Why use Faculty-coached, In-class Problem Solving?

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Research shows that student learning increases when students are actively involved during class (Hake, 1998 ; Knight and Wood, 2005), have the opportunity to apply a concept just covered (as described on this page about active learning), and have misconceptions addressed immediately (Tanner and Allen, 2004). Introductory science has traditionally been taught as a lecture-style course, an approach that does not appear to ensure widespread student success (Allen and Tanner, 2005; Knight and Wood, 2005; Perry et al., 2003).

Broadening access to science education has become a national imperative (Building Engineering and Science Talent, 2008; National Academy of Sciences et al., 2005; National Science Board, 2008; Project Kaleidoscope, 2006). In our experience, a disproportionate number of first-generation college students, students from a lower socioeconomic status, and students from under-resourced school districts became discouraged in introductory science courses and did not persist in the sciences. We realized we needed to change our approach to effectively teach all the students enrolled in our course (Perry et al., 2003). Our goal is to open the door to science learning for all interested students, including those that have been traditionally underrepresented in the sciences.

Other studies have shown that courses that are successful for students from a wide variety of backgrounds are challenging and taught by faculty with high expectations for student performance and success (Swarat et al., 2004; Treisman, 1992). Courses which are stigmatized as remedial or perceived as being only for certain types of students contribute to stereotype threat (Steele, 1997). In addition, many successful programs incorporate students working collaboratively in groups (Heller and Heller, 2004; Heller and Hollobaugh 1992; Treisman, 1992; Wenzel, 2000 ; Williamson and Rowe, 2002 ).

We designed the faculty-coached, in-class problem solving approach to help students:
  • develop problem solving skills
  • pursue a deep understanding of concepts versus memorizing facts
  • increase academic confidence
  • learn approaches and study habits that will help them succeed in college
  • feel more comfortable when interacting with professors
  • be less intimidated by other students in large classroom settings

We have found that the faculty-coached, in-class problem solving approach is effective both for students with less preparation and/or self-assurance as well as those with strong preparation and self-assurance (see box below).

In Our Course Each year a diverse group of approximately fifty students self-selects to enroll in our introductory biology course; although we have a higher than average number of traditionally underrepresented students, they are not the majority of the students in the course. Prior to using the faculty-coached approach a subset of students struggled in the course, leading to problems revolving around office hour attendance. Some students never came to office hours; these students may have been uncomfortable interacting with faculty outside of class or may have felt there was a stigma associated with needing to attend office hours. Other students requested multiple individual meetings in addition to our scheduled office hours. We observed that even though these students spent a great deal of time on homework sets and in our office hours, their effort was not reflected in their grades. Switching to the faculty-coached in-class problem solving approach allowed us to support our students in class: we are present to help get them back on track quickly, to fill in missing gaps in understanding, and guide them to solving problems on their own. In addition, all students are working with faculty in class, thus reducing any stigma associated with asking questions. These frequent, informal interactions with faculty generally help students feel more comfortable approaching their professors.

When we first used this approach five years ago we designed the course to meet five days per week because we anticipated we would need extra time for students to solve problems in class. Our new format did reduce the number of extra individual meetings with struggling students. Although we were spending two additional hours in class, the extra time balanced the time we previously spent in one-on-one meetings. As we've continued to refine this method we have moved to a four day per week class and are working toward meeting three days per week.

In addition to reducing the requests for additional office hours, the faculty-coached approach also increased students' studying efficiency and effectiveness. Students in our faculty-coached, in-class problem solving course self-report spending an equivalent amount of time per week on the course as students in a more traditionally taught class meeting only three days per week. Thus in addition to being an efficient use of our time, it also appears to be an efficient way for students to spend their time. We assessed the effectiveness of this approach by comparing student learning in the coached, problem solving course with that of a course taught by interactive lecture.

Data for Coached Problem-Solving Pedagogy Increase in learning due to faculty-coached, in-class problem-solving approach. Students enrolled in a control introductory biology course (three days per week) and in the coached problem-solving course (five days per week) took a written pre-assessment the first day of the course, and then took the identical assessment at the end of the course (post-assessment). Fold increase was calculated by dividing the post-assessment score by the pre-assessment score. The data represent two cohorts of students (from Fall 2004 and Fall 2005).

Why in-class problems?

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By collaboratively solving problems, students become active participants in the classroom and have the opportunity to immediately apply new information. Our presence in the classroom while the students work and discuss allows us to assess the students formatively on an ongoing basis (Hanson, 2004), and to correct misconceptions as they arise (Tanner and Allen, 2004). Problems build on earlier material covered in the course, reinforce essential concepts, and challenge students to diagram mechanisms and processes, build with models, or analyze data. Problems can be designed to "level the playing field" among students entering the course from a variety of backgrounds. For example, we use problems that incorporate current techniques and experimental design -- even students with an AP background have not been exposed to this information.

Why ungraded in-class problems?

Ungraded problems emphasize formative assessment instead of evaluation (Hanson, 2004). The focus shifts, at least somewhat, from writing down the correct answer for a grade. Students are not punished for making mistakes and may be able to learn from them before the exam. 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.

Why faculty coaches?

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Faculty coaches:
  • provide a structured, guided context for solving problems
  • help students develop problem solving strategies
  • help students connect new concepts back to a solid base of earlier material
  • identify and clear up misconceptions
  • assess student learning informally
For additional information about the roles of faculty coaches, see How to Teach with Faculty-Coached, In-Class Problem Solving.

Faculty use interactive lectures to present new material required for solving problems. We feel that the guided nature of interactive lectures aids understanding and increases the confidence of introductory students. In our experience, current textbooks provide an often inaccessible initial encounter with new material, and students do not always identify the important points in a chapter.

Faculty coach students while they are working in small groups to solve problems. Faculty observe and correct misconceptions as they occur, tying questions or answers back into previously covered material, and subtly pushing the group in the correct direction if they are not making progress. Hearing student questions and group discussions allows the instructor to adjust the syllabus or return to particularly confusing topics in a subsequent lecture. Coaching requires a strong knowledge base, insight into common misconceptions, good communication skills, sensitivity to diversity, and an understanding of group dynamics, all skills that may require training if graduate or undergraduate teaching assistants are involved.

In Our Course As educators, we know our students come to the course with misconceptions about scientific concepts. However, we were still struck by the depth and nature of misconceptions that we only recognized once we began to teach with the faculty-coached in-class problem solving approach. We are now hearing misconceptions in a way we never did when our course was primarily lecture. Coaching small groups allows us to learn more about our students and is a satisfying way to teach; we learn about student misconceptions while we still have time to address them productively (rather than learning about them as we correct exams). We feel that this gain in our understanding of how our students are learning and the demonstrated gains in student understanding are benefits that outweigh the cost of extra time required for solving problems in class.

Why work in assigned groups?

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Having students work in groups increases a sense of community in the class and also improves learning, as shown by the extensive literature on cooperative learning (Wenzel, 2000 ; Williamson and Rowe, 2002 ). Benefits include:

  • a sense of community makes it easier for students to ask questions
  • individuals learn they are not the only one with questions
  • students feel more comfortable in the classroom
  • students have a place to sit, literally a place they belong in the classroom (at our institution, underrepresented students have frequently reported that assigning groups is more successful for their learning than allowing students to self-select into groups)
  • students gain skills needed to work in an intercultural setting
  • students hear different approaches to solving a problem
  • students see that solutions to problems benefit from multiple perspectives
  • students learn by teaching others
  • students verbalize their thinking and defend their reasoning
  • students observe how other students have taken notes