used to support, for
performance and instance
therefore recommend embed-
or rule learning. However, i
ding instruction in some authentic context
nent models instructional of d
(Jonassen & Land, 2000). Assuming that differ-
Dick & Carey, Gagne & Briggs
ent kinds of problem solving in different con-
identifying and learning
texts and domains call on different skills, the
cepts, rules, and principles tha
Jonassen (1997) articulated instructional design
lem space enables learners
models for well-structured and ill-structured to
Unfortunately "mastering ea
problems. However, cognitive task analysis of
is not enough to promote no
hundreds of problems has proven that this
solving" (Mayer, 1998, p. 50).
dichotomy is inadequate to accommodate the
is to be regarded as a separate
range and complexity of problem-solving out-
intellectual outcome, this as
comes. Therefore, this article represents the next
lematic. An
underlying assum
step in explicating the dimensions of problem
is that problems are not the
solving in order to develop task-specific models
be supported in the same
for supporting the learning of problem solving. I
skills. Assuming that proble
begin by defining the nature and characteristics
more than the acquisition of
of problems and problem solving and conclude
specific models of problem-s
by positing a typology of problem-solving out-
need to be proposed and teste
comes. Although some believe this endeavor to
Another be unachievable
reason for (Kahney, 1993), articulating cat-
ing is that it egoriesat
is of problem
the solving center
is essential from an o
to instructional design
contemporary perspective, if we believe
learning th

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that different learning outcomes problem space. Thinking
differ- is internalized
ent forms of instruction. Subsequent papers
activity (Jonassen, will
2000b). Conscious meaning
more completely articulate the is engaged social,
cognitive, by activity, so there is a
affective, and historical dimensions
reciprocalof this typol-
regulatory feedback between knowl-
ogy of problems and recommend
edge andinstructional-
activity (Fishbein, Eckart, Lauver, van
design models for supporting learning
Leeuwen, of those
& Langemeyer, 1990). Problem solv-
problem-solving processes. ing requires manipulation of the problem space,
be it an internal mental representation or an
external physical representation.
What Is a Problem?
Over the past three decades, a number of
information-processing models of problem solv-
Just what is problem? There are only two critical
ing, such as the classic General Problem Solver
attributes of a problem. First, a problem is an
(Newell & Simon, 1972), have explained prob-
unknown entity in some situation (the difference
lem-solving processes. The General Problem
between a goal state and a current state). Those
Solver specifies two sets of thinking processes
situations vary from algorithmic math problems
associated with the problem-solving processes,
to vexing and complex social problems, such as
(a) understanding processes and (b) search pro-
violence in the schools. Second, finding or solv-
cesses. Another popular problem-solving
ing for the unknown must have some social, cul-
model, the IDEAL problem solver (Bransford &
tural, or intellectual value. That is, someone
Stein, 1984), describes problem solving as a uni-
believes that it is worth finding the unknown. If
form process of Identifying potential problems,
no one perceives an unknown or a need to deter-
Defining and representing the problem, Explor-
mine an unknown, there is no perceived prob-
ing possible strategies, Acting on those strate-
lem (whether the problem exists independent of
gies, and Looking back and evaluating the
any perception is an ontological issue that is
effects of those activities. Although the IDEAL
beyond the scope of this paper). Finding the
model assumes that these processes are applied
unknown is the process of problem solving.
differently to different problems, no explicit sug-
Problem solving is "any goal-directed
gestions are made for how to do this. Gick (1986)
sequence of cognitive operations" (Anderson,
synthesized these and other problem-solving
1980, p. 257). Those operations have two critical
models (Greeno, 1978) into a simplified model of
attributes. First, problem solving requires the
the problem-solving process, including the pro-
mental representation of the situation in the
cesses of constructing a problem representation,
world. That is, human problem solvers construct
searching for solutions, and implementing and
a mental representation (or mental model) of the
monitoring solutions. Although descriptively
problem, known as the problem space (Newell
useful, these problem-solving models tend to
& Simon, 1972). Although there is little agree-
treat all problems the same in an effort to articu-
ment on the meanings of mental models or prob-
late a generalizable problem-solving procedure.
lem spaces, internal mental models (as opposed
The culmination of information-processing con-
to social or team mental models) of problem
cepts was an attempt to articulate a uniform the-
spaces are multimodal representations consist-
ory of problem solving (Smith, 1991), albeit
ing of structural knowledge, procedural knowl-
edge, reflective knowledge, images and
metaphors of the system, and executive or stra-Problem solving is not a uniform activity.
tegic knowledge (Jonassen & Henning, 1999). Problems are not equivalent, in content, form, or
process. Schema-theoretic conceptions of prob-
Although internal problem spaces may be exter-
nalized as formal models or representationslem solving opened the door for different prob-
lem types by arguing that problem-solving skill
using a variety of knowledge representation
is dependent on a schema for solving particular
tools (Jonassen, 2000c), it is the mental construc-
types of problems. If the learner possesses a
tion of the problem space that is the most critical
for problem solving. Second, problem solvingcomplete schema for any problem type, then
requires some activity-based manipulation ofconstructing the problem representation

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66 ETR&D, Vol. 48, No. 4

Figure 1 17 Problem-solving

Problem Variations Representation Individual Differences = Problem Solving Skill

Ill-structuredness Context Domain knowledge
Complexity social familiarity
Abstractness/ historical perplexity
situatedness cultural experience
(domain specificity) Cues/Clues Structural knowledge
Modality Procedural knowledge
Systemic/conceptual knowledge
Domain-specific reasoning
Cognitive styles
General problem-solving

Motivation /perseverence

involves mapping an existing problem schema PROBLEM VARIATIONS

onto a problem and using the procedure that is

part of the problem schema to solve it. Existing Problems vary in their nature, in the way they
problem schemas are the result of previous are presented or represented, and in their com-
experiences in solving particular types of prob- ponents and interactions among them. Mayer
lems, enabling learners to proceed directly to the and Wittrock (1996) described problems as ill-
implementation stage of problem solving (Gick, defined-well-defined and routine-nonroutine.

