POLIS 2134 - Applied Thinking for Complex Problems

North Terrace Campus - Summer - 2015

During World War Two the Allies were forced to respond to existential threats within compressed timeframes in an uncertain and changing environment. Out of this grew Operations Research (OR), an inter-disciplinary approach to addressing complex problems. During the Cold War OR methodologies were employed across industry, intelligence and defence, providing policy makers with another perspective to consider when making decisions. In a world increasingly defined by complexity, uncertainty, and an abundance of information, the salience of these OR methodologies has been tested and expanded. Opportunities often seem limitless, while the multitude of problems can appear overwhelming. Knowing how to identify problems, and how to choose between a raft of possible ways to approach them, can make the difference between confident resilience and cognitive overload. This course is designed to enhance students' critical and lateral thinking skills. The course aims to enable students to identify and interrogate complex research problems, and to gain familiarity with and apply a suite of techniques to problems that they have identified. A multi-disciplinary pedagogical approach will be taken, which includes aspects of philosophy, logic, operations research, behavioural economics, psychology, and neuroscience. It is expected that a multi-disciplinary approach will provide students with an appreciation of diverse tools and techniques for approaching research problems.

  • General Course Information
    Course Details
    Course Code POLIS 2134
    Course Applied Thinking for Complex Problems
    Coordinating Unit Politics and International Relations
    Term Summer
    Level Undergraduate
    Location/s North Terrace Campus
    Units 3
    Contact 4 hours per week
    Available for Study Abroad and Exchange Y
    Prerequisites At least 12 units of level 1 undergraduate study
    Assessment Workshop presentation (20%), workshop participation (10%), 4500 word research essay (70%)
    Course Staff

    Course Coordinator: Mr David Olney

    David James Olney, david.olney@adelaide.edu.au, 83134606
    Dr Charles Vandepeer, charles.vandepeer@adelaide.edu.au, 83134606
    Course Timetable

    The full timetable of all activities for this course can be accessed from Course Planner.

  • Learning Outcomes
    Course Learning Outcomes
    Students undertaking this course are expected to develop a depth and  breadth of understanding of the issues relevant to complex problems and applied thinking, which include: expectations & problem types, time  pressures, knowledge and information, experts and prediction, situation  and environment, probability, structured techniques, critical thinking,  mindsets, heuristics, biases and arguments. Students will also be  expected to develop the research, analysis, synthesis, and  communications skills necessary to produce a class presentation and  academic paper of appropriate undergraduate quality. Specifically, the  anticipated knowledge, skills and attitude to be developed by students  are:

    1 A critical understanding of the nature and identification of problem types.
    2 An ability to define and research problems within temporal limitations.
    3 A critical delineation between knowledge and information.
    4 Attaining familiarity with a methodology for assessing the validity of experts and predictions.
    5 A critical understanding of the implications of situation and environment on problem definition and structuring
    6 A critical understanding of structured analytical techniques and critical thinking.
    7 A heightened awareness of mindsets, heuristics, biases, and arguments.
    8 The ability to critically evaluate written materials and multi-media resources.
    9 The ability to produce coherent and well substantiated arguments.
    10 The ability to make clear and confident verbal presentations.
    11 The ability to express ideas confidently, thoughtfully and respectfully.

    University Graduate Attributes

    This course will provide students with an opportunity to develop the Graduate Attribute(s) specified below:

    University Graduate Attribute Course Learning Outcome(s)
    Knowledge and understanding of the content and techniques of a chosen discipline at advanced levels that are internationally recognised. 1,2,3,4,5,6
    The ability to locate, analyse, evaluate and synthesise information from a wide variety of sources in a planned and timely manner. 7,8,9
    An ability to apply effective, creative and innovative solutions, both independently and cooperatively, to current and future problems. 3,4,5,6,7,8
    Skills of a high order in interpersonal understanding, teamwork and communication. 7,8,9,10
    A proficiency in the appropriate use of contemporary technologies. 8,10
    A commitment to continuous learning and the capacity to maintain intellectual curiosity throughout life. 1,3,4,5,6
    A commitment to the highest standards of professional endeavour and the ability to take a leadership role in the community. 7,8,9,10
    An awareness of ethical, social and cultural issues within a global context and their importance in the exercise of professional skills and responsibilities. 5,7,8,9,10
  • Learning Resources
    Required Resources
    There is no need for students to purchase any particular resources in order to undertake this course. We intend to use electronic resources available through the Barr Smith Library or open source, free-access material available via the internet.
    Recommended Resources
    Online and Library resources will include: D.H. Jonassen, What is Problem Solving? Chapter 1 in Learning to solve problem:

    An instructional design guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Chapter 1 made available by publisher at: http://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/79/07879643/0787964379.pdf

    Bent Flyvberg, From Nobel Prize to Project Management: Getting Risks Right, Project Management Journal, August 2006, Vol.37 no.3, pp.5-14. Available via University of Adelaide online journal database.

