Solving 21st-century problems requires skills that few are trained in, scientists find

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From companies trying to resolve data security risks to coastal communities preparing for rising sea levels, solving modern problems requires teamwork that draws on a broad range of expertise and life experiences. Yet individuals receive little formal training to develop the skills that are vital to these collaborations.

In a new scientific report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, an interdisciplinary team of researchers identifies the essential cognitive and social components of collaborative problem solving (CPS) and shows how integrating existing knowledge from a variety of fields can lead to new ways of assessing and training these abilities.

The report, authored by Arthur C. Graesser (University of Memphis), Stephen M. Fiore (University of Central Florida), Samuel Greiff (University of Luxembourg), Jessica Andrews-Todd (Educational Testing Service), Peter W. Foltz (Pearson and University of Colorado), and Friedrich W. Hesse (Leibniz-Institut fur Wissensmedien and University of Tubingen), is accompanied by a commentary from cognitive development expert Mary Gauvain (University of California, Riverside).

"CPS is an essential skill in the workforce and the community because many of the faced in the modern world require teams to integrate group achievements with team members' idiosyncratic knowledge," the authors of the report say.

As societies and technologies become increasingly complex, they generate increasingly complex problems. Devising efficient, effective, and innovative solutions to these complex problems requires CPS skills that most students lack. According to a 2015 assessment of more than 500,000 15-year-old students conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, only 8% of students around the world showed strong CPS skills.

"The experiences of students in and out of the classroom are not preparing them for these skills that are needed as adults," Graesser and colleagues write.

This unique set of cognitive and social skills include:

  • Shared understanding: Group members share common goals when solving a new problem.
  • Accountability: The contributions that each member makes are visible to the rest of the group.
  • Differentiated roles: Group members draw on their specific expertise to complete different tasks.
  • Interdependency: Group members depend on the contributions of others to solve the problem.

One reason for the lack of CPS training is a deficit in evidence-based standards and curricula. Secondary school curricula typically focus on educating task- and discipline-specific knowledge, placing little emphasis on educating students' ability to communicate and collaborate effectively.

"Students rarely receive meaningful instruction, modeling, and feedback on collaboration," the researchers note.

When students do receive training relevant to CPS, it is often because they participate in extracurricular activities such as band, sports, student newspapers, and volunteer activities. Even then, the collaborative competencies are not directly relevant to problem solving. The authors argue that it is time to make CPS activities a core part of the curriculum.

Although considerable psychological, educational, and management research has examined factors that contribute to effective learning, teamwork, and decision making, research that directly examines how to improve collaborative problem solving is scarce.

According to the authors, "we are nearly at ground zero in identifying pedagogical approaches to improving CPS skills."

Developing and implementing effective CPS training stands to have significant societal impacts across a wide range of domains, including business, science, education, technology, environment, and public health. In a project funded by the National Science Foundation, for example, Fiore and other research team members are training students to collaborate across a range of disciplines—including environmental science, ecology, biology, law, and policy—to identify ways to address social, business, and agricultural effects of rising sea levels in Virginia's Eastern Shore.

"It's exciting to engage in real world testing of methods developed in laboratory studies on teamwork, to see how feedback on collaboration, and reflection on that feedback to improve teamwork strategies, can improve students' problem solving," Fiore explains.

Identifying the necessary components of this kind of training and determining how to translate those components across a variety of real-world settings will, itself, require interdisciplinary cooperation among researchers, educators, and policymakers.

In the commentary, Gauvain emphasizes that achieving a comprehensive understanding of CPS requires taking a developmental perspective and she notes that psychological scientists will be essential in this endeavor. Graesser and colleagues agree:

"When psychological scientists collaborate with educational researchers, computer scientists, psychometricians, and educational experts, we hope to move forward in addressing this global deficit in CPS," they conclude.

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More information: Arthur C. Graesser et al, Advancing the Science of Collaborative Problem Solving, Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2018). DOI: 10.1177/1529100618808244
Citation: Solving 21st-century problems requires skills that few are trained in, scientists find (2018, December 3) retrieved 16 October 2019 from
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User comments

Dec 03, 2018
Obviously, these skills can be improved by shifting more activities towards group work. For some reason US college curricula do not incorporate this to a large extent. Perhaps because of interpersonal conflicts which arise, which the college professors are not willing to/able to deal with.

As an American, I did my master's degree in the Netherlands and I can say it is quite the opposite. Every course has an intensive group component (1/3 of hours spent). I am not an expert, so I cannot measure how effective it is compared to other educational systems, but it shows they value this kind of cooperative problem solving more.

Dec 03, 2018
The root question here; is "psychological science" an oxymoron?

Science defined so that psychology may be a science is at the root of our dire straits. Read and understand Karl Popper.

In my work I stood in a room with four operators and made decisions and gave instructions. Their job was to disagree only if I made a technical error.

Dec 03, 2018
Oh, great. When corporate America thinks about building these group skills, it tends to fall back on high school and college sports analogies and those tired coaching techniques. It is extremely top down and emotionally brutalizing. Motivating hung over 19 year olds is a far cry from working with experienced and mature adults. I fear that this study will be used to promote more of the same. Thanks loads.

Dec 03, 2018
Myself, I think many of the problems start with the organization of pre-college education. & those problems start with political domination of lower education.

That the institutions of education has been hijacked by business men buying votes to put them in control of School Boards. With specious claims of expertise at efficient production.

However, individual children are not just machines to be turned on & off as convenient to the ROI.

This is a perversity of community educational standards. When fraudulent business practices are allowed to corrupt the attempt to educate our children.

Yeah, I know. Only a commie marxist dweeb would have the gumption to complain about the lucrative profits to be squeezed out of educational institutions by the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed business leaders.

Because the sacred bottom line is to manufacture submissive cube-peons & a passive audience of mindless consumers.

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