1986) and try out the activated solution. Experts Jonassen (1997) distinguished well-structured
are good problem solvers because they recog- from ill-structured problems and articulated dif-
nize different problem states that invoke certain ferences in cognitive processing engaged by
solutions (Sweller, 1988). If the type of problem each. Smith (1991) distinguished external fac-
is recognized, then little searching through the tors, including domain and complexity, from
problem space is required. Novices, who do not internal characteristics of the problem solver.
possess well-developed problem schemas, are There is increasing agreement that problems
not able to recognize problem types, so they vary in substance, structure, and process. In this
must rely on general problem solving strategies, section, I briefly describe the ways in which
such as the information processing approaches, problems vary. Problems vary in terms of their
which provide weak strategies for problem solu- structuredness, complexity, and abstractness
tions (Mayer, 1992). (domain specificity). Although there is similar-

In this paper, I attempt to articulate the attri- ity among these three factors, they are neither

butes of problems that make them different as independent nor equivalent. There is sufficient
independence among the factors to warrant sep-
well as some of the attributes of problem solvers
arate consideration.
that discriminate their abilities and dispositions
to solve problems. As depicted in Figure 1, I
believe that the ability to solve problems is a
function of the nature of the problem, the way
that the problem is represented to the solver,
and a host of individual differences that mediate Jonassen (1997) distinguished well-structured
the process. Each of these factors will be from ill-structured problems and recommended
addressed in turn, although an elaborate discus- different design models for each, because each
sion of these factors is beyond the scope of a sin- kind of problem calls on different skills. The
gle paper. most commonly encountered problems, espe-

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cially in schools and universities, are

about the well-struc-
problem, so ill-structured problems
are uniquely
tured problems. Typically found at human
the interpersonal
end of activities
(Meacham & Emont, 1989).
textbook chapters and on examinations, these
well-structured problems require the applica-
The real problem-solving activity involved
tion of a finite number of concepts, rules, and
with solving ill-structured problems is provid-
principles being studied to a constrained prob-
ing a problem with structure when there is none
lem situation. These problems have been
apparent (Simon, 1973).
referred to as transformation problems (Greeno,
I do not mean to imply that everyday practice
1978), which consist of a well-defined initial
does not include well-structured problems. It
state (what is known), a known goal state
does (e.g., route planning). And we know that
(nature of the solution well defined), and a con-
ill-structured problems can become well-struc-
strained set of logical operators (known proce-
tured with practice (Simon, 1973). However,
dure for solving). Well-structured problems:
everyday practice is more suffused with ill-
* Present all elements of the problem
structured to is
problems than the
educational prac-
learners. tice.

* Require the application of a limited number Researchers have long assumed that learning
of regular and well-structured rules and prin- to solve well-structured problems transfers pos-
ciples that are organized in predictive and itively to learning to solve ill-structured prob-
prescriptive ways. lems. Although information processing theories
believed that "in general, the processes used to
* Have knowable, comprehensible solutions
solve ill-structured problems are the same as
where the relationship between decision
those used to solve well structured problems"
choices and all problem states is known or
(Simon, 1978, p. 287), more recent research in sit-
probabilistic (Wood, 1983).
uated and everyday problem solving makes
Ill-structured problems, on the other hand, clear distinctions between thinking required to
are the kinds of problems that are encountered solve well-structured problems and everyday
more often in everyday and professional prac- problems. Dunkle, Schraw, and Bendixen (1995)
tice, so they are typically emergent. Because they concluded that performance in solving well-
are not constrained by the content domains defined problems is independent of perfor-
being studied in classrooms, their solutions are mance on ill-defined tasks, with ill-defined
not predictable or convergent. ill-structured problems engaging a different set of epistemic
problems may also require the integration of beliefs. Hong, Jonassen, and McGee (in press)
several content domains. For example, solutions found that solving ill-structured problems in a
to problems such as pollution may require the simulation called on different skills than solving
application of concepts and principles from well-structured problems, including metacogni-
math, science, political science, and psychology. tion and argumentation. Jonassen and Kwon (in
Ill-structured problems appear ill-structured press) showed that communication patterns in
because they: teams differed when solving well-structured
* Possess problem elements that are unknown and ill-structured problems. Clearly more
or not known with any degree of confidence research is needed to expand these findings, yet
(Wood, 1983). it seems reasonable to predict that well-struc-
tured and ill-structured problem solving engage
* Possess multiple solutions, solution paths, or different intellectual skills.
no solutions at all (Kitchner, 1983).

* Possess multiple criteria for evaluating solu-

tions, so there is uncertainty about which Complexity
concepts, rules, and principles are necessary
for the solution and how they are organized.
Problem complexity is defined by the number of
* Often require learners to make judgments issues, functions, or variables involved in the
and express personal opinions or beliefs problem; the degree of connectivity among

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68 ETR&D, Vol. 48, No. 4

those Domain Specificity

properties; the (Abstract-Situated)
type of f
ships among those properties
among the Contemporary research and theory
properties of in problem
(Funke, solvingAlthough
1991). claims that problem-solving skillsFun

the domain-and-context-specific.
availability of informatiThat is, problem-
richness solving activities
(factors more are situated, embedded,
related and
therefore dependent on the nature of the context
complexity is more concerne
or domain. This is because solving problems
how and clearly, how reliabl
within a domain relies on cognitive operations
represented implicitly or exp
that are specific to that domain (Mayer, 1992;
lem. The most complex prob
Smith, 1991; Sternberg & Frensch, 1991). These
that is, those in which the tas
are often referred to as strong methods, as
its factors change over time.
opposed to domain-general strategies (weak
Problem difficulty is Lempert,
methods). For example, Lehman, a func
complexity. Nisbett (1988)
For concluded that different forms
example, proof
been found to be a function of relational com- reasoning are learned in different graduate dis-
plexity (English, 1998). The idea of problemciplines. Graduate students in the probabilistic
complexity seems to be intuitively recognizablesciences of psychology and medicine perform
by even untrained learners (Suedfield, de Vries,better on statistical, methodological, and condi-
Bluck, & Wallbaum, 1996). Problem complexitytional reasoning problems than do students in
necessarily affects learners' abilities to solvelaw and chemistry, who do not learn such forms
problems. For example, problem complexity hasof reasoning. The cognitive operations are
significant effects on search problems (Halgrenlearned through the development of pragmatic
& Cooke, 1993). reasoning schemas rather than exercises in for-
mal logic. Graduates in different domains
Why do we assume that complex problems
develop reasoning skills through solving situ-
are more difficult to solve than simple prob-
ated, ill-structured problems that require forms
lems? The primary reason is that complex prob-
of logic that are domain-specific.
lems involve more cognitive operations than
Ill-structured problems tend to be more situ-
simpler ones (Kluwe, 1995). Therefore, working
ated, but well-structured problems tend to rely
memory requirements increase at least propor-
more on general problem-solving skills, such as
tionally. Accommodating multiple factors dur-
means-ends analysis. However, well-structured
ing problem structuring and solution generation
problems, in the form of story problems, can be
places a heavy burden on working memory. The
quite situated while ill-structured problems, in
more complex a problem, the more difficult it
the form of dilemmas, can be fairly abstract.
will be for the problem solver to actively process
the components of the problem.

