9 Design: Structuring Engaging Problems

Chi and Glasser, in their 1985 article on problem solving, make a distinction between classroom problems and real-world problems. Classroom problems they describe as problems posed with clear inputs, clear processes for completion and a clear outcome.

Giving students clear problems, with a clear objective and a clear outcome will strike many people as exactly what we should be doing in our classrooms. And, in some cases, we probably should. Some knowledge that we want students to have, use and understand is broadly accepted in our fields and useful to know. The big problem is that for many of us we ‘encourage’ the students to do these clear problems by forcing their compliance. In an online classroom we can not effectively force the compliance from our students on these kinds of classroom problems.


The big difference is WHY the students are going to be doing the problems.

That physical, f2f classroom has a number of very special circumstances that allows you to use a classroom problem. In a classroom, you control all of the inputs that a student has at their fingertips. Any information they have is either in their head or in the materials you have provided.

That description that safely describes many problems that are given as work to students. While it can certainly be ‘engaging’ to work on problems that have clear solutions, they are only challenging when we don’t look at the answers. Apps like Photomath and websites like Chegg make those answers available to anyone.

There is another challenge however. What about problems that don’t have answers. How many challenges do we face as professionals, as citizens, as parents or as friends do not have 100% right answer. What about real-life problems?


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Engaging Students in an Online Era Copyright © by David Cormier; Ghanem Ghanem; and Brandon Mailloux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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