Teaching Problem-Solving Skills to Adults

Article excerpt

Abstract

College teachers have done an excellent job over the years of teaching technical concepts, but they may not have done as good a job of teaching their adult students to be good problem-solvers. Nine representatives from the technical industry and academia were interviewed in this study for their expert opinions on the subject of teaching problem-solving skills to adult college students. Part I of the study defines problem-solving and explains the importance of teaching it. Part II summarizes some selected problem-solving methods from the available literature in an effort to understand what each has to offer. Part III offers recommendations for teaching problem-solving skills in vocational/technical classes at the college level.

Introduction

Not many years ago, college teachers planned and delivered their curriculum with little regard for the needs of the companies that would be hiring many of their graduates. Today, however, administrators and faculty from colleges and universities are involved in regular discussions with employers from business and industry about how best to educate and train students for the modern workplace. As a result of these discussions, educators find themselves continuously updating and revising their courses' technical content to meet the ever-changing needs of the employers, effectively addressing many of the inadequacies that employers have observed in the past. While technical skills may not be as much of an issue with employers now as they were formerly, the lack of "soft" skills are of increasing concern today. Soft skills include those skills, beyond technical training, that help an employee contribute to a company at an overall higher level than another employee with equivalent (or even superior) technical skills. These soft skills include, but are not limited to the ability to work in teams, to communicate, to listen effectively, to negotiate, to pay attention to detail, to apply principles of craftsmanship, and to solve problems. This study examines in detail the last of these; i.e. the ability to solve problems.

According to interviewee comments provided in this study, problem-solving is a skill that employers and supervisors value highly in their employees. All employers interviewed for this study claim that, as a result of changes in the work place, they look for evidence of problemsolving skills in prospective employees. In the past, front-line workers performed repetitive, mundane tasks until something, such as a machine failure, went wrong. The workers then reported the problem to some other group (usually their supervisor or engineering personnel), and then waited, nonproductively, until someone else was able to solve the problem. In today's workforce, however, front-line workers are expected to solve many of the problems they encounter. This is far more efficient and productive. Occasionally, more complex problems occur, problems that are beyond the capability of the front-line worker to resolve. In these instances, the workers are asked to involve other individuals who may have a more intimate knowledge of the operation. Unfortunately, the ability to solve problems effectively is an elusive skill that is not usually emphasized in college curricula, largely because it is much more difficult to teach than "book smarts" or technical skills. The reasons for this are explored in a later section of this paper. It is complicated by the fact that there are a myriad of published problem-solving methods, and little agreement exists among educators about how problem-solving skills can best be taught.

The following study was undertaken to explore the subject of teaching adults to be effective problem-solvers in the workplace. The goals of the study were 1) to determine the importance of teaching this skill, 2) to review and summarize some of the available literature on problem-solving methods, and 3) to compile some of the best practices for incorporating problem-solving instruction into a college curriculum. …

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