Complexity and structuredness overlap. Ill- PROBLEM REPRESENTATIONS

structured problems tend to be more complex,
especially those emerging from everyday prac-Problems also vary in terms of how they are rep-
tice. Most well-structured problems, such asresented to and perceived by the problem solver.
textbook math and science problems, tend to Problems in everyday and professional contexts
engage a constrained set of variables that behaveare embedded in those contexts, which requires
in predictable ways. Although ill-structuredthe problem solver to disambiguate important
problems tend to be more complex, well-struc-from irrelevant information in the context and
tured problems can be extremely complex andconstruct a problem space that includes relevant
ill-structured problems fairly simple. For exam-information from the context. Experts within a
ple, video games can be very complex, well-domain often use artificial symbol systems that
structured problems, while selecting what to are specific to the domain for representing prob-
wear from our closets for different occasions (at lems (Goel & Pirolli, 1989). For example, physi-
least for me) is a simple ill-structured problem. cians and computer programmers are often

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ety, to
criticized for communicating and stress
their alsoclients
affect problem
in solving, as
inexplicable code. In addition
they to making
do most prob-
performance, in a curvilinear rela-
lems harder to represent totionship (i.e., the
novices, U-shapedsym-
these arousal curve). Space
does not allow consideration of thoseof
bol systems also insure the domain-specificity here.

the problem representations and solutions.

An important function of designing
Familiarity for prob-
lem solving is deciding how to represent the
problem to novice learners. Problems
Perhaps thatof are
the strongest predictor problem-solv-
represented to learners in formal
ing ability islearning situa-
the solver's familiarity with the
tions (e.g., schools, universities, and training)
problem type. Experienced problem solvers
are usually simulations of everyday and
have better developed profes-
problem schemas, which
sional problems, so instructional designers
can be employed more automatically (Sweller,
decide which problem components to include
1988). Although familiarity with a type of prob-
and how to represent themlem to the problem
facilitates learner. That
solving, that skill seldom
is, designers assume responsibility
transfers to for construct-
other kinds of problems or even to
ing the problem space for the learners.
the same In represented
kind of problem order in
to do so, designers provide another
or withhold contex-
way (Gick & Holyoak, 1980, 1983).
tual cues, prompts, or other clues about
Mayer and Wittrockinforma-
(1996) refer to routine
tion that need to be included in the learner's
and nonroutine aspects of problems. Routine
problem space. How consistent and overt thoseproblems are obviously familiar to learners and
cues are will determine problem difficulty andconsequently more transferable (at least within a
complexity. Additionally, designers make deci-task environment). Therefore routine problems
sions about the modality and medium for repre-appear more well-structured to the experienced
senting different problem components. solver. Transfer of nonroutine problems (those
An important issue in problem representa- not familiar to the problem solver) require high-
tion is the fidelity of the representation. Is theroad transfer (far transfer), which is more effort-
problem represented in its natural complexityful and conscious whereas routine problems rely
and modality, or is it filtered when simulated?more on low-road transfer (near transfer), which
Should social pressures and time constraints beinvolves less conscious attention (Salomon &
represented faithfully? That is, does the problemPerkins, 1989).
have to be solved in real time, or can it be solved
in leisure time? What levels of cooperation or
Domain and Structural Knowledge
competition are represented in the problem?
These are but a few of the decisions that design-
Another strong predictor of problem-solving
ers must make when representing problems for
skills is the solver's level of domain knowledge.
learning. How much someone knows about a domain is

important to understanding the problem and

INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES generating solutions. However, that domain
knowledge must be well integrated in order to
Smith (1991) distinguished between internal andsupport problem solving. The integratedness of
external factors in problem solving. External fac-domain knowledge is best described as struc-
tors are the variations in problem type and rep-tural knowledge (Jonassen, Beissner, & Yacci,
resentation, as just described. Internal factors are1993). Structural knowledge is the knowledge of
those that describe variations in the problem how concepts within a domain are interrelated.
solvers. Just as individual differences mediateIt is also known as cognitive structure, the orga-
other kinds of learning, they also mediate learn-nization of relationships among concepts in
ing how to solve different kinds of problems.memory (Shavelson, 1972).
Some of the trait characteristics of learners that Domain knowledge and skills are very
may affect problem solving are described next.important in problem solving. Structural knowl-
Other state characteristics, such as fatigue, anxi-edge may be a stronger predictor of problem

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70 ETR&D, Vol. 48. No. 4

solving than standing, the use of information to achieve a Rob

that the goal, and the to
extent assessmentwhich
of learning progress. th
contained relevant structur
Because of the cognitive and affective demands
stronger of problem solving, the roleof
predictor of metacognition
solve has received
transfer considerable research attention. In in
problems p
attitude or fact, metacognitive actions are
previous regarded as a
problems. driving force in problem solving
Structural along with
formulas andbeliefs and attitudes (Lester, 1994). When solv-
important con
edge base areing important
mathematics problems, good problemto
solv- u
ics ers work
principles. to clarify their goals, understand
Gordon and the G
the conceptsof
similarity and relationships
learners'among the elements g
underlying ofcognitive stru
a problem, monitor their understanding, and
experts was choose and evaluate actions that
highly lead toward the
solving scores
goal (Gourgey,
1998). Problem solving requires f
variance) as knowing
well as
not only what specifi
to monitor but also how
activities. to monitor one's performance and sometimes
Well-integrated d
essential to unlearning bad habits (Lester, solving
problem 1994). The devel-
opment of metacognitive skills enables students
to strategically encode the nature of the problem
Cognitive Controls
by forming mental representations of the prob-
lems, select appropriate plans for solving the
Individuals also vary in the
problem, and identify and overcome obstacles to
and controls,
which represen
the process (Davidson & Sternberg, 1998). Ori-
ing that control the ways th
enting and self-judging are important
cess and reason about infor
metacognitive skills that are positively related to
Grabowski, 1993). Cognitive
problem-solving performance, and they can be
field independence, cognitiv
learned (Masui & DeCorte, 1999).
tive flexibility, and categor
Like most other research issues, research on
likely to interact with prob
research has the role of
supported metacognition in problem solving
this has
field independents focused primarily on solving are mathematical
than field dependents well-struc-
story problems, which are typically (Davi
Heller, 1982; Maloney, 1981; Ronning, tured. Although Hong, Jonassen, and McGee (in

McCurdy, & Ballinger, 1984) because of their press) found that the application of metacogni-
ability to attend to salient cues. Learners with tive skills is more important to solving ill-struc-
higher cognitive flexibility and cognitive com- tured problems than well-structured problems,
almost no research on the role of metacognition
plexity should be better problem solvers than
in solving ill-structured problems exists. There is
cognitive simplistic learners because they con-
sider more alternatives (Stewin & Anderson, no doubt that metacognition and self-regulation

1974) and they are more analytical. Although the

of cognitive performance are essential compo-

relationship between cognitive controls and nents of all types of problems, although it is
problem solving needs to be better examined, it likely that the specific requisite skills will vary
with problem type.
is reasonable to predict that learners who think
in ways that are more analytical should be better
problem solvers.
Epistemological Beliefs