    James Shanteau, Competence in Experts: The Role of Task Characteristics, available at: http://www.k-state.edu/psych/cws/pdf/obhdp_paper91.PDF

    Stephen D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, The Folly of Prediction Podcast at: http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/06/24/freakonomics-radio-hour-long-episode-4-%E2%80%9Cthe-folly-of-prediction%E2%80%9D/ Transcript at : http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/06/30/the-folly-of-prediction-full-transcript/  

    Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, video at: http://video.mit.edu/watch/the-lucifer-effect-understanding-how-good-people-turn-evil-9241/

    Gary Klein, Performing a Premortem. Harvard Business Review. Sep 2007, Vol. 85 Issue 9, p18-19. Available via University of Adelaide online journal database.

    Daniel Kahneman; Dan Lovallo; Olivier Sibony. Before You Make that Big Decision, Harvard Business Review. June 2011, Vol. 89 Issue 6, p50-60. Available via University of Adelaide online journal database.

    Charles Vandepeer, Applied Thinking for Intelligence Analysis, Nov 2014. Available for free download at:
    Online Learning
    We will endeavour to make as many online resources available via MyUni to facilitate effective access for students.
  • Learning & Teaching Activities
    Learning & Teaching Modes
    Students will be expected to develop the research, analysis, synthesis, and communications skills necessary to produce a class presentation and academic paper of appropriate undergraduate quality.

    The ability to make clear and confident verbal presentations.
    The ability to express ideas confidently, thoughtfully and respectfully.

    This course is a mix of lectures and workshops. Workshops will incorporate small group activities, broad class discussions, and individual presentations.

    The information below is provided as a guide to assist students in engaging appropriately with the course requirements.

    Lectures  24 hours per semester
    Tutorials 12 hours per semester
    Tutorial Preparation 12 hours per semester
    General Reading (eg course textbooks) 28 hours per semester
    Research and Writing Assessment 80 hours per semester
    Total 156 hours per semester
    Learning Activities Summary

    Topic 1: An introduction to Operations Research and the nature and identification of problem types. Background to Operations Research (OR). OR tools, techniques and methodologies. What kinds of problems are there? How do we usefully define the problem at hand? How do our expectations influence the way we deal with the problem at hand? How might we usefully address apparently unsolvable problems?

    Topic 2. Defining and researching problems within temporal and resource limitations. Given the nature of the current problem, how do we decide what we can do with limited time and resources? How do we logically bound the research? What is Backcasting and how can it be effectively employed? What is planning fallacy and what can we do to address it?

    Topic 3: Knowledge and Information. What is knowledge and how does information contribute to it? How do we identify the limits of our knowledge? How do we justify what we know?

    Topic 4: Analysis, Synthesis, Analogy and Metaphor. Analysis, synthesis or reification? The use and abuse of analogy and metaphor: the chicken or the egg? If the opposite were true, what evidence would we expect to see (Alexander's question)? Training to fail?

    Topic 5: Experts and Predictions. What is an expert and when should we trust them? What is predictable and what is not? Predicting the impossible or conceptualising the probable? What is intuition and when can we trust it?

    Topic 6: Situation and Environment. Bad apples or bad barrels: the importance of situation (Zimbardo)? Are you really rational and do you think you should be? What role internal and external factors on human behaviour? When should you follow the crowd and when should you forge your own path?

    Topic 7: Techniques and their applications. Nominal Group Technique versus Brainstorming: handling the Alphas. What if it happened differently or didn’t happen at all? If we were wrong, then why would it be: pre-mortems versus post-mortems? Diagnosing evidence, what tells us the most?

    Topic 8: Mindsets and Biases. How do we identify and acknowledge our own mindsets? What are some of the more frequent biases limiting cognitive effectiveness? Understanding the importance of context. What are heuristics: when are they helpful and when do they hinder? Deferring your judgement: waiting until the evidence is in and the argument is made.

    Topic 9: Argument: Presenting Conclusions. How do we communicate what we understand? Do we understand who we are communicating with? Why is the argument as important as the answer: humility and transparency in representing complex problems? Avoiding manipulation and misrepresentation: legitimate forms of argument.

    Small Group Discovery Experience
    This course is a mix of lectures and workshops. Workshops will incorporate small group activities, broad class discussions, and individual presentations.

