Encouraging students to engage with one another to solve problems (and problem sets)

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Encouraging students to engage with one another to solve problems (and problem sets)

Professor Cassandra Extravour of Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA on October 15, 2015.

Cassandra G. Extavour, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is one of six co-instructors for LIFESCI 50(A & B) Integrated Science, an intensive two-semester course created by Andrew Murray, Herschel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics, covering methods and concepts from biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. They design class discussion and assignments as problems that require students to rely on one another to solve.”We let them know it’s normal to not be able to answer everything on the problem sets on their own. We’ve structured them that way. They learn to engage with classmates, or with us, to work it out.”

The benefits: “We all learn things better when we have to teach or explain them to somebody else,” says Extavour. “Of course, there is always a place for individual work, but if you can explain something in more than one way then you’re likely to have a deeper understanding of it.” Encouraging this level of collaboration also counteracts their natural competitiveness with one another.

The challenges: There is more ambiguity in designing and writing problem sets than multiple-choice questions. “There’s no way one instructor can anticipate all possible student interpretations.” All members of the teaching team, including course assistants who are former students of the course, complete one another’s problem sets individually and meet weekly to develop and refine the assignments.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Model active problem solving during lecture. Extavour uses a portion of lecture time to gauge students’ understanding of course concepts by building in an active problem-solving component. One way is to present students with an experiment or scientific paper and ask them to interpret the results, come up with alternative interpretations, or devise next steps. “It helps to prepare them for the types of things I would ask in an exam.”
  • Be mindful of content overload. Trying to pack too much material into a lecture may overwhelm students, reduce their self-reliance when they attempt assignments, and eliminate opportunities to evaluate students’ level of understanding in real time. Extavour suggests swapping slides for the board: “That way the problem is unfolding right in front of them and it’s easier to follow along, ask questions, and get responses in the moment.”
  • Build collaboration into class time. Extavour’s colleagues have had great success with the think-pair-share model. “Students engage with the material in a different way and start learning to work with one another. It gives me another spot check—are they following what I said?”

Bottom line: For any given module in the course, some students will feel more confident about the material than others due to varying experience with different disciplines. When they help their peers, they are more likely to accept help in other areas. “The earlier they can get into the habit of working together, the easier it will be for all of them.”