20 November 2009

Good Problems and Effective Structures for Groups

Context-rich group problems help students to focus on the concepts and principles that are needed to solve them. They have the following general characteristics:
  • Problem statement does not always specify the unknown to be computed.
  • More information may be available than is needed to solve the problem.
  • Some of the information needed to solve the problem may be missing from the question. Students need to determine what the missing information is and how to come up with it.
  • Reasonable assumptions may need to be made to simplify the problem and allow for a meaningful solution.
Groups of three and four members are found to generate better plans for solving problems and a solution with fewer conceptual mistakes than pairs. Pairs usually have no mechanism for deciding between two strongly held viewpoints. In groups of four, one student was invariably left out of the problem-solving process. That person is usually the most timid or the most knowledgeable.

Homogeneous gender groups and mixed gender groups of two females and one male performed better than groups with two males and one female.

Groups with mixed ability performed as well as groups consisting of only high-ability students (who tend to make problems more complicated than necessary or overlook the obvious), and better than groups with students of only low or medium ability. Low ability students contribute by keeping the groups on track by pointing out the obvious and simple ideas, and requesting for clarification of the concepts and procedures that are needed to solve the problems (which the higher ability students sometimes realize their wrong assumptions and mistakes when they justify their solutions to them).

To avoid dominance of any student in a group, or to avoid a group from jumping at the first possible solution to avoid conflict in the group, two strategies can be used:
  1. have students take on special roles. In a three member group, the roles of Manager (who designs plans for action and suggests solutions), Skeptic (who questions premises and plans), and Checker / Recorder (who organizes and keeps track of the discussions) can be assigned.
  2. have the students reflect on how well their groups have worked and suggest ways of improvement at the end of each activity.

Heller, P., Hollabaugh, M. (July 1992). Teaching Problem Solving Through Cooperative Group. Part 2. Designing Problems and Structuring Groups. American Association of Physics Teachers. 60(7). pp 637 - 644.

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