Three “must have” steps to improve education for collaborative problem solving

Community member post by Stephen M. Fiore

Stephen M. Fiore (biography)

Many environmental, social, and public health problems require collaborative problem solving because they are too complex for an individual to work through alone. This requires a research and technical workforce that is better prepared for collaborative problem solving. How can this be supported by educational programs from kindergarten through college? How can we ensure that the next generation of researchers and engineers are able to effectively engage in team science?

Drawing from disciplines that study cognition, collaboration, and learning, colleagues and I (Graesser et al., 2018) make three key recommendations to improve research and education with a focus on instruction, opportunities to practice, and assessment. Across these is the need to attend to the core features of teamwork as identified in the broad research literature on groups and teams.

Systematic use of instructional strategies

First and foremost, researchers should collaborate with educators to make more systematic use of instructional strategies devised to teach components of collaboration. Research on groups and teams has produced methods that focus on team processes relevant to complex forms of work.

For example, knowledge building training emphasizes communicative processes that make explicit the structure of team member knowledge (eg., mental models), as well as assumptions and interpretations team members have about their knowledge. External representations make such knowledge explicit and concrete and build shared understanding.

Also relevant is training that draws attention to the team process following interactions. Team reflexivity training requires that members reflect on prior performance episodes by focusing on met or unmet objectives, strategies used to address task needs, and efficiency of collaborative interactions. Such training could be improved by further research both on effective interventions and on how students come to learn team processes that improve future interactions.

Opportunities for practice

Second, in addition to systematic implementation of instruction on team process, students need opportunities for practice. Collaboration in the classroom is common in science and engineering, and education level and nature of the content will dictate the team and task context.

For example, in introductory science classes, students may collaborate while learning about fundamental physics concepts, how they should be integrated, and applied, for particular problems. At these levels, knowledge is usually unevenly distributed across students such that they need to communicate what each knows as well as their interpretation of what needs to be applied. Teams need to discuss member contributions and evaluate their appropriateness while also using logical analyses to identify and evaluate solutions. In these stages of learning, basic interpersonal competencies associated with relationship management (eg., encourage participation) and communication (eg., listening to learn), are needed.

At more advanced levels, students address problems that require richer domain knowledge, as well as connection to more complicated scenarios. For example, upper level students might collaborate on complex socio-environmental problems such as overfishing wherein stakeholder factors necessitate consideration of species population dynamics and local economies. At these levels, collaboration requires sophisticated forms of perspective taking to consider alternative views of problem elements.

Considering the need to provide more structured practice opportunities, problem-based learning is a method tested in a variety of settings with meta-analytic support documenting effectiveness. Teams work on real-world problems, first discussing any lack of understanding and identifying gaps in knowledge. From this, they form explicit learning goals and collaborate to gather and integrate knowledge necessary to produce a solution. Research must thoroughly examine these in the classroom to understand how they can best provide the contextual grounding that fosters integration of collaboration skills.

Assessment to measure team work

Finally, more consistent assessments that measure teamwork to provide diagnostic feedback on collaboration are also necessary. To achieve this, there should be a more systematic integration of methods on team training with the educational programs devised for learning to work in teams. This includes consideration of self-ratings of soft skills as well as peer-ratings that assess categories of team involvement like contribution to the team’s work and keeping the team on track. Also needed are assessments of interpersonal competencies such as conflict resolution (eg., reactions to conflict) and assertive communication (eg., addressing differences without intimidation).

Critical to this assessment is ensuring students receive feedback regularly, can compare it to self-assessments, and have opportunities to calibrate it in future collaborations. Research must explore how to incentivize collaborative problem solving skills and integrate grades on collaboration into overall student assessment.

Concluding questions

Do you have successful experiences of teaching and assessing team work to share? What are the key concepts that you teach? Which pedagogical strategies have you found helpful? What questions must the burgeoning “Science of Team Science” pursue to ensure effectiveness in collaborative problem solving?