Metacognition Problem solving, especially ill-structured prob-

lem solving, often requires solvers to consider
Flavell (1979) described metacognition as the the veracity of ideas and multiple perspectives
awareness of how one learns, the ability to judge while evaluating problems or solutions. The
the difficulty of a task, the monitoring of under- ability to do so depends partially on their under-

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lying beliefs about knowledge and cognitive
how processes are necessary but
it devel-
ops. That is, learners' epistemic beliefs
insufficient about
requirements forthe
solving problems,
nature of problem solving also affect
especially complexthe ways
and ill-structured ones. They
that they naturally tend torequire
approach problems.
significant affective and conative ele-
A number of epistemological theories
ments have
as well (Jonassen been 1996).
& Tessmer,
related to a broad range of learning outcomes
Affective elements, such as attitudes and
(Hofer & Pintrich, 1997).
beliefs about the problems, problem domain,
The best-known theory of epistemic beliefs
and the learner's abilities to solve the problem,
was developed by William Perry (1970). He dis-
significantly affect a problem solver's abilities. If
tinguished nine separate stages of intellectual
problem solvers are predisposed to certain prob-
development clustered into three periods. In the
first period, dualist learners solutions because
believe thatofknowl-
personal beliefs, then
edge is right or wrong, that they will be lessand
teachers effective because they overrely
on that solution.
sors have the right knowledge, and that the role
of students is to assimilate what the teacher
Conative (motivational and volitional) ele-
knows. Their absolutist beliefs stress facts and
ments, such as engaging intentionally, exerting
truth. In the second period, multiplicity repre-
effort, persisting on task, and making choices,
sents the acceptance of different perspectives
also affect the effort that learners will make in
and skepticism about expertise in general.
Multiplists rely on methods and processes trying
to to solve a problem. Knowing how to solve

establish truth. In the third period, contextual problems, believing that you know how to solve
problems, and exerting the effort to do so are
relativistic, evaluative thinkers accept the role of
judgment and wisdom in accommodating
often dissonant. Students think harder and pro-
cess material more deeply when they are inter-
uncertainty, and that experts may provide better
answers. However, ideas must be evaluated for
ested and believe that they are able to solve the
their merits and the cultural and intellectual per-
problem (i.e., have high self-efficacy), according
spectives from which they derive. to Mayer's (1998) effort-based learning princi-
More complex and ill-structured problemsple. Problem solving requires a number of affec-
require higher levels of epistemic belief, which
tive dispositions, especially self-confidence, and
most students have not yet developed. Unfortu- beliefs and biases about the knowledge domain.
nately, as a result of the preponderance of algo-For example, Perkins, Hancock, Hobbs, Martin,
rithmic teaching approaches in mathematics, for and Simmons (1986) found that some students,
instance, there is "a belief by students that math-
when faced with a computer programming
ematical problems are solved by applying proce-
problem, would disengage immediately, believ-
dures that a person may or may not know"
ing that it was too difficult, while others would
(Greeno, 1991, p. 83). There is a right and wrong
keep trying to find a solution. If problem solvers
way to do things. Solving more complex and ill-
structured problems depends on multiplicitous do not believe in their ability to solve problems,
and contextual relativistic thinking. Althoughthey will most likely not exert sufficient cogni-
tive effort and therefore not succeed. Their self-
no research has connected epistemic beliefs and
confidence of ability will predict the level of
problem solving, the relationship is obvious and
needs to be examined, especially in ill-struc-
mindful effort and perseverance that they will
tured problem solving. apply to solving the problem. Greeno (1991)
claimed that most students believe that if math

Affective and Conative problems have not been solved in a few minutes,
the problem is probably unsolvable and there is
no point in continuing to try, despite the fact that
Mayer (1992) claimed that the essential charac-
skilled mathematicians often work for hours on
teristics of problem solving are directed cogni-
tive processing. Clearly, problem solving a problem. Task persistence and effort are strong
requires cognitive and metacognitive processes.
predictors of problem-solving success.

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72 ETR&D, Vol. 48. No. 4

General Problem-Solving Ski

2000). Some of these problem classes have been
extensively researched, such as logical prob-
There is generala belief
lems, story (word) problems, and decision-mak- th
better problem solvers than
ing problems, as evidenced by significant
use more effective problem
literature bases. Others, such as rule-using and
That depends on the kind
strategic performance, represent new classes. of
Solvers who attempt to use w
The typology of problems in Table 1 repre-
as general heuristics like m
sents a continuum of problems from left to right
that can be applied across d
as well-structured to ill-structured (Simon
fair no better than those wh
(1973). Also, to some undetermined extent, the
Anderson, 1989). However, solvers who use
typology is taxonomic, with the well-structured
domain-specific, strong strategies are better
problems on the left as prerequisite to the ill-
problem solvers. Experts effectively use strong
structured problems on the right. Case-analysis
strategies, and some research has shown that
problems, for instance, require problem solvers
less experienced solvers can also learn to use
to be able to solve decision making and aspects
them (Mayer & Wittrock, 1996).
of troubleshooting (hypothesis generation and
testing) in order to be able to solve case prob-
Summary lems. Decision making requires rule using and
story problems as prerequisite, and so on.
Problem solving varies along at least three dif-
This typology assumes that there are similar-
ferent dimensions: (a) problem type, (b) problem
ities in the cognitive processes required to solve
representation, and (c) individual differences.
each type of problem. It also assumes that some
As described earlier, problems vary in terms of
instructional strategies can be generalized across
structuredness, complexity, and abstractness.
problem types. Though this assumption contra-
Problem representations vary by context and
dicts the domain specificity principle that domi-
modality. A host of individual differences medi-
nates current theory, it is not clear yet how many
ate individuals' abilities to solve those problems.
or how completely these instructional strategies
Although dichotomous descriptions of general
can be generalized.
types of problems, such as well-structured and
ill-structured, are useful for clarifying attributes It is also important to note that these problem
classes are neither absolute nor discrete. Addi-
of problems, they are insufficient for isolating
required cognitive and affective processes and tional analysis of hundreds or even thousands of
suggesting appropriate instructional strategies problems is needed. Additional research may
for supporting how to learn to solve problems. possibly identify new categories or reorganize
Additional clarity is needed to resolve specific the existing categories. Likewise, these classes
problem types. are not discrete or independent of each other,
that is, they are not mutually exclusive catego-
ries. So, there are necessarily similarities and
TYPOLOGY OF PROBLEM SOLVING overlap among the classes. Additionally, the
true nature of a problem will depend on the
In order to articulate different problem typesproblem solver's experience and the nature of
(shown in Table 1), hundreds of problems (see the context in which the problem is encountered.
Table 2 for examples) were collected. A cogni- A similar problem in different contexts or with
tive task analysis of those problems was con- different learners may assume the characteris-
ducted in order to identify attributes of thosetics of a different class of problem.
problems. Next, an iterative sort of those prob- Table 1 lists horizontally 11 different types of
lems, based on their characteristics, distin- problem-solving outcome, including (a) logical,
guished 11 different types of problems (see (b) algorithmic, (c) story, (d) rule-using, (e) deci-
Table 1 for a description of problem types, Table sion making, (f) troubleshooting, (g) diagnosis-
2 for examples; hundreds of sample problems solution, (h) strategic performance, (i) case
will be archived in a Web site by the end of analysis, (j) design, and (k) dilemma. Within

