How to Teach with Faculty-coached, In-class Problem Solving

Jump to: How do I make this approach work for me | How to set up and manage effective groups | How to coach students | How students receive feedback

How to design in-class problems

Concept map
Success depends on developing problem sets that build student knowledge incrementally and that include content analysis, transfer, and synthesis skills. The problem solving approach works best when interactive lectures and problems are integrated into an instructional unit. Problems which are relevant to students' lives increase their engagement and allow them to build on their previous experiences.

Variation in problem types accommodates the needs of different learners, and exposes all students to different ways of learning. Problems can be grouped into one (or more) of the following categories:
  • Problems requiring model building and other hands-on activities
  • Problems requiring labeled diagrams of a mechanism or process
  • Problems requiring synthesis (for example, a concept map)
  • Checkpoints (problems providing a short immediate review of main concepts before moving on)
  • Analysis-level, context-rich problems
  • Case studies (for example, a case study about single nucleotide polymorphisms ( This site may be offline. ) )
  • Problems that build-in a study technique (for example a problem directing students to interpret a textbook figure)
  • Problems that replace lecture (students use their reading and reasoning skills to independently learn new material--the "you're not going to get this in lecture" type of problem)
  • Problems requiring data analysis, experimental design, or understanding of techniques
  • Optional "challenge problems" that allow students who work quickly to continue to benefit from problem solving time

In Our Course One problem we face is how to handle a wide range of previous science backgrounds among our students. We have found that using research-focused questions, such as those requiring data analysis or understanding of research techniques, is one way to minimize the discrepancies in students' backgrounds; even advanced high school courses typically don't expose students to this type of science problem. For an example of a research-focused problem see the Malnutrition, DNA replication, development, and schizophrenia homework problem.

Problem set development requires flexibility on the faculty member's part to respond to student needs. Ongoing formative assessments drive the development of new problems (Tanner and Allen, 2004). Although writing problems is a time consuming effort, you can gradually adopt an in-class problem-solving approach. Each time we teach this course we incorporate less lecture and more problems; it took time to develop a sufficient number of challenging, engaging problems. (See a list of example problems.)

Most of the problems the students solve in groups are ungraded to emphasize the process of learning the material. A secondary advantage is the ability to reuse problems from year to year without advantaging students who could get course material from previous students.

Homework Problems

To increase individual accountability students are given a homework assignment prior to each exam. These assignments are based on current research and involve students interpreting data, understanding techniques, and synthesizing concepts. At the beginning of a new unit, students are given a science news article summarizing a current finding that relates to the topics that will be covered. Prior to the exam they are given the homework assignment that contains figures from a research paper related to the science news article they read, as well as some background text summarizing the goals of the paper and key techniques. The students must interpret the figures to answer the questions. The final question asks the students to link all of the concepts covered in the unit and to connect those concepts to this research article. They are asked to do this in a diagram form supported by text. (See an example homework problem.)

Problem Keys

Problem keys are essential. In our course, we make the keys available (online) after giving the students time to struggle through the problems on their own (at least two days before the exam). The keys model the problem solving process for the students, and include thorough explanations. The keys provide an opportunity to reteach concepts or to make explicit connections between concepts in response to student performance in class. Keys may include hand drawn figures to mimic student diagrams, as well as computer generated drawings where appropriate. Students may need to be reminded in class to use the answer keys while studying. For an example of a problem key see the RNA processing and Northern blot analysis problem.

How do I make this approach work for me?

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The faculty-coached, in-class problem solving approach may require a restructuring of the material in an existing course. Rather than introducing new material primarily through lecture or interactive lecture, in this approach, new material can be presented both by interactive lecture and the problems the students will solve. The problems are not an "add-on" to what is currently being done, but rather can be thought of as a replacement for portions of existing lectures. The function of the lectures is to provide a starting point that allows students to solve the problems.

In designing the shorter, interactive lectures we recognized that covering a topic in class via lecture doesn't automatically mean that students understand and can apply the material. One way we have reduced lecture time is by including fewer historical experiments (although of course we mention key players and their role in science). Instead we incorporate newer experiments into the problems the students solve; this allows us to select a more diverse representation of scientists and exposes the students to current techniques used in biology.

Here are some additional strategies to consider:

  • think restructuring, not "add-on"
  • assign readings before class that will not be reintroduced in lecture
  • convert current homework problems or think-pair-shares into in-class problems
  • occasionally have students begin problems in class, finish at home, and allow time for questions the next day
  • consider moving some of the problems to lab and linking to lab concepts

How to deal with a large class and many groups

Given a large number of groups in class, and the amount of time spent actively solving problems, it may be useful to hire graduate or undergraduate teaching assistants to supplement faculty interactions during problem solving sessions. Coaching students requires a strong knowledge base, insight into common misconceptions, sensitivity to diversity, and an understanding of group dynamics, skills that may require training for teaching assistants.