To find out more:
Graesser, A. C., Fiore, S. M., Greiff, S., Andrews-Todd, J., Foltz, P. W. and Hesse, F. W. (2018). Advancing the science of collaborative problem solving. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19, 2: 59-92. Online:

Biography: Stephen M. Fiore PhD is Director, Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, and Professor with the University of Central Florida’s Cognitive Sciences Program in the Department of Philosophy and Institute for Simulation and Training. He is Past-President of the Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research, a founding committee member for the annual Science of Team Science Conference and founding board member for the International Network for the Science of Team Science. He maintains a multidisciplinary research interest that incorporates aspects of the cognitive, social, organizational, and computational sciences in the investigation of learning and performance in individuals and teams.

Embracing tension for energy and creativity in interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Liz Clarke and Rebecca Freeth

Liz Clarke (biography)

Tensions inevitably arise in inter- and transdisciplinary research. Dealing with these tensions and resulting conflicts is one of the hardest things to do. We are meant to avoid or get rid of conflict and tension, right? Wrong!

Tension and conflict are not only inevitable; they can be a source of positivity, emergence, creativity and deep learning. By tension we mean the pull between the seemingly contradictory parts of a paradox, such as parts and wholes, stability and chaos, and rationality and creativity. These tensions can foster interpersonal conflict, particularly when team members treat the apparent contradictions as if only one was ‘right’.

Rebecca Freeth (biography)

The growth of collaborative interdisciplinary research (tackling increasingly complex challenges) requires that researchers are able to collaborate across greater levels of complexity and diversity in teams, including broader disciplinary, social, political, institutional and personal backgrounds.

This challenges the boundaries of traditional modes of research, where researchers are guided and bound by the socially constructed knowledge of a community of practice of like-minded scholars. In this more traditional mode, shared understanding and coherence are relatively easy to achieve. In contrast, in collaborative interdisciplinary research, researchers find themselves in highly heterogeneous teams, where coherence becomes more challenging. These two examples are the extremes in a continuum, shown on the x-axis in the figure below.

Figure 1: Navigating the tensions between individual scholarship and collaboration and collective coherence (Clarke, Freeth and Fam, forthcoming)

In tackling increasingly complex and intractable problems (the central arrow in the figure), there is increasing pressure for inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, and for coproduction across broader skill sets and hence more diverse teams (represented on the x-axis). At the same time, individuals are challenged to operate as independent, creative thinkers, rather than conforming to the rules of scholarship for a single discipline. These two points, also on a continuum, are illustrated on the y-axis of the figure.

The combination of heterogeneous teams plus independent and creative scholarship sets up and increases the tension between the individual “I” and the team “we”. For example, there may be very different expectations about how much of the research should be done alone and how much together, and tension around the adoption of methodologies and analytical frameworks.

We have two choices for dealing with this tension:

  1. We can avoid or dissipate tension through a siloed or “additive” multidisciplinary approach, where individuals continue with their scholarship and connect with their disciplinary community, creating a fragmented approach. This potentially limits our ability to solve problems or create change and can (paradoxically) create even more tension (as we outline below).
  2. Team members can exercise individual agency through independent creative thinking (“I”), as well as engaging with the interdisciplinary team through collective thinking (“we”), which requires a greater engagement with difference. Here, the emphasis is on integrating, linking, focusing, blending, transcending, transgressing and transforming.

In the first option, the consequences of not embracing tension are paradoxically more tension and potentially more conflict (as flagged above). If we retreat back to the safety of what we know (individual scholarship) with those who share our approaches (in homogeneous teams), the pressure to simplify and decrease heterogeneity reduces our ability to tackle complexity (see the figure below). But the complexity does not go away and the most likely outcome is more tension creating negative energy generally through an adversarial approach to resolving differences, which is represented by the red arrow in the figure below.

Figure 2 Trying to dissipate tension paradoxically produces more tension (Clarke, Freeth and Fam, forthcoming)

In the second option, where team members exercise individual agency and engage with interdisciplinary teams, framing tension as a positive source of energy, creativity and learning, challenges us to stay committed to the collective whole. At the same time it challenges us to reflect on our own deeply held approaches, assumptions, beliefs and onto-epistemological framings, which Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge (2016) refer to, collectively, as the “blind spot”. Ignoring these can slow our learning and blind us to possible emergent futures. Alternatively, reflecting on the source of our thoughts, perceptions, communication and actions can be truly transformational and hence drive and enable system change.

How can we reflect on the “blind spot”? The figure below outlines a series of indicative questions that we can ask as we progress from the practical and instrumental questions towards the “blind spot” of onto-epistemological assumptions, beliefs, experience, etc.