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each category, problems vary to formally identical
regard to problems (Hayes &
abstractness and complexity.Simon,
The1977; Reed, Ernst,
specific & Banerji, 1974).
ing outcome for each of theseLogical
problem types
problems can beis
decidedly more
described in the next row, followed
complex than the
However, few if any logical
inputs to the problem-solving process.
problems The in
are embedded next
any authentic con-
row describes criteria for judging the
text, making success
them of
necessarily more abstract and
problem solutions. Well-structured problems
therefore less transferable. Logical problems
focus on correct, efficient solutions, while
have been the the
focus of ill-
considerable laboratory-
structured problems focusbased
more on decision
psychological research. However, the use-
articulation and argumentation. Problems
fulness of vary
that research to instructional design is
from logic problems and algorithms
limited by thewith exact validity.
lack of ecological
solutions to dilemmas with no verifiably correct
solution. The role of problem context is listed
next. The role of context becomes Problemsimpor-
tant in defining ill-structured problems, while
One of the mostthe
well-structured problems de-emphasize commonroleproblem types
encountered in
of context. Finally, Table 1 describes the schools is the algorithm. Most
common in mathematics
structuredness and abstractness (described ear- courses, students are

lier) that are typical of that taught

classtoof solve problems such as long division
or equation factoring
Complexity is not included because it varies usingtoo
a finite and rigid set

much within problem class of toprocedures

describe with consis-
limited, predictive decisions.

tently. Table 1 presents a brief overviewrequires

Solving algorithms of the number compre-
different kinds of problemshension, number production, and calculation
that practitioners
and learners need to learn to solve. Caramaza,of
A number & Basili, 1985).
examples of each problem type number-processing
is listed in Tablesystems, com-
2. In this section of the paper, of comprehending
I briefly and producing num-
each kind of problem solving. bers,
Inare the conceptual
the next paper understandings that
complement the calculation
in this series, I provide a cognitive model of the procedures. Calcu-
processes involved in solving lation,
kind ofto McCloskey
prob- et al. (1985),
requires comprehension
lem. These processes are based on a cognitive of the operations (e.g.,
task analysis, but need to beassociative
validated and commutative
and fur- properties and
concepts of multiplication
ther explicated by observation, interviewing, and division), execu-
tion procedures
and artifact analysis of problem for calculating, and retrieval of
arithmetic facts (e.g., times tables). Such algo-
rithmic approaches are also commonly used in
science or home economics courses. Most reci-
Logical Problems
pes are algorithms for cooking. It is likely that a
model similar to that proposed by McCloskey et
Logical problems tend to be abstract tests of rea-
al. can be generated for nonmathematical forms
soning that puzzle the learner. They are used to
of algorithmic problems.
assess mental acuity, clarity, and logical reason-
Many researchers,
ing. Classic games such as missionaries such as Smith (1991),
and can-
nibals or Tower of Hanoi challenge argue that learners
algorithms to (repeating a series of
find the most efficient (least number of moves) are, by nature, not problems. When learn-
sequence of action. Rubic's CubeTM ers are required
was to a select
popu- and perhaps modify an
lar game in the 1970s requiring algorithm
the userfor use
an exercise, it may become
the rows and columns of a three-dimensional problem solving. However, because algorithms
cube to form patterns. In each of these, thereare
is aso generally considered to represent prob-
specific method of reasoning that will yieldlems,
the for better or worse, they should be
most efficient solution. The learner is required to in the typology.
discover that method. Research has shown that The primary limitation of algorithmic
there is no transfer of solutions of these prob-approaches is the overreliance on procedurally

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74 ETR&D. Vol. 48, No. 4

Table 1 A description of p

Rule- Decision

Logical Algorithmic Story Using making

Problems Problems Problems Problems Problems

Learning logical procedural disambiguate procedural identifying

Activity control and sequence of variables; process benefits and
manipulation manipulations; select and constrained limitations;
of limited algorithmic apply by rules; weighting
variables; process algorithm to select and options;
solve puzzle applied to produce apply rules selecting
similar sets correct to produce alternative
of variables; answer using system- and justifying
Calculating prescribed constrained

or producing method answers or

correct answer products

Inputs puzzle formula or story with situation in decision

procedure formula or constrained situation with
procedure system; limited
embedded finite rules alternative

Success Criteria efficient answer or answer or

productivity answer or

manipulation; product matches (number of

product matches product
number of in values in values and relevant or matches
moves or and form form; correct useful in values

manipulations algorithm answers or and form

required used products

Context abstract task abstract, constrained to purposeful life decisions

formulaic pre-defined academic,
elements, real world,
shallow context constrained

Stucturedness discovered procedural well-defined unpredicted finite

predictable problem classes; outcome

Abstractness abstract, abstract, limited need-based personally

discovery procedural simulation situated

Table continues

oriented knowledge structures and the lack or of conceptual understanding of the underlying
absence of conceptual understanding of the processes. This is a common complaint about
objects of the algorithm and the procedures learning statistics, where professors focus on the
engaged. Content that is learned only as a proce- algorithms and miss the purpose of studying the
dure can rarely be transferred because of a lack statistical analysis. Learners who are adept at

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Table 1 II Continued.

Trouble- Diagnosis- Strategic Case

shooting Solution Performance Analysis Design

Problems Problems Problems Problems Problems Dilemmas

examine troubleshoot applying solution acting on reconciling

system; run system faults; tactics identification, goals to complex,
tests; evaluate select and to meet alternative produce non-

results; hypo- evaluate strategy in actions, artifact; predictive,

thesize and treatment real-time, argue problem vexing
confirm fault options and complex position structuring decision
states using monitor; performance & with no
strategies (re- apply maintaining articulation solution;
place, serial problem situational perspectives
elimination, schemas awareness irreconcil-
space split) able

malfunctioning complex real-time, complex, vague goal situation

system with one system with complex leisure-time statement with
or more faults faults and performance system with with few antinomous
numerous with competing multiple constraints; positions
optional needs ill-defined requires
solutions goals structuring

fault(s) strategy used; achieving multiple, multiple, articulated

identification; effectiveness strategic unclear undefined preference
efficiency of and efficiency objective criteria; no with some
fault isolation; of treatment; right or wrong justification
justification of -only better
treatment or worse


closed system real world, real-time real world, complex, topical,

real world technical, performance constrained real world; complex,
mostly closed degrees of inter-
system freedom; disciplinary
limited input
& feedback

finite faults & finite faults & ill-structured ill-structured ill-structured finite
outcomes outcomes strategies; outcomes,
well-structured multiple
tactics reasoning

problem problem contxtually case problem issue

situated situated situated situated situated situated

abstract reasoning can learn increasingly com- Story Problems

plex algorithms, such as those encountered in
In an attempt to situate algorithms in some kind
calculus, trigonometry, and other mathematics
of context, many textbook authors and teachers
domains. Global reasoning learners are limited
in their ability to create such abstract representa-
employ story problems (also known as word
tions of procedures, so they encounter problems.
problems). Story problems have been exten-

