Fostering Collaborative Problem Solving by Content Schemes

Fostering Collaborative Problem Solving by Content Schemes

Kathrin Helling (Universität der Bundeswehr München, Germany) and Bernhard Ertl (Universität der Bundeswehr München, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-898-8.ch003
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This chapter focuses on the facilitation of collaborative problem solving by the method of content schemes. Content schemes are content-specific pre-structures of learners’ collaboration facilities that apply representational effects for the purpose of facilitation. They support learners to focus on particular issues of a problem solving process. The chapter presents results from two studies in the context of collaborative problem solving using videoconferencing. The first study compared learning facilitated by a content scheme and learning without facilitation; the second study compared the content scheme facilitation with facilitation by an enhanced version of this content scheme. This enhanced version focused learners on providing evidence for their claims. Results show that while the content scheme itself had a big influence on learning outcomes, the enhanced version had a rather small impact compared to the regular version. This result raises the issue about the complexity of facilitation methods. Complex facilitation may be too sophisticated for providing benefits to learning processes.
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Collaborative problem solving is estimated to be beneficial for learning processes and outcomes. Learners usually work collaboratively on case material in collaborative problem solving scenarios and this case material usually comprises of theory concepts and evidence (case information). By combining theoretical concepts with evidence from the case material, learners experience theory application. This approach allows them to reach a deeper understanding of the learning material (see Renkl, Mandl, & Gruber, 1996). Furthermore, learners share their perspectives on the case material within the collaborative setting and these different perspectives support them to apply their knowledge to different contexts outside the learning environment. In this context, Gijbels, Dochy, van den Bossche, and Segers (2005) call problem based learning one of the major developments of educational research, recently— mainly because problem based learning environments provide an active use of knowledge (DeCorte, 2003) with the goal to facilitate the transfer of the knowledge acquired and to avoid the acquisition of inert knowledge (see Renkl, Mandl &, Gruber 1996). Therefore, problem-based learning environments usually apply the principles of situated learning (see Lave & Wenger, 1991). Besides, literature on problem-based learning relies on different theoretical frameworks (see DeCorte, 1996; Glaser, Raghavan & Baxter, 1992), which commonly agree on an organised domain-specific knowledge base (or Joint Problem Space, according to Baker, Hansen, Joiner & Traum, 1999; Roschelle & Teasley, 1995) and meta-cognitive (often strategic) functions that operate on that knowledge (see Gijbels et al. 2005). With respect to the domain-specific knowledge base, Sugrue (1995) defines learners’ knowledge structure as consisting of concepts, principles and links from concepts and principles to conditions and procedures for the application of knowledge. Considering strategic functions, he states the importance of planning and monitoring the problem solving process (see also Gijbels et al. 2005). Furthermore, learners have to negotiate shared meanings to establish a common knowledge base for collaboration. Thereby they engage in clarifying processes that are often referred to as ‘grounding in communication’ (see Clark & Brennan, 1991; Dillenbourg &Traum, 2006).

To sum up, processes of computer-supported collaborative problem solving can be characterised by three aspects (see Ertl, Kopp, & Mandl, 2006): clarifying, strategic, and content-specific.

Clarifying aspects of problem solving refer to several kinds of activities (e.g. discussion, actions, and gestures). Learners perform them in order to negotiate a “common ground” (Clark & Brennan, 1991) — a basis for their problem solving. By this, learners come to a common understanding of the task and create the Joint Problem Space (Baker et al., 1999; Roschelle & Teasley, 1995), which defines the central terms of a problem and brings the learners perspectives down to a common denominator.

The planning of the problem solving strategy and its evaluation is an important strategic aspect of collaborative problem solving processes. According to Bruhn (2000) it is necessary in collaborative learning where learners have to agree on their course of actions (e.g. timing and sequencing).

The content-specific work on the task is considered relevant for effective collaboration due to the presumed correlation between the quantity and quality of content-related communication and learning outcomes (Cohen & Lotan, 1995). According to Weinberger (2003) such work activities are social interactions (e.g. externalisation and elicitation of content) and epistemic activities (e.g. the definition, elaboration and argumentation of new content). Through successful engagement in these interactions learners work on a shared product or outcome, the collaborative problem solution, which can be seen as shared mental artefact (see Bereiter, 2002).

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