What is Faculty-coached, In-class Problem Solving?

Jump to: Types of in-class problems | Comparison with other group-based strategies


Photo of students workin with models
Faculty-coached, in-class problem solving integrates short, interactive lectures with students solving problems in groups. Both lectures and problems are designed to introduce content to the students, but the lectures are limited to the fundamentals, and include only the information the students will need to solve problems. The problems connect ideas, add detail in a scaffolded manner, and introduce additional information once the students have a context and a basic understanding. The emphasis of this approach is on students collaboratively solving problems with faculty present.

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.

Types of in-class problems

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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
See How to Teach with Faculty-Coached, In-Class Problem Solving for additional types of problems.

In Our Course Initially this approach was designed for an introductory biology course with a high proportion of first-generation college students, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, students from under-resourced school districts, and students belonging to groups traditionally underrepresented in science professions. We found that the problem solving approach encouraged interested, but less prepared and/or self-assured students to feel confident and competent enough to persist in the sciences. However, the faculty-coached, in-class problem solving approach benefited well-prepared, confident students.

Comparison of this approach with other group-based strategies

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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.