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76 ETR&D, Vol. 48, No. 4

Table 2 O Examples of prob

Logical Problems
Tower of Hanoi; Cannabals & Mi
only three jugs; Rubic's Cube; dra
paper; divide triangular cake in

Factor quadratic equation; convert Farenheit to Celsius temperatures; bisect any given angle

Story Problems
How long for car A to overtake car B traveling at different speeds; apply Boyle's law to problem statement;
calculate reagents needed to form a specific precipitate in a chemical reaction; most back-of-the-chapter
textbook problems

Rule-Using Problem
Search an online catalog for best resources; expand recipes for 10 guests; how many flight hours are required
to pay off a 777; prove angles of isosoles triangle are equal; calculating material needed for addition; change
case to subjunctive

Decision-Making Problems
Should I move in order to take another job; which school should my daughter attend; which benefits package
should I select; which strategy is appropriate for a chess board configuration; how am I going to pay this bill;
what's the best way to get to the interstate during rush hour; how long should my story be

Troubleshooting Problems
Troubleshoot inoperative modem; why won't car start; determine chemicals present in qualitative analysis;
determine why newspaper article is poorly written; identify communication breakdowns in a committee;
determine why local economy is inflationary despite national trends; isolate cause of inadequate elasticity in
polymer process; why are trusses showing premature stressing; why is milk production down on dairy farm

Diagnosis-Solution Problems
Virtually any kind of medical diagnosis and treatment; how should I study for the final exam; identifying
and treating turfgrass problems on a golf course; develop individual plan of instruction for special education

Strategic Performance
Flying an airplane; driving a car in different conditions; managing investment portfolio; how can I avoid
interacting with person X; moving to next level in Pokemon game; teaching in live class; arguing points of
law before court

Situated Case-Policy Problems

Harvard business cases; plan a menu for foreign dignitaries; render judgment in any tort case; develop policy
for condominium association; evaluate performance of a stock portfolio; how should Microsoft be split up

Design Problems
Design instructional intervention given situation; write a short story; compose a fugue; design a bridge; make
a paper airplane; design a dog house; design a vehicle that flies; developing curriculum for school; plan
marketing campaign for new Internet company; develop investment strategy for money market fund


Should abortions be banned; resolve Kosovo crisis; negotiate peace between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda;
redistribute wealth through tax policies; develop bipartisan bill for U.S. Congress that will pass with 2/3

Note: Conditions (parameters, constraints, restraints) and performance standards not included. These necessarily affect the
structuredness, complexity, and abstractness of problems and so will affect categorization of the problems.

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sively researched, especially inthat

predicts the domain
an otherwise of
boring task cannot be
mathematics. Mathematical values are embed- made interesting by adding a few interesting
details" (Mayer, 1998, p. 57).
ded in a brief story. Learners are required to
identify key words in the story, select the appro-
priate algorithm and sequence for solving the
Rule-Using Problems
problem, and apply the algorithm. It is hoped
they also will check their responses (Sherrill,
Many problems have correct solutions but mul-
1983). This is a more complex cognitive process
tiple solution paths or multiple rules governing
than simply applying an algorithm, as described
the process. They tend to have a clear purpose or
in the previous class. goal that is constrained but not restricted to a
When problems are more complex (that is, specific procedure or method. Rule-using prob-
lems can be as simple as expanding a recipe to
consist of multiple steps), Sherrill found that
accommodate more guests and as complex as
learners perform more poorly because they
completing tax return schedules. Using an onl-
attend to the wrong words and therefore apply
ine search system to locate a library's holdings
the wrong algorithm. When learners focus too
or using a search engine to find relevant infor-
closely on surface features or recall familiar
solutions from previously solved problems, they mation on the World Wide Web are examples of
rule-using problems. The purpose is clear: find
fail to transfer story problem skills to other prob-
the most relevant information in the least
lems (Woods et al., 1997). They fail to under-
stand the principles and the conceptual amount of time. That requires selecting search
applications underlying the performance, terms,
so constructing effective search arguments,
implementing the search strategy, and evaluat-
they are unable to transfer the ability to solve
one kind of problem to problems with the same ing the utility and credibility of information
found. Schacter, Chung, and Dorr (1998) found
structure but dissimilar features. That is why
many researchers have emphasized the cogni- that students rarely employ systematic search
strategies and spend little to no time planning
tive representation of the information in the
their searches. This is the rule-oriented essence
of searching. Given that multiple search strate-
Through practice, learners construct schemas
gies are possible, rule-using problems can
for problems they solve. Marshall (1995) identi-
become decidedly more ill-structured.
fied five different story problem schemas
Popular card games such as bridge or hearts
(change, group, compare, restate, and vary) and
and board games such as checkers and chess are
has found that when learners practice those
more complex forms of rule-using problems.
forms of problem classification, their perfor-
These games employ more complex rules and
mance improves dramatically. Solving story
constraints. Current computer games, such as
problems is more difficult and ill-structured
PokemonTM, are also forms of complex rule-
than solving algorithms because it requires the
using problems.
semantic comprehension of relevant textual
Rule-using problems constitutes a new class
information, the capacity to visualize the data,
the capacity to recognize the deep structure of
of problem solving, so no research about these
specific kinds of problems exists. Cognitive pro-
the problem, the capacity to correctly sequence
cesses and design principles will have to be gen-
the solution activities, and the capacity and will-
ingness to evaluate the procedure that was used
eralized from any research on prototypic
examples of this class (e.g., online searching) in
to solve the problem (Lucangelli, Tressoldi, &
Cendron, (1998). These skills become even more addition to cognitive task analysis.

important when solving college-level story

problems in physics and engineering, for Decision-Making Problems
instance. Notwithstanding these skills, solving
story problems remains a relatively simple and Decision-making problems typically involve
well-structured activity that students often do selecting a single option from a set of alterna-
not take seriously. Why? "Interest theory... tives based on a set of criteria. Decision makers

