Friday, September 22, 2017

Effect of Problem Solving Support and Cognitive Styles on Idea Generation: Implications for Technology-Enhanced Learning

Summary and Critique by Keith Robinson Jr.


The authors, Slavi Stoyanov and Paul Kirschner, investigated the effect of two problem-solving techniques anchored by free association: free association with a direct reference to the problem or direct for short, and free-association with a remote and postponed reference to the problem, otherwise called remote. The study reported research exploring the impact of these two problem-solving support techniques and their interaction with learner cognitive style on idea generation and creativity in ill-structured problem scenarios--problems that have unclear goals and incomplete information. The primary purpose of the study was to provide the foundation for teaching students how to solve ill-structured problems, investigating the question "What is the effect of direct and remote problem solving techniques on idea generation in an ill-structured problem-solving situation?"

The study compared results of two experimental and one control group, testing after the activity. The activity required students provide solutions to a change-management problem in higher education. The varying techniques prescribed different brainstorming rules as instruction in supporting idea generation. The direct technique, implemented to stimulate flow of ideas and bypass dominant thinking, postponed criticism, encouraged free-wheeling, piggybacking off ideas, preferred quantity of ideas, and required combination and improvement. The remote technique, supposed to provoke divine inspiration, supported idea generation by applying forced relationships between the problems and unrelated to the problem personal experience.

Additionally, the study investigated the interaction between the proposed techniques and cognitive styles: adaptive and innovative. Previous empirical evidence found that cognitive style is conceptually independent from constructs such as knowledge and intelligence; people with similar intellect and performing on the same level can approach problems differently. Adaptive styles adhere to structure while innovators tend to solve problems outside of a specific structure. While adaptors produce fewer solutions, solutions are more feasible. In contrast, innovators propose more and unusual ideas, but often produce more risky and non-practical solutions.

The sample selected students from a  members organization representing different departments, 57 of which were actively involved in a debate lasting several months on the issue of "How can we make our university a top university?" Students received information about the purpose of the study, but were not introduced to the problem. 34 students agreed to participate; 19 third-year students and 15 fourth-years. Experimental design controlled for the possible effect of problem solving cognitive style. The results revealed that both direct and remote free association and cognitive styles (innovators and adaptors) are key determinants of ill-structured problem-solving and should be acknowledged when crafting instruction aimed at guiding students in approaching ill-structured problems.

Remote free association yielded the highest scores on originality of ideas, as applying forced relationships between domains contributes most to breaking dominant thinking patterns. As estimated, the direct group produced the highest quantity of ideas; however, the authors noted, that quantity does not necessarily indicate originality of ideas and certainly does not always lead to quality. Ultimately, the research indicated that the most effective way of instructing how to deal with ill-structured problems is through remote free association--"referring to a domain that is different from the original problem before the requirement for connecting two domains" (pg. 59).

Based on the results, the authors summarized four implications for designing/developing technological arrangements for instructing how to tackle ill-structure problems:

1. Involve students in real-life simulations to learn how to solve ill-structured problems.
2. Provide students with both domain-specific and domain-generic knowledge and skills for analysis of problem scenarios, generating ideas, selecting ideas, and implementing the ideas in practice.
3. Give remote or postponed references to the problem to promote more creative solutions.
4. Provide guidelines on how to manage the diversity of cognitive styles


This is a well-researched article that deserves further elaboration of its study. The article has properties that can be applied to the field of intelligence, especially regarding intelligence collection and collaboration, considering intelligence questions often entail solving for ill-structured scenarios. On a spectrum, intelligence analysts in collaboration aim at finding the happy medium between group think and dominant thinking patterns (convergent thinking) and divergent thinking. It would be interesting to see this study enacted upon real world professionals. The study is lacking in that it leaves out what type of individuals the students in the members organization are. What type of students involved in the group is undetermined and could possibly play a role in their input. Are they honors students? From what departments did students come from? These factors may have had an effect on the results. It would also be interesting to see from what students in what departments did the majority of insightful, original solutions come from. Perhaps different subjects require different critical thinking and analytic skills than others, something which may effect the way in which students arrive at certain solutions.


Stoyanov, S., & Kirschner, P. (2007). Effect of Problem Solving Support and Cognitive Styles on Idea Generation: Implications for Technology-Enhanced Learning. Journal Of Research On Technology In Education, 40(1), 49-63.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your critique of specifying which departments the student sample came from. However, I do like the comparison between the direct and remote free association. Another study with more complete information about the student sample would likely provide an accurate portrait of the accuracy of free association.