Media, Technology, and Education
First Year SeminarIntegrated ClustersTackling a Wicked ProblemWicked Problems

What is “Tackling a Wicked Problem”?

Starting this fall, Plymouth State University is embarking on a new curricular initiative called Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP). This is a course required of all first year students, designed to provide experiences in our cluster learning model. We have taken a lot of steps to get to the point where we’re offering the course for the first time so I thought it might be useful to remember where we came from in developing this course and why we have made the choices that we have. The course replaces our former requirement that all first year students take First Year Seminar and our work to revise that course led to the development of TWP.

Back in the Fall 2016 semester, then-Dean of the First Year Experience Mark Fischler reconvened the First Year Seminar Coordinating Council, a group of faculty that had long overseen our First Year Seminar but which had become a bit dormant. The charge to the group was to rethink our First Year Seminar so that it could fulfill President Birx’s vision of the Four Tools of Clusters.

As we were developing and teaching this new(ish) version of the First Year Seminar, a group of faculty were working on articulating the learning outcomes for the General Education program. The group came up with a set of four Habits of Mind, or usual ways of engaging with the world, that have now been approved by the full faculty as the learning outcomes for the program. Because the First Year Seminar (and now TWP) is the first course in the General Education program, it necessarily focuses on providing experiences for students to practice these Habits of Mind, which are shown below:

The idea of students owning their education or being able to tell the story of their educational journey was a topic that came up a lot as we were developing the First Year Seminar. This idea is related to the Self-Regulated Learning Habit of Mind. Self-Regulated Learning is characterized by students taking ownership over their own learning, being fully engaged in the learning process, and having meta-cognitive awareness in that they understand how they learn best and seek out and create situations to aid in their own learning.

To provide opportunities for students to engage with this Habit of Mind, the First Year Seminar Coordinating Council decided to focus the First Year Seminar (and now TWP) on project-based learning. The group talked about how meaningful it is when students engage in experiences related to high impact practices like working on “real world” projects and what we would need to change in our existing course for that to happen. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

The changes are not huge but we think they represent a good first step toward a FYS that supports the kind of project-based learning experiences that we want more of our students to have. First, we want to change some of the processes we use for students to enroll in FYS so that they are truly choosing the course section based on their interest in the topic rather than choosing based on the time that the section is offered. Second, the course will continue to focus on critical thinking. But we think that moving from a question for each section to a kind of challenge or issue for each section will help to inform the projects that students might work on. For example, instead of choosing a question like “Why do people believe weird things?” (which is the question I have used when I teach the course), I might choose a challenge or issue (or what some people call “wicked problems“) like “People’s distrust of the media.” The question that I previously focused on in my class is related to the issue of distrust in the media. I might even use some of the same materials to introduce students to the topic. But now, instead of focusing on answering the question posed by the course, students will focus on improving the situation related to the issue. In other words, we wouldn’t focus on solving the problem of people not trusting the media. In fact, that problem defies easy solutions. Instead, we will focus on understanding the issue (because these problems are ill-structured and complex) and then trying to have some impact by working on a project related to the issue. We won’t “solve” the problem, again because the problem defies easy solutions. There has been a lot written about “wicked problems” and I encourage anyone interested in FYS to do a bit of research about the topic. Third, every section of the course should have extended discussions about general education. This is already supposed to be a part of the FYS but it isn’t clear that these discussions are helping students to choose an intentional path through their Gen Ed requirements and so we want to make sure that all sections include this piece.

Around this time, some of us also read David Wiley’s blog post about open pedagogy and disposable assignments about which, he says, “These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world.” Wiley’s thoughts about engaging students in meaningful work permeated the development of the revised FYS. As I was teaching the class in Fall 2017, I wrote about this idea:

In a typical class, a student might be asked to write a research paper. The student writes the paper and submits it to a learning management system (or hands it in in hard copy form). The instructor of the course writes comments on it and gives it a grade. The student reads the comments (or doesn’t). If the paper was handed in as a hard copy, the student is then likely to throw it away. If the paper was submitted to a learning management system, the instructor ensures that this is the only kind of information that is NOT imported into the course for the next offering. In other words, this paper has no life beyond the class, no audience beyond the instructor. It is “throw-away” work. Who gets excited about doing “throw-away” work? The thing that NSSE’s high impact experiences have in common is that none of them ask the students to engage in “throw-away” work. They are all about work that matters in some way to the world. If we change our pedagogy in our Gen Ed classes so that at least one assignment is not “throw-away,” we can now ensure that students have multiple significant high impact experiences. All of our students.