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78 ETR&D, Vol. 48, No. 4

must choose from

domains a set
is synonymous of solv
with problem a
which one or the
perhaps because has
more con
inoperative entities
and Roth involve troubleshooting are most easily
(1991) describe dec
process that ceived as problems. Mechanics
includes recogn who trou
analyzing shoot your(changing
values inoperative car or comput
of one's
programmers opportunity life
who debug your inoperative c
puter are always alternativ
recognized as problem solv
information The
primary purpose choices);
of troubleshooting is f
(identifying best
state choice
diagnosis. That is, some part[opt
or parts
ing some external
system are not criteria
functioning properly, [sat
ing cost and
abenefits of
set of symptoms that have out
to be diagnosed
the will (committing to
matched with the user's knowledge cho
of vari
sunk costs (effort already
fault states. Troubleshooters use symptoms e
making is an everyday
generate part
and test hypotheses o
about differe
of the decisions listed in Table 2 are referred to
fault states. In the spiral of data collect
as life dilemmas, the decisions of which are most hypothesis generation, and testing, the trou
affected by riskiness (Forgas, 1982). People shooter refines hypotheses about the fault sta
avoid risk when the outcomes are positive and
Troubleshooting skill requires system kno
embrace risk when the outcomes are negative
edge (how the system works), proced
(Tversky & Kahneman, 1981).
knowledge (how to perform problem-sol
The decision-making literature is divided procedures and test activities), and strat
into normative decision theory, which present knowledge (strategies such as search-an
models of how decisions ought to be made, and replace, serial elimination, and space splitt
empirical decision theory, which describes how (Pokorny, Hall, Gallaway, & Dibble, 199
people actually make decisions (Mullen & Roth, These skills are integrated and organized by
1991). Wrestling with decisions is not always a troubleshooter's experiences. The troub
rational process. Rather it is fraught with psy-
shooter's mental model consists of concept
chological impediments, including conformity
functional, and declarative knowledge, incl
and social pressure, various forms of stress, cog-
ing knowledge of system components and in
nitive dissonance, fear or failure, and many oth- actions, flow control, fault states (fault
characteristics, symptoms, contextual informa-
Decision making varies in complexity. Simple
tion, and probabilities of occurrence), and fault-
decisions with a single solution and atesting
limited procedures. The primary differences
number of choices are more likely to between
be solved
expert and novice troubleshooters are
through some form of rational analysis. How- and organization of system knowl-
the amount
ever, decision making in multistage, edge
(Johnson, 1988). Troubleshooting requires
task environments, where conditions are chang- understanding of how the system
an integrated
ing, requires that the problem solver make
troubleshot works, which is best taught
ple decisions under risk and uncertainty, and
through functional flow diagrams (Johnson &
that those decisions be made in real time (e.g.,
Satchwell, 1993).
fighting a spreading fire or treating a medical
The most effective method for analyzing
patient with a deteriorating condition; Kerstholt
troubleshooting problems, the PARI (precursor,
& Raaijmakers, 1997). Dynamic decision making
action, result, interpretation) method, attempts
is an integral part of strategic performance prob-
lems (described later). to identify each Action (or decision) that the
problem solver performs, the Precursor (or Pre-
requisite) to that action, the Result of that action,
Troubleshooting Problems and an expert's Interpretation of the results of
the action. Experts are probed for the reasons
Troubleshooting is among the mostand common
assumptions behind their actions while they
forms of everyday problem solving and many problems. They are then asked to

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adjusted. Those especially

elaborate on their solutions, focusing adjustments are contextually
on reasoning that they use in constrained.
making Strategic
their performances
deci- can be com-
sions about what to do (Hall, plex.
Gott,The options can be quite numerous and
& Pokorny,
1995). their implementation quite complex.

Strategic Performance Case-Analysis Problems

Strategic performance involves real-time, com- Case-analysis problems, ironically, emerge from
plex and integrated activity structures, where instruction, not from reality. The case method of
the performers use a number of tactics to meet a instruction emerged at Harvard Law School
more complex and ill-structured strategy while nearly 130 years ago (Williams, 1992). Analyz-
maintaining situational awareness. In order to ing cases, preparing briefs, and defending judg-
ments are all authentic activities for law
achieve the strategic objective, such as flying an
airplane in a combat mission or quarterbacking students. In business and many other profes-
a professional football offense, the performer sional contexts, such as internal relations (Voss
applies a set of complex tactics that are designed Wolfe, Lawrence, & Engle, 1991) and manageria
to meet strategic objectives. Strategy formation problem solving (Wagner, 1991), analyzing
represents a situated case or design problem complex, situated case problems defines th
(described next). Meeting that strategy through nature of work. Business problems, including
tactical maneuvers is a strategic performance. production planning, are common case prob
The difficulty arises from the real-time decision lems. For example, case problems such as plan
making and improvisation, and the cognitive ning production levels require balancing human
demands of maintaining situational awareness, resources, technologies, inventory, and sale
which place significant demands on attention, (Jonassen, Privish, Christy, & Stavrulaki, 1999
pattern recognition, and working memory Classical situated case problems also exist in
(Durso & Gronlund, 1999). Skills that are impor- international relations, such as "given low crop
tant to air traffic controllers, for instance, include productivity in the Soviet Union, how would th
the ability to prioritize, to plan, to execute, to solver go about improving crop productivity if
think ahead, to concentrate, and to deal with he or she served as Director of the Ministry of
dynamic visual movements, as well as good sit- Agriculture in the Soviet Union" (Voss and Post
uational awareness, short term memory, deci- 1988, p. 273). International relations problems
siveness, and perceptual speed and accuracy involve decision making and solution genera-
(Heil, 1999). The multifaceted nature of strategic tion and testing in a political context.
performances makes them especially difficult, In these ill-structured problems, goals are
however, these cognitive demands are situation- vaguely defined; no constraints may be stated
ally specific. Arguing a case in court, for little is known about how to solve the problem
instance, would demand a different set of cogni- there is no consensual agreement on what con
tive skills from those needed for air traffic con- stitutes a good solution; and information avai
trolling. able to the problem solver is prodigious bu
Typically, a finite number of tactical activities incomplete, inaccurate, or ambiguous (Voss et
have been designed to accomplish the strategy, al., 1991). Therefore, "the whole process of cop
however, the mark of an expert strategic per- ing with a complex problem can be seen as
former is the ability to improvise or construct process of intention regulation" (Dorner &
new tactics on the spot to meet the strategy. The Wearing, 1995). To complicate the process
quarterback who calls an audible at the line of "there are no formal procedures or guidelines t
scrimmage is selecting a new tactic to meet the govern case analysis or evaluation of problem
offensive strategy. In battlefield situations, supe- solutions," and what skilled performers need t
rior officers identify a strategy and may negoti- know in order to solve these complex case prob
ate tactical concerns with the performer, lems is often tacit (Wagner, 1991, p. 179).
however, both realize that tactics may have to be Case-analysis problems generally engage

