Why Teach with Context-Rich Problems?

Context-rich problems offer students opportunities to develop problem-solving skills they can apply in the real world. By engaging in this type of problem solving, students develop expert-like thinking in the discipline.

Educational benefits of context-rich problems

Context-rich problems have the following benefits for students (Heller & Hollabaugh, 1992):

  • Support the development of a logical problem solving framework
    puzzle pieces of students working
  • Encourages students to use expert problem solving strategies
  • Integrate the context in which the discipline lies relative to their own experience
  • Increase the level of sophistication of the way students think about their world
  • Provide practice in applying the fundamental concepts of the discipline
  • Help students progress towards expert-like thinking

Grounded in learning theory

Cognitive apprenticeship research

Context-rich problems follow a cognitive apprenticeship approach (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Historically, apprenticeship has been a successful teaching tool in learning a trade and cognitive apprenticeship transfers this model into the classroom. With this approach students watch the instructor go through the problem solving process, next begin to work through the problem solving process with help from the instructor and other students and finally are able to complete the process on their own. One of the central tenants of apprenticeship is that learning occurs in realistic situations, such as those provided by context-rich problems.

Expert-novice problem solving research

Research on learning shows that there is a qualitative difference between novices and experts in their approach to problem solving (Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1981). For example, novices tend to search through formulas they know to find one that includes the variables given in the problem, whereas an expert will first figure out what information is needed, then decide how to obtain that information. (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking 1999) suggest that instructors should be intentional in helping students develop expert-like thinking. Incorporating context-rich problems into a class helps students learn when and where to use particular strategies as they solve these problems. In this way, students will develop the expert skill of recognizing core concepts independent of the varied contexts in which they are presented.

Additional evidence for the effectiveness of context-rich problems

The following selected references can provide a more in-depth analysis of the effectiveness of context-rich problems. More references are available on the reference page.