Students solving problems when they’re “stuck, frustrated, and confused”

The students in my entrepreneurship class get the chance in every class period to work on urgent, real-life problems faced by company CEOs. It’s what makes this class both exciting and demanding. Recently, a problem the students had to solve wasn’t merely complex–it seemed inscrutable and unsolvable. I knew they were struggling with it. When I asked them to tell me how they were feeling, they responded with words like stuck, frustrated, and confused.

I hadn’t planned the project in this way on purpose. I was just as surprised and confused about this problem as the students. The CEO had originally explained the problem to me in a much simpler way. However, once the students became deeply immersed in all of the variables and unknowns, it was clear this business problem was going to be tricky to untangle. On the one hand, I was glad that the students were facing a problem that felt like the real world. They were being forced to wrestle with this and learn what it’s like to face ambiguity and uncertainty without giving up or becoming discouraged.

On the other hand, I struggled with the guilt of wanting my students to be successful. I was tempted to step in and push them strongly in what I considered to be the right direction. For the most part, I resisted that urge because I knew it would be better for the students if they could figure this problem out on their own, or at least as much as possible. In the end I compromised. I attempted to explain the business problem somewhat by engaging the students in questions designed to clarify the various customer segments that might be considered. I tried to be careful not to tell them how to interpret this information, or give any hints about how they might use this data to solve the problem.

So what happened? The next week, the students all made excellent presentations to the CEO. In fact, the CEO told the students they had been far more thorough and insightful than college students who had considered the same problem. Here was my surprise: most of what I shared with the students was not as helpful as I had hoped. What had made sense to me, was not what made the most sense to them in solving this problem. They were approaching the problem from their own perspective, and they were making sense of the problem and the solution in a way that was more authentic and meaningful to them. One student even sought out a completely new source of data I had never considered.

Circle w-Jay
I was not disappointed by this. This is the first class I have taught on entrepreneurship, and I am learning at least as much as the students! Through this experience, I have developed an even deeper conviction about the amount of time and attention the instructor must give to selecting the right businesses and CEOs, making sure the problem is challenging yet within the range of the students’ experience, making sure all of the resources necessary are available or at least accessible. In this particular business problem, I had done all of this, but I now see how my attention to these details is even more important than I previously thought. In the future, I hope to feel less guilty if students are struggling to figure out a real-life problem. I also hope to avoid the trap of not steering them to solve the problem in the way I feel might be best. The purpose of this class is to create meaningful opportunities for the students to learn and grow, to develop their problem solving skills, and to take ownership of this entire process so that they can acquire tools that will continue to be useful to them in school and life. I couldn’t be more proud of the students for what they’re accomplishing along these lines, and I can’t think of a better way to define success.

3 thoughts on “Students solving problems when they’re “stuck, frustrated, and confused”

  1. Hello Jay – I wondered why you felt it necessary “avoid the trap of not steering them to solve the problem in the way I feel might be best.” A CEO must be challenged by his staff. If his problem-solvers only deliver solutions he feels is best, they’re group-think ‘yes’ men.


    • Great question. I think you actually got my point. I did learn from the students, and they came up with solutions that turned out to be quite good and original. I would have deprived them (and the business client) of that opportunity if I simply told them what to do. That’s an important lesson for all CEOs (and teachers as well).

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