Assessment Opinion

What Does an International Assessment Tell Us About Collaborative Problem Solving?

By Robert Rothman — November 21, 2017 3 min read
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Many of the teachers and students who have written for this blog have described projects in which students worked in teams to solve problems and produce products. Here is a recent example from a student at High Tech High.

The reason for these projects is obvious. In the modern workplace, collaboration is an essential skill. Workers collaborate with their peers in their offices and plants, as well as with colleagues across the country or across the globe. By providing students with opportunities to work together with their peers--to manage group work and collectively use diverse skills to solve problems--schools can better prepare young people for the future they will face.

How well do students collaborate to solve problems? A new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides some answers. As part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), OECD tested 15-year-olds from 57 countries on collaborative problem solving tasks. OECD defined collaborative problem solving as “the capacity of an individual to effectively engage in a process whereby two or more agents attempt to solve a problem by sharing the understanding and effort required to come to a solution, and pooling their knowledge, skills, and efforts to reach that solution.”

For example, in one set of tasks, students are asked to work together to participate in a contest to answer questions about the geography, people, and economy of the fictional nation of Xandar. Students had to agree on a strategy, reach consensus on which questions to answer, play the contest effectively, and assess their progress.

The results show some surprises. Although many countries that performed well on PISA’s subject-area tests also performed well on the collaborative problem solving assessment (Singapore, the top performer in reading, mathematics, and science, also topped all other nations in collaborative problem solving), in some countries the results showed a different pattern. Notably, students in the United States, who performed in the middle of the pack in reading and science and well below the international average in mathematics, performed above the average of industrialized countries in collaborative problem solving. By contrast, four provinces in China, which did well on the subject-area tests, performed below average in collaborative problem solving.

What do the findings mean for schools? It’s not clear. For one thing, the tasks are interdisciplinary or discipline-neutral, so how do schools assign responsibility for improving collaborative problem solving? Is it the responsibility of all teachers?

For another thing, collaborative problem solving is not a skill that students learn just in school. Of course, that is not unique to collaborative problem solving--students who read for fun do better in reading--but it is difficult to know how well schools are developing that competency in students if their performance can vary based on their out-of-school activities. In fact, as the PISA results show, there is less variation between schools in collaborative problem solving than there is in the subject-area tests, suggesting that out-of-school learning might play a larger role.

There are other questions as well. The PISA test asked students to collaborate with computer-based avatars, not other humans. There are many practical reasons for this; for example, for the test to be reliable, the test-takers’ partners had to be comparable across schools and countries, and humans vary widely in their abilities and motivations. But does a test that measures students’ ability to interact with computer-based avatars represent an authentic gauge of their collaborative competencies?

There will be other opportunities to address these questions. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is considering developing a test of collaborative problem solving; I was on a panel that issued a report in April 2017 identifying issues for NAEP to consider as it moves down this path.

And schools will continue to provide opportunities for students to work together on complex projects, as the High Tech High student did. They are preparing students for the world they will face in their future. Collaborative problem solving is a vital skill.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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