January 18, 2018

By Dr. Jessie Kember, NCSP

As educators, we understand that we must clearly identify a problem in order to solve it. And we need to pass this skill along to our students as well.

Whether the issue is a lack of academic progress, challenging classroom behavior, or anything else we may come across from day to day, the best method is having a plan of attack and then executing it to arrive at a satisfactory solution.

In this blog, I’ll examine the steps of the problem-solving process, relate them to our approach at Renaissance, and then focus on the very first step: problem identification.

What is problem identification in K–12 education, and what does it look like when you clearly identify a problem? Keep reading to find out.

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How is problem identification used in schools?

Educators can use problem identification to seek solutions to resolve problems in the school environment that occur at the district, school, class, and individual levels. Problem identification is part of the scientific method, as it serves as the first step in a systematic process to identify and evaluate a problem and then explore potential solutions.

Problem identification can be used in schools as the first in the following steps of the problem-solving process in education:

  1. Identify the problem: State your problem as clearly as possible, and be specific about the situation. Include background, context, and symptoms of the issue when identifying the problem.
  2. Form a hypothesis: Hypothesize what is causing or maintaining the conditions around the problem. Try to really get to the root cause.
  3. Develop possible solutions: Use analytic thinking to come up with as many possible solutions to the problem as possible. In this step, anything goes.
  4. Decide on one solution: Critically evaluate everything you came up with in step three, and decide which solution is the most feasible.
  5. Implement the solution: Plan out the steps you will take, and then follow them.
  6. Collect data to evaluate the outcome: How effective was the solution? Do you need to go back to the drawing board and try a different approach?

Teams of educators can use this problem-solving approach as often as needed to come up with the right solutions to their issues.

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The Renaissance 5-step approach to solving problems

Renaissance takes a similar approach to problem solving, but our model is distilled down to five key steps. You’ll find that we cover the same ground but with slightly different terminology.

Our 5-step problem-solving approach includes:

  1. Problem identification
  2. Problem definition
  3. Plan development
  4. Plan implementation
  5. Plan evaluation

In the remainder of this blog, I’ll focus on the first step in the process—problem identification—which is the essential starting point of the approach.

Teacher working with small group of students

What is problem identification?

According to Christ & Arañas (2014), a problem can be defined as an unacceptable discrepancy between students’ expected performance and their observed performance. Therefore, problem analysis aims to confine this discrepancy by identifying it in concrete terms.

Problem identification begins when the possibility of an issue is brought forward by an educator, school staff member, or a parent/guardian. At this stage, there may be few details about the extent of the problem or why it is present. Problem identification initiates an investigation of a possible concern.

Problem identification calls upon educators to utilize both a multi-source and multi-method approach to gathering information:

  • Multi-source means that you consider instruction, curriculum, environment, learner, and more
  • Multi-method involves steps including review, interview, observe, and test

This helps to ensure that the problem is matched with evidence-based, standardized interventions or solutions.

Why is problem identification essential?

As the first step in problem analysis, problem identification—if done well—provides the foundation for a solution. Bergan (1995) describes problem identification as the most critical step in addressing a student’s need for effective intervention.

Early and effective problem identification can enable improved:

  • Identification of educational needs at the district, school, classroom, or individual level
  • Resource allocation; and
  • Intervention selection

Problem identification involves two steps:

  1. Identifying and acknowledging that a discrepancy exists (i.e., identifying that there is a problem); and
  2. Developing a problem identification statement

The following is an example of a problem identification statement using a hypothetical grade 4 student named Emily:

Emily attends to instruction (i.e., eyes on the instructor and/or the task at hand) an average of 45% of the time, while her 4th-grade peers in the same classroom attend to instruction an average of 85% of the time.

Here, the discrepancy between Emily’s expected performance (an attention rate of 85%) and her observed performance (an attention rate of only 45%) serves as the starting point for the problem-solving process.

Data to move learning forward

Discover solutions from Renaissance to better identify and support each student’s needs.

Teacher and girl on computer

5 characteristics of what effective problem identification looks like

If you don’t identify problems the right way, your other problem-solving steps probably aren’t going to fall into place. Use these examples to set goals when going through problem identification.

#1: Effective problem identification is clear, objective, and specific

Howell, Hosp, & Kurns (2008) outline a test to determine when a problem identification statement is effective. It’s called “the stranger test.”

According to the stranger test, problem identification statements need to be:

  1. Clear (i.e., unambiguous).
  2. Objective (i.e., leaving no room or limited room for inferences).
  3. Specific enough for a stranger (i.e., an individual who is only provided with the problem identification statement) to be able to observe the student of interest and identify when the problem is present or absent.

#2: Effective problem identification is well-informed

As mentioned previously, a problem is a discrepancy between expected and observed performance.

This problem may arise in regard to expected behaviors, expected academic performance, or an expected skill set. Therefore, to identify a problem, it is important to have an understanding of typical or expected levels of performance for a specific learner.

This expected level of performance serves as a criterion by which a skill, knowledge base, or behavior can be compared. In some instances, this may come in the form of benchmark norms, expert opinion, or your state’s academic standards for ELA or mathematics.

#3: Effective problem identification can occur at the system, group, or individual level

Within a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), problem identification can occur at the individual, group, or system level. Part of effective problem identification is determining at which of these levels the problem exists.

For example, if the problem is common for more than 20% of learners in a classroom, problem analysis should occur at the system level so that solutions are developed for all of these students.

If the problem is common for 5% of learners or an identified group, problem analysis is best conducted at the group level.

If the problem is rare or specific to a particular learner, problem analysis should occur at the individual level.

#4: Effective problem identification uses an appropriate assessment tool

Problem identification requires the use of an appropriate measure or assessment tool to determine whether a problem (i.e., discrepancy) exists. For example, to determine whether a reading problem exists, an oral reading measure may be used to calculate a student’s reading rate and accuracy, which can then be compared to seasonal benchmarks for the student’s grade level.

#5: Effective problem identification is timely

Finally, although problems may arise at any time throughout the school year, one primary goal of universal screening is problem identification.

Early and regularly-scheduled screening periods allow for early intervention. When problems are identified early, there is more time to address and remediate the problem with well-chosen interventions.

Boy smiling in class

How can Renaissance help with problem identification?

Problem solving is a cornerstone of FastBridge and Star Assessments, which provide data and resources to support the problem-solving model.

For example, multiple FastBridge reports can be used for problem identification, including:

  • Class list
  • Impact
  • Group screening
  • Group growth
  • Detailed group
  • Screening to intervention
  • Behavior; and
  • Impact

In addition, FastBridge’s universal screening data, norms, and benchmark scores can assist educators in identifying problems in behavior, reading, and math. The data can also determine whether a particular problem is an individual, class, or school-wide problem. This will help you to know which stakeholders need to be involved in the problem-solving process and which metrics to monitor to determine whether your solution is effective.


Bergan, J. R. (1995). Evolution of a problem-solving model of consultation. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 6, 111-123.

Christ, T.J., & Arañas, Y.A. (2014). Best practices in problem analysis. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology VI. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Howell, K. W., Hosp, J. L., & Kurns, S. (2008). Best practices in curriculum-based evaluation. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Learn more

To learn more about FastBridge, Star Assessments, or other Renaissance assessment and MTSS management tools, connect with an expert today.

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