Pedagogy in Action > Library > Context-Rich Problems > How to Teach with Context-Rich Problems > How to Create Context-Rich Problems

How to Create Context-Rich Problems

Creating a context-rich problem is more than just adding realistic elements to a traditional problem. The design of a context-rich problem helps students to develop an expert-like approach to problem solving. Careful selection of a learning goal, a context and appropriate complexity characteristics will facilitate this process.

Decide on the goals of the problem

Context-rich problems help students to apply discipline specific knowledge thus moving beyond novice skills of memorization. Decide on an outcome you want students to accomplish rather than the content you want students to learn. For example, in a principles of microeconomics class your learning goal might be, 'Students will be able to apply the profit-maximizing condition in a realistic setting.

You may want to start with a traditional problem you have used before (or one from a textbook) and build that problem into a context-rich problem by adding context and varying the degree of difficulty. More details about these approaches are provided below.

Provide a context for the problem

The context gives the students a reason to want to solve the problem. The context needs to be realistic. The students need to be able to put themselves into the scenario. Starting the context-rich problem with "You" will personalize and motivate the problem for the students. The following prompts can help you think about how to start your context-rich problem:

  • You are . . . (in some everyday situation) and need to figure out . . .
  • You are on vacation and observe/notice . . . and wonder . . .
  • You are watching TV or reading an article about . . . and wonder . . .
  • Because of your knowledge of economics, your friend asks you to help him/her . . .
  • You are writing a science fiction or adventure story for your English class about . . . and need to figure out . . .
  • Because of your interest in the environment and your knowledge of physics, you are a member of a Citizen's Committee investigating . . .
  • You have a summer job with a company that . . . . Because of your knowledge of economics, your boss asks you to . . .
  • You have been hired by a College research group that is investigating . . . . Your job is to determine . . .
  • You have been hired as a technical advisor for a TV (or movie) production to make sure the science is correct. In the script . . ., but is this correct?
  • You have been hired to write scripts of short dramatizations that will teach high school students important concepts. The concept for this script is . . .

Determine the level of difficulty or complexity

The desired level of difficulty of the context-rich problem depends on the setting for the students. Will the students be working on the problem in groups or individually? How much time will they have to work on the problem? How much experience do they have with context-rich problems? The complexity of each problem can be adjusted by varying the degree to which each of the following traits is incorporated.

  • The unknown quantity is not explicitly specified in the problem statement
  • More information is given in the problem statement than is required to solve the problems

  • Unusual assumptions are necessary to solve the problem

  • The problem requires more than one core concept for a solution

  • The context is very unfamiliar

  • Not enough information is given and reasonable assumptions need to be made

  • Including extra information someone in the situation would be likely to have, but is not necessary to solve the problem
  • Leaving out common knowledge information that the student should know from prior work in the course, or a parameter that the student should be able to estimate from prior experience
  • Writing the problem so the target variable is not explicitly stated by asking a question such as "What should be done?"

When you've created a good context-rich problem, please consider sharing your context-rich problem on the Starting Point site. All submissions are peer reviewed before posting.