    Throughout lectures and seminars there will be frequent opportunities to work in small groups: you will be expected to learn to work in groups, but will not be assessed on group work.
  • Assessment

    The University's policy on Assessment for Coursework Programs is based on the following four principles:

    1. Assessment must encourage and reinforce learning.
    2. Assessment must enable robust and fair judgements about student performance.
    3. Assessment practices must be fair and equitable to students and give them the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.
    4. Assessment must maintain academic standards.

    Assessment Summary
    Workshop presentation 20%
    Workshop attendance and participation 10%
    Research essay 70%
    Assessment Related Requirements

    Workshop presentation in the second week of summer school. Workshop attendance and participation during the summer school. The research essay will be due prior to formal commencement of Semester 1 courses. Students will be expected to discuss their choice of research essay topic and plan with their tutor.

    Assessment Detail

    Workshop presentation addresses CLOs 8, 9, 10, 11. Each student must complete an oral presentation of between ten and fifteen minutes duration on one of the ten topics covered in this course. Each student’s presentation should demonstrate depth and breadth of knowledge of the material covered in the topic. The presentation should stimulate class discussion and provide the basis for their research essay.

    Workshop attendance and participation CLOs 8, 9, 10, 11.

    Research Essay addresses CLOs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9. Students must submit a major essay of appropriate quality and length on one of the topics covered in the course profile. The essay length is 4,500 words. The essay should demonstrate sophisticated research, analysis, synthesis and communication skills, and should meet all appropriate academic standards. Students will be expected to discuss their topic and plan for their research Essay with their tutor.


    Electronic submission via email of tutorial presentation notes the evening before the presentation to your tutor. Electronic submission via email of the major essay to your tutor by 5:00pm Monday 16 February 2015.

    Please ensure that you CC' yourself on the email, so that you have a copy of your essay.


    Students wishing to apply for an extension need to submit the relevant form available at http://www.adelaide.edu.au/student/exams/mod_arrange.html to the school office at least 5 days prior to the due date for the assignment.

    Exceptions to the Policy
    If one of the following criteria is met, an informal extension can be organised with the course coordinator or tutor:

    • small extension – 2 days or less;
    • assessment item is worth 20% or less;
    • student is registered with the Disability Office (need to attach a Disability Access Plan – DAP).
    Course Grading

    Grades for your performance in this course will be awarded in accordance with the following scheme:

    M10 (Coursework Mark Scheme)
    Grade Mark Description
    FNS   Fail No Submission
    F 1-49 Fail
    P 50-64 Pass
    C 65-74 Credit
    D 75-84 Distinction
    HD 85-100 High Distinction
    CN   Continuing
    NFE   No Formal Examination
    RP   Result Pending

    Further details of the grades/results can be obtained from Examinations.

    Grade Descriptors are available which provide a general guide to the standard of work that is expected at each grade level. More information at Assessment for Coursework Programs.

    Final results for this course will be made available through Access Adelaide.

  • Student Feedback

    The University places a high priority on approaches to learning and teaching that enhance the student experience. Feedback is sought from students in a variety of ways including on-going engagement with staff, the use of online discussion boards and the use of Student Experience of Learning and Teaching (SELT) surveys as well as GOS surveys and Program reviews.

    SELTs are an important source of information to inform individual teaching practice, decisions about teaching duties, and course and program curriculum design. They enable the University to assess how effectively its learning environments and teaching practices facilitate student engagement and learning outcomes. Under the current SELT Policy (http://www.adelaide.edu.au/policies/101/) course SELTs are mandated and must be conducted at the conclusion of each term/semester/trimester for every course offering. Feedback on issues raised through course SELT surveys is made available to enrolled students through various resources (e.g. MyUni). In addition aggregated course SELT data is available.

  • Student Support

    The School of Social Sciences is committed to upholding the Unviersity's Policy on OH&S. All staff and students have a legal responsibliity to act in the interests of themselves and others with respect to OH&S. For information on the School's contingency plan and emergency procedures, please see the OH&S section on the school website: http://www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/social sciences/hsw

  • Policies & Guidelines
  • Fraud Awareness

    Students are reminded that in order to maintain the academic integrity of all programs and courses, the university has a zero-tolerance approach to students offering money or significant value goods or services to any staff member who is involved in their teaching or assessment. Students offering lecturers or tutors or professional staff anything more than a small token of appreciation is totally unacceptable, in any circumstances. Staff members are obliged to report all such incidents to their supervisor/manager, who will refer them for action under the university's student’s disciplinary procedures.

The University of Adelaide is committed to regular reviews of the courses and programs it offers to students. The University of Adelaide therefore reserves the right to discontinue or vary programs and courses without notice. Please read the important information contained in the disclaimer.