Each class is designed specifically to support students as they apply and synthesize new concepts they are learning. Some days are primarily interactive lecture with problems interspersed, and other days are entirely spent actively solving problems. The course is scaffolded to support student growth; early in the course, group dynamics are discussed explicitly, and learning strategies are incorporated into problems. Problems become more sophisticated, reinforcing earlier course concepts, as student proficiency with problem-solving and content increases throughout the term.
In this class format, students work in small groups to solve problems, with professors present during each class to:
- provide a structured, guided context for solving problems
- encourage students to shift from learning by memorizing to learning by doing
- help students develop problem solving strategies
- assess student learning informally
- help students connect new concepts back to a solid base of earlier material
- acknowledge the challenging nature of the problems while affirming students' abilities to persevere and be successful
- identify and clear up misconceptions
- increase student comfort with faculty by providing opportunities for professors to positively impact student learning via personal interactions
Most of the problems we assign are ungraded. Spending time solving problems in class and making the keys available underscores for the students that the process of solving the problem is what's valuable. The approach of having faculty working with small groups allows for the emphasis to be on formative assessment of student understanding rather than graded evaluation. (This emphasizes intrinsic motivation.) However, ongoing, daily formative assessment is interspersed with unit exams, quizzes, and graded homework assignments to more formally evaluate student performance.
Problems vary widely and may require:
- labeled diagrams of a mechanism or process
- analysis or synthesis (for example, a concept map)
- understanding new information presented within the problem
- data analysis, experimental design, or understanding of techniques
Students in an introductory course need to master certain core concepts to successfully continue on in a discipline. In our experience, students benefit from a short, interactive lecture that points out the essential basic concepts followed by a period of active problem solving. The National Research Council refers to this concept as an organizing lecture, or "preparation for learning with understanding" (NRC, 2000 ).
Faculty-coached, in-class problem solving differs from cooperative learning and team based learning strategies: students are not graded as a group, and they are not solving problems that by design require multiple individuals. In this approach, most problems are ungraded, emphasizing formative assessment instead of evaluation (Hanson, 2004). Although a high-achieving individual student could potentially work on his or her own, evidence indicates that the quality of a solution improves when a group works together to solve a problem (Heller et al., 1992). This approach incorporates multiple goals for students working collaboratively to solve complex problems: the opportunity to teach others, verbalize their thinking, defend their reasoning, observe how other students have taken notes, and hear different approaches to solving a problem. In our experience, supervision and coaching efficiently increases student "time on task." Importantly, working collaboratively also provides an opportunity to build community in the classroom, and from a logistical point of view, grouping the students allows faculty to interact with more students during each class period.