Documented Problem Solving Helps Students Organize Information in an Economics Course
Documented problem solving has been used for a number of semesters in Principles of Economics courses at a large, public, research institution. After focusing on some of the more revealing student solutions, it appears that students who write strong documented problem solutions follow a somewhat predictable pattern. While this progression of "thought" may seem intuitive to expert learners, the process is very new for many students. In some cases students start writing the process, then cross out what they originally wrote and write down a different process. This suggests that students are aware of their learning process and make adjustments as needed. Thus, documented problem solving appears to serve as a framework within which students can begin to practice analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
- Before writing the documented problem solution students frequently organize their knowledge about a concept. This is supported by their self-reported behaviors. Students state that they:
- Read the question and focus on certain words or reread the question.
- Refer to the definitions of key terms (in their lecture notes or the text) or "recall" definitions.
- Look at graphs in their lecture notes or the text.
- The organization process seems to solidify students' basic understanding of the topic. From there, students elaborate on the more complex aspects of the question.
- Some students perform self-correction while writing their solutions as is evidenced by words or even paragraphs being marked out.
Student and Instructor Benefits - An Informal Assessment in an Economics Course
Based on the behavior of students enrolled in Principles of Economics courses using documented problem solving, the following observations have been made.
- Students seem to be more engaged in the learning process.
- Students appear to be more confident and excited about learning.
- Students are very interested in seeing the solutions written by their classmates. Even the students who write some of the best solutions are intrigued with how other students approach a given problem.
- Students seem motivated to spend additional time working on homework assignments, trying to understand the problems and questions, even the ones for which documented problem solving is not required.
- Some students become somewhat competitive in wanting to produce the "best" documented solution.
- Classroom discussions are more rich and deep with students often answering each others' questions. This is likely due to students having heightened confidence about the subject matter because of their written solutions and also being more aware of their learning process.
- The instructor benefits from increased awareness of student learning gaps which allows for reteaching before moving on to more complex material.
Effectiveness of Documented Problem Solving in Disciplines Other Than Economics
- A Law School course - Hess and Friedland write that "Teachers and students can benefit from documented problem solving in several ways. First, teachers can get a sense of the problem-solving skills of the class as a whole. That information can help teachers decide how to teach problem solving in future classes. Second, teachers will be able to diagnose difficulties individual students are having with problem solving and analysis. Responses that contain clear, elegant, or sophisticated analysis can provide helpful examples to students who are having trouble with these skills. Third, as teachers prepare their own documented problem solution, they should become more aware of the process they use to solve problems. That awareness can help teachers be more specific and concrete when they teach problem-solving skills to the class as a whole or they work with students who are having difficulties. Fourth, students will become more aware of their thinking process by articulating their detailed problem-solving procedures and by comparing their analysis to that of their teachers and fellow students. Students should be able to use that awareness to improve their problem-solving process and, therefore, achieve an important goal of many law school courses."
- A Pharmacy course - Hobson says that documented problem solving offers "A 'real-time' window into student problem-solving processes/algorithms, to show if/how students can work with 'real world' problems that require more than memorization to arrive at valid solutions."
- An Astronomy course - Durisen and Pilachowski state that students in an introductory course were asked to create a piece of visual art to illustrate a concept in astronomy that the student found important. Students were also required to submit a DPS to accompany the artwork. The authors report, "These paragraphs revealed students' attempts to organize and structure astronomical knowledge in ways meaningful to them."
- A Linguistics course - According to Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P., students in a "first-year linguistics course spend a great deal of time and effort learning to analyze and diagram sentences according to the Chomskyan transformational grammar approach. To gain insights into their problem-solving skills, the professor ... asked them to ... write a brief note explaining and justifying each step. The results of this Documented Problem Solution were surprising: although several students followed many of the same steps, they often gave very different reasons for their motives. His summary of these differences led to an in-depth class discussion of what constitutes legitimate and reasonable explanation."