Figure 3: Questions to encourage reflection and reflexivity in inter- and trans- disciplinary research (Clarke 2016)

In our previous blog post on skilful conversations for integration, we outlined that embracing tension through reflective and generative dialogue is a constructive way to stay engaged and to learn, as well as opening up the possibilities of deep change and novel futures.

So how are you engaging with tension? And how can you make it a source of positive energy, and strength and creativity?

To find out more:
Freeth, R., Clarke, E. A. and Fam, D. (In press). Engaging creatively with tension in collaborative research: Harnessing the ‘I’ and ‘we’ through dialogue. In: V. Brown, J. Harris and D. Waltner-Toews. (eds.), Independent thinking in an uncertain world. Routledge: London, United Kingdom.

Clarke, E. A. (2016). The synergies of difference: Strengthening transdisciplinary research practice through a relational methodology. PhD thesis, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Online:

Scharmer, C. O. and Senge, P. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers: Oakland, California, United States of America.

Biography: Liz Clarke PhD is a systems thinker and transdisciplinary researcher, educator and practitioner, specialising in design thinking, social innovation and change, and participatory action approaches to coproduction of knowledge and learning. Her interests span natural resource management, disaster risk management, sustainable food systems, climate adaptation, rural development and livelihoods, and environmental management. She is a research fellow in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project at Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany.

Biography: Rebecca Freeth is completing her PhD at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany where she is studying the interdisciplinary team of which she is also a member. Rebecca researches, writes about and facilitates collaboration. She does this with an eye on sustainability; supporting communities that will sustain even though they are wildly diverse, supporting collective decisions that will sustain because they take seriously the concerns of the outnumbered, and supporting social ecological systems that will sustain because everyone’s knowledge counts. Always a nomad, Rebecca moves between the worlds of practice, teaching and academia, and between Germany and South Africa.

Transforming transdisciplinarity: Interweaving the philosophical with the pragmatic to move beyond either/or thinking

Community member post by Katie Ross and Cynthia Mitchell

Katie Ross (biography)

Can a dive into the philosophical depths of transdisciplinarity provide an orientation to the fundamental purpose and need for transdisciplinarity?

The earlier philosophers of transdisciplinarity – such as Erich Jantsch (1980), Basarab Nicolescu (2002), and Edgar Morin (2008) – all aim to stretch or transcend the dominant Western paradigm, which arises in part from Aristotle’s rules of good thought. Aristotle’s rules of good thought, or his epistemology, state essentially that to make meaning in the world, we must see in terms of difference; we must make sense in terms of black and white, or dualistic and reductive thinking. Continue reading

You are biased!

Community member post by Matthew Welsh

Matthew Welsh (biography)

Complex, real-world problems require cooperation or agreement amongst people of diverse backgrounds and, often, opinions. Our ability to trust in the goodwill of other stakeholders, however, is being eroded by constant accusations of ‘bias’. These are made by commentators about scientists, politicians about media outlets and people of differing political viewpoints about one another. Against this cacophony of accusation, it is worthwhile stepping back and asking “what do we mean when we say ‘bias’ and what does it say about us and about others?”. Continue reading

Ten steps to strengthen the environmental humanities

Community member post by Christoph Kueffer and Marcus Hall

Christoph Kueffer (biography)

How might the environmental humanities complement insights offered by the environmental sciences, while also remaining faithful to their goal of addressing complexity in analysis and searching for solutions that are context-dependent and pluralistic?

There is a long and rich tradition of scholarship in the humanities addressing environmental problems. Included under the term ‘environmental studies’ until recently, fields such as the arts, design, history, literary studies, and philosophy are now gathering under the new umbrella of the ‘environmental humanities’. Continue reading

A checklist for documenting knowledge synthesis

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

How do you write-up the methods section for research synthesizing knowledge from different disciplines and stakeholders to improve understanding about a complex societal or environmental problem?

In research on complex real-world problems, the methods section is often incomplete. An agreed protocol is needed to ensure systematic recording of what was undertaken. Here I use a checklist to provide a first pass at developing such a protocol specifically addressing how knowledge from a range of disciplines and stakeholders is brought together.


1. What did the synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge aim to achieve, which knowledge was included and how were decisions made? Continue reading