Collaborative Problem-Solving: A Skill for Success in STEAM Fields

By Jessica Andrews-Todd

Success in today’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) fields requires more than just technical skills. Whether one is sharing their ideas on how to solve a problem or brainstorming with others a plan to design a new product, interpersonal skills, including communication and collaborative problem-solving (CPS), are equally critical competencies for preparing individuals for the challenges of today’s world. The complexity of many of the problems we face requires individuals with differing viewpoints and expertise to come together to find solutions.

CPS has gained particularly increased attention. Experts and leaders in education and assessment have pushed for the development of assessments and curricular reform targeting the measurement, acquisition and development of CPS skills. Recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD®) added an assessment of collaborative problem-solving to their longstanding over 60-nation assessment, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results revealed that only eight percent of students tested showed a high level of proficiency for CPS skills.

CPS is important across many fields, including, for example, STEAM fields. These often involve individuals with diverse skill sets and perspectives working together to solve a problem. For engineers, workplace problems are often complex, have multiple paths to a solution, and require extensive collaboration. Those being trained in engineering often have opportunities to work in teams on projects; however, little attention is given to actually teaching the behaviors necessary to be effective collaborators. This has motivated interest in exploring CPS and, in particular, specific behaviors that can contribute to successful performance.

Those being trained in engineering often have opportunities to work in teams on projects; however, little attention is given to actually teaching the behaviors necessary to be effective collaborators.

~ Jessica Andrews-Todd, Research Scientist at ETS

In an ongoing project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), I lead a team that has designed a collaborative online task used to capture the CPS behaviors and measure the skills of engineering and electronics students at institutions across the country. Each student in a team of three works on a separate computer running a simulation of an electronic circuit. Each of the three circuits operated by a student is connected to form a series circuit, and students are tasked with communicating through text chat to coordinate their actions to reach a specified voltage value on each circuit.

Once complete, we examine the extent to which students display social and cognitive CPS behaviors while interacting with teammates. Social CPS behaviors correspond to collaboration or teamwork behaviors, including, for example, sharing information, establishing shared understanding, or negotiating. Cognitive CPS behaviors correspond to problem-solving or task work behaviors, which can include planning, executing, monitoring, etc. We used this information to characterize students’ CPS behaviors and examine how the behaviors contribute to performance outcomes. We found that demonstrating skills across social and cognitive dimensions of CPS can contribute to positive performance outcomes, and even having just one team member who frequently displays such behaviors can help guide the team to a successful performance.

Our results further shed light on the nature of the relationship between different aspects of CPS and performance on a task that is representative of real-world activities that engineering and electronics undergraduates may encounter in laboratory experiences. Because the importance of CPS is continually recognized in education, the workforce and society, our work underscores the need to continue to equip individuals with the information and tools to refine their skills in order to meet the challenges and opportunities they face in today’s world.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DUE 1535224. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent views of the National Science Foundation.

Jessica Andrews-Todd is a research scientist at ETS. She holds a Ph.D. in learning sciences from Northwestern University. Jessica’s research leverages her knowledge of cognitive and learning sciences theories and findings to (1) design digital environments suitable for capturing evidence of individuals’ collaborative problem-solving and related skills, and (2) develop and apply approaches for identifying individuals’ collaborative problem-solving skills from their actions and discourse. Jessica also examines the cognitive processes underlying collaborative learning, focusing particularly on how people acquire accurate and inaccurate information as a function of their collaborative experiences.