As we continued our discussions about these changes, we began to read about Design Thinking as a methodology for approaching these problems. In December 2016, I wrote:

Design thinking is a methodology for working on complex problems. It is solution focused rather than problem focused. It is an iterative process with five clearly defined stages that we move around in non-linearly. The first stage is about empathy. We need to know the people involved in the problem, especially the “end-users,” those most affected by the problem. We need to know about their needs and the contexts in which they live. We need to put ourselves, as much as possible, in their shoes to think about what would be helpful. The second stage involves defining the problem as one whose solution will satisfy a human-centered need. Notice that this definition of the problem has moved from the larger, complex problem that we are trying to work on to a smaller, more focused problem that expresses the needs of a particular group of people. The third step is about ideation, where the designers (in this case, the students) generate many ideas about how to satisfy the need identified in the definition stage. The fourth stage is to build several small-scale prototypes where particular aspects of the solution to the problem are chosen for implementation. This is an experimental phase where the goal is to identify the best solution to the needs with the constraints identified in the other phases. The fifth stage involves testing the prototypes and often involves the development of more insights into the problem that can then be iteratively incorporated into redefining the problem or into new ideation and prototyping stages. This is a non-linear process where each stage may lead to paths forward or backward to any other stage in the process.

One thing that I particularly like about the design thinking mindset is that there is a bias towards action. This core principle of design thinking means that the focus is on action-oriented work rather than discussion-oriented work. The team is then unlikely to get stuck because they can’t figure something out. Instead, they are encouraged to move in new directions, to think about things differently, and become unstuck.

From these conversations, we developed the idea of cluster pedagogy (for which we subsequently received the grant from The Davis Educational Foundation that supports our Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC)). Cluster pedagogy is the set of characteristics that bring the four tools of clusters together into a coherent curriculum. Those characteristics are:


  • Interdisciplinarity and integration: Students are challenged to understand and use various disciplinary perspectives and to integrate those perspectives to create new and unique projects and/or solutions.


  • Project-based work that extends beyond the walls of the classroom: Students work on projects that impact the world outside of the classroom in some way.


  • Sharing with an external audience: Student work is shared with an audience external to the course.


As I wrote in the application for the grant:

Our vision of cluster pedagogy is informed by the wider movement toward open pedagogy that we see taking hold in higher education. We subscribe to the definition of open pedagogy articulated by DeRosa and Jhangiani in “What is Open Pedagogy?”. They write that open pedagogy is advocacy for the use of open educational resources merged with pedagogical approaches that emphasize “collaboration, connection, diversity, democracy, and critical assessment of educational tools and structures.” Cluster pedagogy is PSU’s particular implementation of open pedagogy in which we emphasize work on projects that reach beyond the walls of the classroom in a variety of ways. We believe that our particular implementation of open pedagogy can be a model for other universities interested in better preparing their students for success.

In fact, as we have developed the CPLC, we have changed the third characteristic of cluster pedagogy to explicitly name open pedagogy more generally.

To facilitate students sharing their work with an external audience, we have built an end of semester experience into TWP. At the moment, we have a common assignment in which students create posters to explain to an external audience the activities that they undertook in their project development and implementation and what they learned from those activities. This is a group poster since the project is a collaborative one. The students present their poster at a public poster symposium during the last week of the semester. In addition, students write an individual essay in which they reflect on their development of the Habits of Mind.

Because the FYS, and now TWP, are so local to PSU, the First Year Seminar Fellows decided to create an open educational resource (OER) for use in the class. The original version of that OER is here. We are currently working on a new OER for the new course. It is not yet complete but you can watch the development of it here. The generic syllabus of the new course can be found here.

Tackling a Wicked Problem is a cornerstone course in Plymouth State University’s Integrated Cluster learning model. I think it represents the direction in which more of our courses should head so that PSU graduates have the chance to develop the Habits of Mind that will help them succeed in their personal and professional lives. I’m looking forward to the lessons we learn about how to teach the class well.

Image Credit: I took the featured image of Rounds Hall on the PSU campus on April 11, 2019. CC-BY-4.0


Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. Pingback: Unorganized(?) Thoughts On First Year Seminars/ Tackling a Wicked Problem, Critical Thinking, Habits of Mind, and (my) “Education”? – infuturereverse

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