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Explore problem cases

Get your bearing on your issue by exploring problem cases.


Get your bearing on your issue by exploring problem cases.

All research is aimed at explaining an important issue, such as explaining why something happens (science) or explaining how to make things that affect the work in some desired way (design & engineering).  

Think of the problem case as the "first paragraph" or motivation of any research paper.



Example 1: Peer-led learning communities

Here is an example of a practical problem common in extracurricular chapter-based organizations (like Girl Scouts, or Design for America):

  • Agent: Design for America National Staff
  • Action: Have put peer leaders in charge of learning communities
  • Goal: In order to avoid the prohibitive cost associated with hiring tons of teachers to lead learning communities
  • Result: As a result, learning communities don’t work as well and struggle to live up to their promise to give students authentic opportunities to learn real-world skills.

Example 2: SBL in Design for America

Here is a practical problem faced by the national headquarters of Design for America (like Girl Scouts but for design):

  • Agent: DFA Network Leaders
  • Goal: Want members of the DFA network (design students/novices) to learn from each other and support each other through similar issues
  • Action: Have organized meetings and conference calls 
  • But: Aren’t sure what tools and strategies work best or how to improve them
  • Result: Use many tools, not always strategically, taking up a lot of time

This also raises an interesting issue for researchers:

  • Agent: Learning Scientists
  • Goal: Want to use networked tools to support distributed design-based learning 
  • Action: Have studied SBL in architecture and design classes. Have articulated principles of SBL
  • But: Have not studied SBL at the networked level. Have not thought about how SBL might parallel distributed work environments, studied extensively in org literature
  • Result: Don’t know as much about SBL in networked learning environments

So the practical problem becomes a research problem when it's something the research  doesn't know the answer to (and also cares about solving).

Example 3. Teaching design with problem-based learning

Here is a problem case for problem-based learning researchers:

  • Agent: PBL researchers
  • Action: have not developed and codified effective approaches for using PBL to teach design of highly ill-structured problems (low structuredness and high complexity).
  • Goal: want to apply PBL to as wide a range of learning environments as possible
  • Result: not sure if we can profitably use PBL for (highly-ill-structured) design problems due to low structuredness and high complexity of design problems (in which learners need to do their own planning/goal setting).


A problem case is a concrete situation that bothers you or someone else in the community.  At the heart of every issue is a problem case.  By creating an original argument you will suggest a way for your community to reduce or eliminate these cases.

To describe a problem case completely, you need to describe 4 kinds of information:

  • Agent: who is doing something that causes the problem?
  • Action: What are they doing?
  • Goal: Why, from their perspective, are they doing it?
  • Result: What is the outcome of their action

(see the examples in the Examples section)

A problem case causes discontent because there is a conflict between two or more aspects of the situation.  You can usually find the tension by inserting a "but" at the most appropriate point in the description, for example:

In the problem case of environmental purists, there is a tension between the goal and the result:

  • Agent: The purists, 1 percent of Americans, the intellectual and financial elite
  • Action: have reserved 40 million acres of wilderness only for those willing to backpack into them
  • Goal: in order to preserve their beauty.
  • Result: As a result, 99 percent of Americans are restricted to 112,800 acres of secondary scenic areas.

Once the problem case has been described, you may be able to identify another case (a solution) that resolves the tension:

  • Agent: The Swiss
  • Action: have built roads, trains, and tramways
  • Goal: in order to provide access to their scenic beauty.
  • Result: As a result, people from all over Europe come to admire the magnificient views



In your master design document:

1. Write a description of each of the problem cases you believe are involved in the issue you've chosen.  For each case, include as much as you can about each aspect of the case. If you are not sure of any of these facts, speculate on the possibilities:

    • Agent
    • Action
    • Goal
    • Result

Remember your goal here is to dredge our memory and understanding as deeply as possible.

2. Following each description, write about what has drawn you to the case. What is the tension you perceive? Why are you less than content to see it continue or happen again? What would have to change to make you more satisfied?

3. For researchers -- make sure that one (ideally several!) of your problem cases describes a problem for the research community (i.e., something they want to know but don't). Ideally, you should also describe another problem case (or several more!) that describe the practical problem faced by practitioners (such as teachers or students) that this research knowledge is meant to shed light on.



A set problem cases describing the tension in your issue.


Kaufer, D. S., Geisler, C., & Neuwirth, C. M. (1989). Arguing from sources: Exploring issues through reading and writing. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.