The Power of Defining the Problem

The Power of Defining the Problem

At the January 2020 USASBE Conference in New Orleans, Nancy and Summer presented “The Power of Defining the Problem: A New Model for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills” to about 30 attendees. Our presentation introduced a model we created for business & entrepreneurship students and faculty inspired from an iteration of Mike Caulfield’s “Four Moves & a Habit” model for teaching web literacy. You can view our slides here.

The model that Nancy & Summer presented at USASBE conference in January 2020. The model shows the problem definition process. The process begins asking if you have checked your assumptions. If you have done so, you check the competition, then identify stakeholders, followed by finding multiple source types and perspectives and then lastly, check your understanding. The process is continual and can be started from either end (imagine a circle).
The model Nancy & Summer presented at the USASBE Conference in January 2020

Our Problem Definition Process is a model to help students find and think critically about information that helps them solve business problems. These skills must be taught, which is not easy to do. We came up with the model as a way to address the problem with defining problems. While there are many strategies and lesson plans to teach students to research and define problems, often they are not easily adaptable to a variety of situations. Since we as librarians teach in many contexts (e.g. course integrated instruction, for-credit classes, one-off workshops), we needed a tool that could work for these and other scenarios.

The presentation was in the category of “emerging teaching exercises”; sessions of this type are supposed to pose a question to the audience in an attempt to improve the exercise. We had many questions and suggestions from the audience of mostly faculty members. *We need this format at library instruction conferences!

This winter, we’ve slowly been experimenting with the model in our classes. It’s an emerging exercise, still, and continues to evolve. Below, Summer describes how she has iterated the use of the model in her for-credit entrepreneurship research classes. Nancy shares how she incorporated the model into a course integrated “one-shot” library session.

We’d love your feedback, so please let us know what you think in the comments!

The Model in a Multi-week Class (Summer)

Individual Class Activity:

I mentioned in a previous post my attempt last semester of having students check their assumptions, the first step in Nancy & I’s model of problem definition. I recently revamped this idea and it was smoother and more effective.

Last semester, I had assigned the students a business scandal and asked them to write a short paragraph about what they knew about it. From there they were supposed to talk with their partners about what they wrote and together try to identify statements of assumption from what they wrote. This didn’t turn out the way I was hoping because the students were more familiar with the scandals I chose than I assumed (I needed to check my assumptions). I also had them get with their partners before they started writing, this ended up being a rookie move and allowed them to talk about the scandal with their partner before writing. This inevitably led to their initial thoughts and assumptions being adjusted, which made me realize that the first part of this activity is really better as a solo reflective activity. 

This time around, I had the students take the social issue they are focusing on in class and had them write a paragraph about what they know about the topic before putting them into groups to identify the underlying assumptions they have. This focus on their topics worked out well because most were unfamiliar with their topics at this point in the semester, but knew just enough where they could write about it. It was much easier for them to identify assumptions from their statements. From there they shared out their identified assumptions. Then, they were asked to research the assumptions and attempt to find alternative perspectives on the topics. Below see an example of one of the student’s paragraphs about food deserts here in Winston-Salem, NC and another example of a student’s paragraph on transportation here.

Example paragraph 1: “Poverty has always been a huge issue in this area as the job opportunity is low. There has always been an issue of a food dessert as food has been scarce for those who live in the community.”

Example paragraph 2: “From what I know about the public transport in Winston-Salem, it is certainly an afterthought that needs more funding. For example, I wouldn’t know the first way to get downtown from Wake [Forest University] without a car or walking down the middle of University Parkway (which is extremely dangerous). There is no public transport that I know of other than the bus system which I have never used Winston Salem could improve this problem by expanding public transport through adding more buses, perhaps a train system, and certainly more sidewalks.”

This students were then able to identify the following assumptions, see below in their own words:

Continuation of Example 1: 

  • Job opportunity is low for everyone 
  • Food dessert is everywhere
  • Everyone is in poverty

Continuation of Example 2: I might be biased since we have never used public transport in Winston. I am certainly on the outside looking in with regards to that. I also have access to private transportation like my own cars or uber which hinder me from actually seeing these issues. 

