Why can’t my students problem solve?

I am a big believer in the younger generations shaping our future. We seem switched on to societal issues (read: gender, inclusion, environment etc.) and we have a lot of problems facing us (read: housing market, energy crisis, environment etc.). Naturally, this requires some problem solving!

As a PhD student, I obviously love solving problems, and I have realized that I like solving problems that impact people. After a trip to New York for the Womensphere Emerging Leaders Global Summit in March, I was introduced to the Sustainable Development Goals (and slightly embarrassed that I wasn’t as clued in as I should have been), where I was inspired to bring it back to my small part of the world in Canberra. Straight off a flight from New York, in an attempt to fight the oncoming jetlag and simultaneously trying to inspire my students, I went to my two-hour tutorial pumped to get them working on addressing the sustainable development goals.

I should note that I am at ANU, one of Australia’s top universities. I also teach into a program that is an ‘elite’ program, with students from the top 1% in year 12 and maintaining a HD average at university. Pretty smart kids overall. I thought they would be excited to solve such complex problems. But it was one of the hardest tutorials I have run (coming a close second to getting the same students to set SMART+ goals for their own development – how dare I, really!). I deliberately treated it as a discovery-based exercise, where they had to figure out the information they needed to find out to solve the problem, and then source it and hence solve it. For super smart students I thought a challenge would be a great opportunity.

Not so much. And I have found the same thing in the majority of the first year cohort of the same program, and with third/fourth year students of our normal engineering program. So, it isn’t down to inexperience in a university environment. It worries me. This is the next generation of engineers – problem solvers – who don’t feel inspired to solve the world’s biggest problems, for the benefit of humanity/Earth, if only for a two hour tutorial. Why?

I completed my undergraduate degree at ANU, and have taught undergraduate and Masters courses for five years. I have noticed a change in the attitudes amongst the student body. When I was a student, a lot of us were there because we liked learning and it was expected. There has since been economic change, with life, particularly in Canberra, becoming less affordable, and rising education costs. Many factors have led to students being consumers in high education, and far from creators.

There is a lack of empathy and creativity that is a barrier to solving these problems. Some students get very caught up in their own bubble at university, which I agree is a very stressful and challenging time. I try my best to engage students in every class I teach, but getting them to solve problems that don’t directly affect them has been challenging, particularly when they are overwhelmed with getting 80% in all their current assignments and dealing with on-res drama.

I can’t help but get a bit exasperated, confused and worried when I come across this challenge – I mean, I think these students are our future, and yet they don’t seem to want to solve many problems. It also makes me sad, as every day I see higher education become more like a business and less like an educational endeavor – although I know many people scattered in different places are working against this status quo. I know a lot of people who are passionate about education (and also a lot who aren’t, but we won’t go there), and what I think we need to do is band together and work towards our common goal – developing our students into critical thinkers, problems solvers, and leaders, whilst also articulating the worthy business case (umm, our future??). And I know this isn’t a new idea, but also, some educators should remember that these students are just people, and not a number (even when they are ‘mark grabbing’).

Students are very much a product of their environment, so we need to change that environment to ensure that the next generation values their learning experience and has the empathy and creativity to solve the big challenges facing us as a society.


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