How to Teach with Documented Problem Solving


Documented problem solving is a flexible teaching, learning, and assessment tool that can be adapted to numerous learning environments.

It is appropriate for:

  • Undergraduate and graduate level courses.
  • Courses of various levels of complexity.
  • Any class size or setting.

It serves to inform both faculty and students.

In a small class, it may be manageable for the instructor to require all students to submit a documented solution with each homework assignment with 1 to 2 questions per assignment being documented. But, in a large class, this may not be reasonable in terms of the time commitment required on the part of the instructor to read and comment on each solution. The following strategies can be used to manage a large class:

  • Divide the class in half and only require the documented solution from one group per assignment.
  • Create an example or rubric. Copies can be made and distributed to students or it can be shown to the class using a document camera or other technology.
  • Using the rubric, students can assess their own work or that of a classmate.

Implementing Documented Problem Solving

Decide how you want to use the technique

  • As part of a homework assignment - Students complete the solution individually and outside of class. Instructors can identify a specific homework question and require students to "document" it. Students will likely need to be reminded that they must write down the steps they follow including what they are thinking as they solve the problem. Points should not be deducted from the homework grade if the student's process is flawed. However, an incentive should be created such as requiring the solution to be written (even if it is flawed) to avoid a grade of zero for the homework assignment.

  • As an individual in-class activity - Students, working individually, write the solution which provides real time assessment for both students and the instructor. This can be done spontaneously by pausing during a lecture, asking students to think about how they would approach a problem, and then asking them to take 5 to 7 minutes to write down their thought process. Then 2 or 3 volunteers can share their thought process with the rest of the class. This is an especially beneficial activity if the topic area is one that students struggle with frequently.
  • As a collaborative in-class activity - Students work together in groups of 2 or 3 to produce the solution. In order to encourage all students to participate, the instructor can walk around the room and encourage students to interact. This approach can be easily managed in a class of 100 students or more so class size isn't necessarily a limitation.

Introduce the process in class

  • Model the process for students in very concrete terms since most students are not accustomed to documenting or explaining how they arrive at an answer.
    • Pose a question or problem and ask students to indicate the steps required to answer it.
    • Write the steps down as the students tell them to you out loud.
    • Correct the students (or allow them to correct each other) if they miss any steps.
  • Emphasize the value of documented problem solving since some students may initially think of it as busywork.
  • Reassure students that the solution process itself will NOT be graded.
  • Create a handout that explains the technique and the value added. This model should work for most courses.

Student Handout – An Introduction to Documented Problem Solving

Documented problem solving:

  • Students are asked to write down the steps they use in order to solve a problem or answer a question, including all the steps.
  • The steps should include what students are thinking as they go through the process.
  • Solutions are written in complete sentences.
  • May be hand written or typed but must be neat
  • Must be submitted on notebook paper or letter size paper. (No half-sized pieces of paper.)
  • For students, the goal is to improve learning and enhance the retention of knowledge. It also helps identify missteps made by students. Plus, as a result of this activity, students should become more aware of their own critical-thinking, problem-solving strategies. This awareness can be transferred to other coursework.

    In addition, this method allows the instructor to become more aware of how students address problems and more knowledgeable about student misconceptions. This gives the instructor the opportunity to readdress concepts that are unclear prior to an exam. Finally, by providing feedback on the DPS, the instructor has an opportunity to communicate with students in a very direct manner.

    Example: Add a question or problem relevant to your course or discipline here.

    Add an answer here that includes the thought processes students should (or might) use in answering the question.(This can be done as an in class activity with student participation.)

    This file (Student Handout - Intro to DPS (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB Jun18 10)) can be downloaded and customized for a particular course.

    Provide incentives for student participation

    Without a reward (or penalty), students may decide not to write the solution so this part is very important. Instructors can:

    • Tie it to a homework assignment. If students don't write the solution, they forfeit the homework points.
    • Offer extra credit on an upcoming exam or give participation credit to those who produce the solution.
    • Do not penalize students for missed steps. This technique is meant to be informative for the student and the instructor. If the process is graded based on accuracy, it simply becomes another quiz or test.

    Provide feedback to students on their solution process

    Providing feedback is critical in order for this approach to work. Instructor feedback may be in the form of:

    • A written response to each student, noting steps that were missed and any terms that were misused. Instructors may also want to compliment a student for providing a very thorough explanation. This type of feedback is optimal but not necessary.

    DPS - example with feedback 1

    • A handout or rubric that explains the steps students should have followed. Produce copies for each student or show the problem-solving process using a document camera or other technology.
      • Allow students to compare their solution process to the one produced.
      • Ask students to exchange solutions with each other and discuss any differences.
    • A copy of several anonymous solutions that are accurate but different. Produce copies for each student or show the solutions using a document camera or other technology.