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80 ETR&D, Vol. 48, No. 4

process that istics of design problems, including

includes goal manyela
tion degrees ofhypothesis
collecting, freedom in the problem statement, fo
(predicting which consists only of goalsplanning
effects), and intentions, lim-
ing, ited or delayed
monitoring thefeedback from the world, arti-
effects o
facts as outputs
self-reflecting (Dorner that must function& W
process is likely
independently of to change
the designer, and answers that
nature and context of
tend to be neither right nor wrong, a prob
only better or
problems are worse.
the The importance
most of an artifact as evidence
of problem,of so analyzing
problem solving and the lack of clear stan- c
importance dards for
on evaluating solutions are what
situation make
design problems so ill-structured. Because of the
very ill-structured and complex nature of design
problems, they require the problem solver to
Design Problems
engage in extensive problem structuring, often
using artificial symbol systems (Goel & Pirolli,
Design problems are
1989). They also require greaterusually
complex and and
self-regulation by the problem solver. k
that are encountered in pr
Designing greatly exceeds the normal con-
years, researchers (Reitman,
cept of transfer. Designers must structure the
have characterized design pro
problem by defining the nature of the artifact
tured because they have amb
that will satisfy the ill-defined requirements.
tion of goals, no determined
Because the criteria for acceptable solutions are
the need to integrate mul
not always obvious, designers must construct
domains. Whether it be an el
personalized systems for evaluating their prod-
house, a new entree for a res
ucts. Designers are aided in the design process
composition, an essay, or any
by experience-based design schemas that
system, designing requires
include components that partition the problem
and domain-specific schemas
into a set of meaningful tasks; components that
dural knowledge. Expert wr
assure that tasks will function properly; pro-
are problem solvers who ex
cesses that control the generation of designs; and
"mental effort in the elabora
evaluation procedures that ensure effective utili-
tion, and the execution of c
zation of knowledge (Jeffries et al., 1981). As with
subgoals, such as how to shape
most problems, these problem schemas are used
ticular audience, how to ex
to monitor and regulate performance. Despite
intentions in the language o
their ill-structuredness, design problems may be
construct a catchy title" (B
the most important type of problem to investi-
Scardamalia, & Joram , 1991
gate because so many professionals get paid for
nately, most of the research
designing things (products, systems, etc.).
has been in the area of softwa
more well-structured than m
lems. Early research attemp
tional top-down approaches to task
decomposition (Jeffries, Turner, Polson, &
Atwood, 1981), however the design processEveryday life is replete with personal, social,
deviates significantly from a top-downand ethical dilemmas. Although appearing often
approach (Guindon, 1990). Because software as decision-making problems (Should abortions
design is constrained by language and systems, be banned?), dilemmas are the most ill-struc-
and the task is less ambiguous, it is not a gener-tured and unpredictable type because often
alizable model for patterning design problems. there is no solution that is satisfying or accept-

Why are design problems so ill-structured? able to most people, and there are compromises
Goel and Pirolli (1989) articulated the character-implicit in every solution.

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Two of the most commonly researched

described learning enterprises. For purposes of
dilemmas are social dilemmas and ethical analysis, the typology of problems that I just
dilemmas. Social dilemmas, like resource man-
described assumes that these problems are dis-
crete, that is, each problem of any type com-
agement and pollution dilemmas, are perceived
prises a single learning objective and is learned
by individuals in terms of their own personal
self-interests or in terms of the common in isolation from another. However, that does
(Schroeder, 1995). Most people select solutions
not imply that problems occur as discrete skills.
to dilemmas that serve their self-interests,
the contrary, problems that are encountered
few seek solutions that serve the common in
everyday and professional contexts often con-
The larger the group that is involved in any
sist of combinations of problems. Activity sys-
dilemma, the more likely that individuals will in everyday and professional contexts
pursue their self-interests, because the cost to people in solving complex combinations
any one person of providing for the commonof well-structured and ill-structured problems:
what I refer to as metaproblems. Metaproblems
good exceeds the benefits that the individual
would receive (Olson, 1965). consist not only of clusters of interrelated prob-
lems related to the same work activities but also
Dilemmas are often more complex than the
dichotomous social ones just described. of For
the regulatory and reflective skills to monitor
example, ethical dilemmas are often compli- solve combinations of problems. For exam-
cated when the decision maker is pulled in onedeveloping a computer system requires
direction by ethical considerations and in a host of design, troubleshooting, and
case problems. Running a retail business like-
another direction by legal, temporal, or organi-
wise represents a myriad of decision-making
zational obstacles (MacKay & O'Neill, 1992). The
current crisis in Kosovo is a prime example of a Problems in everyday and profes-
large-scale dilemma that involves a plethora of contexts are generally metaproblems, so
interacting historical, political, military,when
reli-analyzing any problem context, it is neces-
gious, ethical, economic, and anthropological to identify not only the problems that are
solved but also how they are clustered into
issues. While each individual in any dilemma
may see the problem as dichotomous, there are The metacognitive skills
so many perspectives on the situation thatrequired
none to regulate the solution of
is able to offer a generally acceptable solution to need to be identified and elabo-
the crisis. The situation is so complex and unpre-
dictable that no best solution can ever be known.
That does not mean that there are not many
solutions, which can be attempted with varying CONCLUSION
degrees of success, however, none will ever
meet the needs of the majority of people or
In this article, I have defined problems and artic-
escape the prospects of catastrophe. Dilemmas
ulated variations in the nature of problems and
are often complex social situations with conflict-
problem representations. I have also briefly
ing perspectives, and they are usually thedescribed
most individual differences that affect the
vexing of problems.
nature of problem-solving activities. Finally, I
have described a typology (and to a lesser
degree, a taxonomy) of problems, including log-
Discrete Problems vs. Metaproblems ical problems, algorithmic problems, story prob-
lems, rule-using problems, decision-making
Most instructional design models provide problems, troubleshooting problems, diagnosis-
solution problems, strategic performance, case-
microlevel prescriptions, that is, prescriptions
for how to learn only a single objective oranalysis
goal problems, design problems, dilemmas,
(Reigeluth, 1983). In an effort to accommodate metaproblems.
the demands of more complex combinations If
ofwe believe that the cognitive and affective
tasks or objectives, Gagnd and Merrill requirements
(1990) of solving different kinds of prob-

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82 ETR&D, Vol. 48, No. 4

lems vary, sented in this paper

then so, is not promulgated
too, as m a
instruction that we
definitive theory, use
but rather to
as a work s
in prog-
ment of problem-solving sk
ress. Experimentation, assessment, and dialogue
the most fundamental beliefs of instructional about these problem types and the forthcoming
design is that different learning outcomesmodels are needed to validate anything
require different instructional conditions approaching a definitive theory for problem-
(Gagne, 1980). So, the rationale for attempting to solving instruction. DO
articulate different kinds of problem solving in
this paper is to begin to prescribe instructional
David H. Jonassen is Distinguished Profes
analysis and design processes.
Information Science and Learning Techno
From the research, it appears obvious that the the University of Missouri. Comments ma
key to learning to solve problems is the problem addressed to
space construction, because rich problem repre-
sentations most clearly distinguish experts from
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