How to Teach with Context-Rich Problems

Initial Publication Date: November 13, 2009

There are three key steps to teaching with context-rich problems: selecting a problem, implementing the problem and assessing what the students have done. Instructors can negotiate through this process by asking themselves a series of questions.

Selecting a problem

What are the concepts you want students to apply?

Any core concept for your class is appropriate to be explored with a context-rich problem. However, context-rich problems are even more effective in developing expert-like thinking if they also require students to use concepts beyond those most recently taught.

What is the appropriate level of difficulty or complexity for your students?

The level of difficulty depends not only the complexity of the concept(s) incorporated into the context-rich problem, but also on the selection of the components of the context-rich problem you include.

Where do I find existing context-rich problems?

Examples using a variety of concepts and with varying degrees of difficulty are available to use in your courses.

How do I write my own context-rich problems?

You can create your own context-rich problems by setting a learning goal, starting with a common prompt to set the context of the problem and choosing among a variety of components that change the difficulty of the problem.

Implementing the problem

When and where will the students be working on the problem?

Instructors have used context-rich problems in a variety of formats: low-stakes homework for students to demonstrate preparedness for class; graded homework; in class or out of class group work; and exam questions.

How can I help students be comfortable with context-rich problems?

Students that are accustomed to working on traditional problems may struggle with the new format of context-rich problems.

How can I use context-rich problems with other innovative pedagogies?

Context-rich problems work well with several other innovative pedagogies such as just-in-time teaching and cooperative learning. Learn more about using context-rich problems.

Assessing the problem

What is the purpose of the assessment?
Context-rich problems can be used to assess individual understanding of course content, or to assess the understanding of the class as a whole. If you would like to assess individual understanding, the problem can be assigned as a homework problem or on an exam. In this case, you may want to add prompts to indicate the desired length and format. It is also helpful to give general instructions to students on information you want included such as appropriate terms or graphs.
If you would like to assess the understanding of the class as a whole, the problem can be assigned in class. It's often helpful to have the students work on the problems in groups. In particular a think-pair-share exercise is very useful. You can follow up with a class discussion to see what gaps in understanding remain.
How do I evaluate the context-rich problem?

In comparison with traditional "one right answer" problems, grading context-rich problem answers may be more time-consuming and complex as answers may vary greatly and at times be unexpected.

If you would like more information about assessment strategies, visit the assessment module.