Compelling Situation


This learning component combines elements from direct experience and motivational readiness. "But it adds a new wrinkle in its implication that there is a careful balance of challenge and opportunity in any learning situation" (Ewell, 1997b, p.9).

“Maximum learning tends to occur when people are confronted with specific, identifiable problems that they want to solve and that are within their capacity to do so” (Ewell, 1997a, p. 4).  Student motivation and learning often occur best in the context of a complex and challenging problem that interests students because the solutions are perceived to have real consequences.

Checklist of Observable Behaviors

___ 1. Challenging problem (Ewell, 1997b, p.9): The situation is complex and motivating and yields emotion, attention, and effort in finding a solution.

___ 2. Real situation (Ewell, 1997b, p.9): The context is connected to the outside world and not simulated.

___ 3. Real consequences (Ewell, 1997b, p.9): The results of an actual problem have practical applicability to everyday life.


            Ewell, P. T.  (1997a, December). Organizing for learning: A new imperative.  AAHE Bulletin, 3-6. [2000, May 17].

            Ewell,  P.  T.  (1997b).  Organizing for learning: A point of entry. Draft prepared for discussion at the 1997 AAHE Summer Academy at Snowbird.  National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS). Available:


In a class designed for sixth graders, compelling situations occur during a study of oceans.  Using role playing, the instructor has the students analyze the ocean from the perspective of each of these four roles: geologist, marine biologist, environmental scientist, and oceanographer.  In this way, the students experience the nature of the work for each of these specialists.  The instructor is building up the learning opportunity in the form of a game. Using video clips from The Great Ocean Rescue simulation software from Tom Snyder Productions, Inc., the teacher sets up the compelling situation.

The videos are scenarios that depict a control center for ocean research.  Due to inclement weather, the control center has lost contact with several of its vessels.  Students play the role of researchers in the ocean control center.  In another sequence of the lesson, students use clues from the video and their new knowledge of ocean characteristics as they work in groups to form an opinion about where the lost ocean vessel may be located and about which tests (if any) should be conducted prior to launching a rescue mission.  Then the entire class must reach consensus about the assumed location and any tests that should be conducted so that the control center can send out a rescue mission. In this way, students are stimulated to translate their work into a real-world situation. Another part of the situation that makes it compelling for students is that they are required to calculate the costs of each test conducted to help determine the location of the lost vessel and to figure out the most feasible plan.  


            Oleson,  V.  (2000).  Great ocean rescue lesson plan.  Cedar Falls, IA:  University of Northern Iowa.