The Research Base for Solve Problems and Make Decisions

While the ability to solve problems and make decisions is acknowledged as a desirable focus of adult learning and development, explicit treatment of problem solving is rarely found in the traditional, academics-focused adult basic skills curriculum outside of mathematics (and even in that domain, within fairly narrow parameters). While Teaching and assessing problem solving in adult basic/literacy/ESOL education is a fairly new endeavor, the descriptions of performance at each level of the Solve Problems and Make Decisions Performance Continuum are anchored in analysis of data on adult learner performance collected by teacher researchers who developed activities based on the Solve Problems and Make Decisions Standard. The activities they developed addressed problems the adults they taught face in real-world contexts including the workplace, the family, and the community.

Teachers in five field research states developed performance tasks and measured learner performance on the tasks as part of a rigorous three-year field development process. This evidence of learner performance on the standard went through analysis by research staff who also consulted research and theory on problem solving and decision making to guide and refine the definition of performance criteria. Our job of developing a Performance Continuum for the standard that will support valid and reliable assessment of individual performance on the standard has been a challenging one and our understanding of competent adult performance in solving problems and making decisions continues to evolve.

A number of sources have guided our understanding of problem solving proficiency including the work of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), an approach to the assessment of problem solving skills developed by the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at the University of California in Los Angeles and other recent research in cognitive science. Problem solving has been defined in the research as an integrated process of applying knowledge and using strategies in meaningful contexts to provide solutions and to adjust these solution strategies based on self-monitoring. Across the research, we found broad agreement that the development of proficiency is demonstrated through progressively more efficient, fluent, and independent performance in solving increasingly complex, novel, and ill-defined problems. The EFF Standard and performance continuum for Solve Problems and Make Decisions aligns with the definitions of proficient problem solving as outlined by education and workforce experts as well as cognitive science researchers. The process of problem-solving and decision making, as outlined by the EFF Standard calls for the ability to:

  • Identify, fully understand, and represent (internally and for others) a problem to be solved;
  • Generate, evaluate, and choose the best among solution options;
  • Select and use appropriate strategies (whether general or domain specific), in appropriate sequence or combination, to solve the problem;
  • Plan, carry out and monitor the effectiveness of a process for using these strategies, and to flexibly adjust the approach if feedback warrants.

One issue revealed by the research is that content or domain-specific understanding is often crucial to effective problem solving. In other words, a "general" or "domain independent" approach to teaching problem solving skills may be less effective than the teaching of an approach that is tailored to the kinds of knowledge and skills required to solve a specific problem in a particular context. The EFF approach to effective problem solving includes an integrated domain-independent problem solving process as well as a focus on the ability to identify and solve problems that are contextualized in authentic adult contexts.

(The Solve Problems and Make Decisions Resources section of the EFF Assessment Resource Collection library contains a more detailed description of this research and a bibliography).

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