I went around from group to group while the activity was being discussed. The students were engaged in discussion and were having fun identifying these assumptions. The last part of the activity asked the students to do some quick research to address their assumptions and educate themselves further on the issues at hand. They were also asked to explain why the sources they selected helped them address their bias or assumptions. If you’re interested in the activity, find the worksheet here!

Continual Reflection:

Another way I’ve applied the model is through required reflection questions at the end of the students’ research assignments (research paper and business plan) as well as throughout their daily discussion preps. I often find myself surprised at how thoughtful the students’ responses are when reading them. The questions I ask reflect back to each step of the model, here are a few examples:

  • Checking Assumptions:
    • Did the information you find confront your assumptions about the social issue you are focusing on, or your idea for a solution, in surprising ways? If yes, how so?
  • Finding Multiple Source Types:
    • Do you feel like the type, quality and amount of sources you have found are adequately supporting each section? Why or why not? 
  • Finding Multiple Perspectives: 
    • How did you ensure that you were seeking multiple perspectives, especially those perspectives affected by the particular social issue you’re focusing on, and not only information that supports your assumptions?
  • Checking the Competition & Identifying Stakeholders:
    • Looking over your sources, from what agencies, organizations or companies does your most helpful data come from? 
  • Checking Understanding:
    • How will you improve your research strategy for the next draft?

Excerpt from student reflection:

“I felt like for my business idea I gathered a large amount of diverse sources that not just supported my idea, but helped me learn more in order to pivot and adapt my idea in response to real information and real needs. I found it challenging to sort through to find the most useful information and really narrow that down. I was always able to find quantity, but sorting through to find the most relevant information proved difficult in some cases.”

The Model in a One Shot (Nancy)

Early in the semester I taught a one-shot session for a social entrepreneurship class cross-listed between the UNC entrepreneurship minor and the sociology department. Since it’s also taught by a sociology faculty member, I collaborated on the session with my colleague Kristan Shawgo, the sociology librarian. We had 75 minutes with the students, who were tasked with creating a product or service with a social impact. (Class research guide is here.)

Given the class’s focus on social innovation, I knew I wanted to incorporate something about assumptions. As well, since students’ understanding of the problem they are trying to solve is so important, I thought that the remainder of the Problem Definition Process would be a good frame for the rest of the session.

Since the first step of the model is “Check Your Assumptions”, Kristan and I began class with a reflective activity using a Cognitive Biases handout from the Board of Innovation (that I got from another faculty member). Students read descriptions of biases on the handout and identified 1 that may impact their project. Kristan then facilitated a class discussion of how research can test their assumptions and mitigate bias.

In addition to putting the model on the slides, I printed copies for students that included Summer’s Critical Reflection Questions. I hope they used them, but I don’t have an easy way of knowing.

I mapped information sources to each of the model’s steps to frame the rest of the session. At each step, Kristan or I showed one or two resources before giving students a few minutes to practice.

  • Check the competition – Who else is working in this space? What are they doing? What’s the industry like?
    • IBISWorld
    • RKMA Market Research Handbook Series
    • Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce
    • Google searching for local businesses
  • Identify stakeholders – who is affected by this issue/problem and who would benefit in this solution? 
    • RKMA Market Research Handbook Series
    • Simply Analytics
    • Policy Map
  • Multiple sources and perspectives
    • Primary research → interviews, surveys, etc.
    • Secondary literature – Sociological Abstracts
    • Expert Google searching

By the time we finished going through these steps and resources, class was over and it was time to go.

A note about how we taught resources:

This is a tried-and-true feature of our one-shot sessions. Doing the assumptions reflection activity and framing the session with model were new things. There is a limit on how many new things it is possible to try in any given one-shot. Please share your suggestions for alternate ways of structuring database searching & practice in the comments!

Last thought

We wanted this model to be flexible, adaptable, and applicable in any learning environment. Thus far, we’ve applied it to one-shot sessions and for-credit courses. Please take and use the model, and let us know what you do and how it goes!

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