Problem-Solving Phase Transitions During Team Collaboration


Multiple theories of problem-solving hypothesize that there are distinct qualitative phases exhibited during effective problem-solving. However, limited research has attempted to identify when transitions between phases occur. We integrate theory on collaborative problem-solving (CPS) with dynamical systems theory suggesting that when a system is undergoing a phase transition it should exhibit a peak in entropy and that entropy levels should also relate to team performance. Communications from 40 teams that collaborated on a complex problem were coded for occurrence of problem-solving processes. We applied a sliding window entropy technique to each team’s communications and specified criteria for (a) identifying data points that qualify as peaks and (b) determining which peaks were robust. We used multilevel modeling, and provide a qualitative example, to evaluate whether phases exhibit distinct distributions of communication processes. We also tested whether there was a relationship between entropy values at transition points and CPS performance. We found that a proportion of entropy peaks was robust and that the relative occurrence of communication codes varied significantly across phases. Peaks in entropy thus corresponded to qualitative shifts in teams’ CPS communications, providing empirical evidence that teams exhibit phase transitions during CPS. Also, lower average levels of entropy at the phase transition points predicted better CPS performance. We specify future directions to improve understanding of phase transitions during CPS, and collaborative cognition, more broadly.

Cognitive Science