Student Engagement Through Collaborative Problem Solving

In his 2013 presentation, Reimagining Learning, the Director of the Office of Educational Technology, Richard Culatta, cited a school in Mooresville, N.C., which had reimagined learning to the extent that classrooms had lost their front and back orientation as groups of students worked collaboratively on projects (Culatta, 2013). I believe this kind of learning environment is only possible with highly engaged and intrinsically motivated students. But what is the secret to organising this kind of learning? As Culatta says, it was great that every student had a laptop with professional tools at his or her disposal, but the real energy stemmed from the collaborative meaningful nature of the projects themselves (Culatta, 2013).

Real world problems are often ill-defined and ill-structured. Important problems regarding the health of the environment or resource management for example exceed any one individual’s capacity to problem solve both in terms of content knowledge and problem solving skills (Lajoie, 2005, p.33). Indeed, nowadays few would deny that collaborative problem solving is a fundamental skill that must be learned and honed throughout one’s education. For teachers, putting this into practice has proven to be more complicated than simply dividing a class into groups. However, in the course of some research I have learned that just as the challenges have been many, the added benefits of successfully integrating collaborative problem solving within a curriculum seem to have no end. From greater self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation to deeper domain knowledge and respect among classmates, collaborative problem solving can help bring greater meaning to students’ learning.

I found and reviewed two works. The first, a doctoral dissertation by Nancy Moore titled Constructivism using group work and the impact on self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, and group work skills on middle-school mathematics students, monitored 100 American middle-school students performing extensive group work throughout their geometry unit. Student achievement rose across the board, with the most dramatic increases occurring amongst the lowest achievers helping to close the knowledge gap in the class (Moore, 2005, p.221). When comparing students’ previous attitudes towards math with those after the unit, students “felt confident, did not become discouraged, and made an effort on difficult questions; indicating an increase in self-efficacy” (Moore, 2005, p.223). Overall, students  “improved in setting goals, meeting deadlines, discussing concepts, taking turns speaking and listening, cooperating, negotiating, and providing feedback” (Moore, 2005, p.226). Students were clearly more engaged working collaboratively because the work meant something to them, as “observations indicated students were interested enough to complete outside independent research” for their projects (Moore, 2005, p.225).

The second article, An intervention framework designed to develop the collaborative problem-solving skills of primary school students, provided an example of the rigorous scaffolding necessary for teaching collaborative problem solving skills. The study monitored two classes of 3rd grade science students in Shanghai during a unit on air quality. While both classes worked in groups with guidance on the content of the problems, the treatment class (TC) participated in scaffolding activities during each stage of the unit. For example, both groups spent two weeks on the “Prepare to solve the problem” stage, but TC also used this time adopting rules for discourse (Chen et al., 2015, p.146). TC’s other scaffolding stages included making group plans using Mindmap and Wikispaces and structuring evidence-based arguments (Chen et al., 2015, p.147). Not surprisingly, when posed with a fresh problem of comparing Shanghai’s air quality with Canada’s, “TC showed a higher transfer ability of interpreting the new problem and of identifying relevant information in solving the problem” (Chen et al., 2015, p.155).

I imagine the classes from both of these articles would have resembled what Culatta saw in Mooresville; collaborative problem solving motivating students. Since motivation is a key determinant of knowledge transfer, it is crucial to integrate collaborative problem-based learning like that of maker education (Bransford et al., 2000 p.61). With adequate scaffolding in the dynamics of group work, maker projects can provide essential learning opportunities to create students who are better able to interpret problems, plan solutions, persevere, and adapt when new problems arise. Just as they always do in the real world.


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school Expanded Edition. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, p.61.

Chen, S., Gu, X., Lin, L., & Zhu, W. (2015). An intervention framework designed to develop the collaborative problem-solving skills of primary school students. Educational Technology Research and Development, 63.1, 143-159, p. 146, 147, 155.

Culatta, Richard. (2013) Reimagining Learning: Richard Culatta at TEDx Beacon Street [Online video]. Retrieved from:

Lajoie, S. P. (2005). Extending the scaffolding metaphor. Instructional Science, p. 33.

Moore, Nancy M. (2005). Constructivism using group work and the impact on self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, and group work skills on middle-school mathematics students. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing 3164690, p. 221, 223, 225, 226.

Schmidt, Missy. (2011) Collaborative Problem-Solving (Online image). Retrieved from:


One thought on “Student Engagement Through Collaborative Problem Solving

  1. I also read the “Collaboration in Primary School Students” article – thanks for the breakdown. Your application of the research and your lesson plan seem to align with these findings. Your students are fortunate!


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