In Our Course We felt it was beneficial to have two faculty members in class coaching. Our introductory courses are typically team-taught, so we chose to have both faculty members present in class throughout the course. One faculty member is responsible for presenting new information and providing the problems, and the other is present to help student groups as they solve problems. We hire two undergraduate teaching assistants who attend class to help with problem solving. We choose these TAs carefully, selecting students who have already completed this course. When possible we hire students from underrepresented groups in order to provide peer models and to increase representation in the department. The primary interactions with these TAs take place in class; there are no weekly outside meetings scheduled. Our goal is to help students make efficient use of their time in class, without adding any additional "recitation" style sessions.

The faculty-coached, in-class problem solving approach has not reduced the number of concepts we are able to teach in our course, Genes, Evolution, and Development. To see the concepts we include and how our example problems fit in with the course, we've included a link to the syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 63kB Oct29 09). The course is part of a two-course introductory series and the second course is Energy Flow in Biological Systems.

How to set up and manage effective groups

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Embedding problem solving in the context of group work requires careful attention to the principles established by K. Heller and P. Heller (2004) and P. Heller and Hollobaugh (1992). As instructors, we:

  • assign groups thoughtfully

    • set the group size at three students
    • assign groups to avoid individuals feeling excluded
    • assign new groups throughout the term to foster the sense of community in the class
  • provide written guidelines for effective group work
    • summarize team-building skills
    • list the benefits of group work
    • describe the roles often adopted by members of well-functioning groups
  • carefully monitor group interactions while solving problems
    • intervene when groups are not optimizing their potential
    • regroup students in response to particular group situations

In Our Course Many of our students have expressed gratitude for being placed in groups rather than being left to organize their own groups. At the beginning of the term, we assign groups in class as part of an ice breaker (based on a technique used in Team Based Learning ). We ask students to line up according to the population of their hometown and then number off by threes. This makes the group assignment process transparent to the students, and helps ensure that students from the same hometown are unlikely to be in the same group. To help build a sense of community, we reassign groups several times, typically after each exam. When we reassign groups, we try to have groups composed of two female students and one male student, or three of one gender as suggested by P. Heller and Hollobaugh (1992). We get to know the students very well and groupings are based on our own observations of individuals' working styles, attitudes toward solving problems, or interactions in previous groups.

We avoid grouping students with widely different working speeds. We have found that students are serious in their approach to the problems, and that even though they are not graded, nearly all students complete nearly all problems. Students can become frustrated if group members either move too quickly for them to follow or hold back their thinking. In our experience, students are more likely to work together productively when they work at a similar speed. For example, we may group three students who tend to work the most quickly, and who do well on exams. Our discussions with this group often include enrichment material not covered in the course. We also group students who struggle on exams; these students benefit from being in the same group and having a faculty member reiterate key points from the lecture.

How to coach students

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Coaching students is probably very similar to what faculty members do during office hours, and individual style will vary from one faculty member to another. Generally speaking, good coaches:

  • often respond to a student's question by not answering it; instead, they:

    • ask a question in return
    • refer back to the text of the problem, and have students look there for help
    • tell students to look through their class notes for related material
    • remind students the answer to the problem will not be directly stated in their notes
  • encourage students when they get frustrated or overwhelmed
  • recognize when struggling students need an informal review of lecture material on the spot
  • explain to resistant students why particular problems or types of problems are useful to their understanding
  • help students stay focused on the problems at hand
  • encourage students to be metacognitive, and think about how they arrived at a particular solution
  • ensure that each member of the group understands a concept by asking individuals to explain the solution
  • challenge students to understand the relevant concepts behind a solution
  • help students connect solutions back to earlier topics in the course when appropriate
  • provide enrichment to students ready for more of a challenge
  • keep track of common misconceptions encountered by multiple groups, and follow up with lecture or additional problems to reinforce the correct concepts

How students receive feedback

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Students can check their understanding through:

  • Informal interactions when solving problems
    • Students find out immediately if their solutions agree with those of their group members.
    • Through the process of solving problems, students recognize their points of confusion or their need to review their notes to find information.
    • Frequent interaction with faculty allows students to check their understanding.
  • Exams, quizzes, and graded homework assignments
    • A graded homework assignment for each unit helps students synthesize unit concepts.
    • A quiz shortly before an exam provides individual accountability and helps students prepare for the exam.
    • Multiple exams (including an early, challenging exam) provide multiple opportunities for students to get individualized feedback and respond by changing their study habits.
  • Answer keys
    • Detailed keys for all problems are made available (posted online).
    • These important learning tools model the use of labeled diagrams, contextual information, and multiple solutions where appropriate.