Got a Problem? Here’s a 21st-Century Way to Solve It

By David Lariviere

Whether we’re at work, in school or at home, all of us encounter numerous problems every day. How we go about solving them is the real issue. More research is showing that collaboration with others is becoming one of the more preferred ways that today’s employers want them addressed.

ETS Research Scientists Jiangang Hao and Jessica Andrews-Todd are studying collaborative problem-solving, one of the many 21st-century skills employers are actively seeking in an increasingly competitive workplace.

The definition of collaborative problem-solving, or CPS, is straightforward but the applications and potential gains are varied. “Collaborative problem-solving competency is an individual’s capacity to engage in a process in which he/she attempts to solve a problem with others by sharing information and the effort associated with pooling knowledge to reach a solution,” Andrews-Todd says.

It is rare that students of any age receive any sort of training for CPS — instead, we often just put people into groups and tell them to work together. This is insufficient in making sure collaboration actually occurs and particularly collaboration that is actually effective.

~ Jessica Andrews-Todd

One of the main reasons CPS is lacking in today’s job applicants, according to Andrews-Todd, is because “there is no widespread curriculum associated with collaboration.” She added, “It is rare that students of any age receive any sort of training for CPS — instead, we often just put people into groups and tell them to work together. This is insufficient in making sure collaboration actually occurs and particularly collaboration that is actually effective.”

Hao explained that CPS is not a skill humans are born with or something specific to any type of person. “Smart people can be horrible collaborators. Working together requires different skills as negotiation is very important. In trying to solve a problem in many cases, you have got to be able to negotiate.”

Where ETS can make a large impact is in developing assessments for CPS that can be used in workplaces, colleges and schools. The ETS Platform for Collaborative Assessment and Learning (EPCAL) is an artificial intelligence-backed infrastructure that Hao and others developed, which has been used to support large-scale studies on assessment and training of CPS.

The platform monitors and logs communications and is capable of providing real-time feedback through an “intelligent facilitator,” which is an AI-based component of the EPCAL platform. Hao said the goal is for EPCAL to serve as a delivery platform that supports formative assessments in both individual and collaborative modes.

Andrews-Todd works with middle school to college students by “designing digital environments to create opportunities for individuals to be able to engage in collaborative behaviors” and then analyzing the resulting data from their performances “to make inferences about them.”

We have found that working with someone whose knowledge/skill is higher than yours is when you learn the most. But even if you’re working with someone with lower knowledge/skill, you still do much better than you would do by yourself.

~ Jiangang Hao

Although the concept of collaborative problem-solving has been around a long time, what is new and exciting to ETS researchers, according to Hao, is the ability to standardize and scale, which can lead to high-stakes applications because of new technology. “The more that companies collaborate, the better off they will be in the future.”

But while cutting-edge technology will drive the scalability, it’s the increased and more effective human collaboration that will prove to be the most beneficial result. “We have found that working with someone whose knowledge/skill is higher than yours is when you learn the most. But even if you’re working with someone with lower knowledge/skill, you still do much better than you would do by yourself,” explained Hao.

Andrews-Todd believes that CPS “may be a broader construct than many other 21st-century skills because it comprises many subskills across social and cognitive dimensions.” In other words, you need critical thinking and communication to be an effective collaborative problem solver.

What’s fascinating about employers demanding better collaborative problem-solving skills for their employees is it seems like a counterculture idea in a workplace of isolated cubicles and offices in which people communicate largely through email and rarely actually talk to each other.

“One of several advantages of collaborative problem-solving is that when people interact, they stimulate each other and come up with ideas that would not have been created on their own,” Hao said.