Helping Students Develop Problem-Solving Skills via Online Discussions

Developing sophisticated but essential learning skills is especially challenging in large classes. That’s why we regularly report on strategies that faculty members have developed and are using in large classes. The cases in point here are three different biochemistry courses in which faculty members have been using online, asynchronous discussion groups to develop problem-solving skills.

Here’s how the groups have been used in 10 sections of courses that enroll between 60 and 150 students: During the first week of the course, students are randomly placed into small discussion groups with five to 10 other students. Throughout the semester, each group will work on four to six problem-based learning (PBL) cases. Like all good PBL cases, the ones used in this research present intriguing but ill-defined problems. They cannot be solved without students finding more information.

The example included in the article describes the “suspicious” death of a professor who may have been a victim of foul play or may have succumbed to an undiagnosed metabolic problem. Students work on each case for about two to three weeks. Online, in their groups, they propose hypotheses about what’s happened, and they may request data from the instructor or pull information from texts. While students are working on each case, they are assigned readings that contain relevant information, and they hear material in class presentations that is also pertinent. However, the solution is not provided in the texts or in class. To prevent groups from sharing solutions with each other (across semesters or within them), faculty use similar cases but with different data and solutions.

What’s most interesting and useful about the approach described in the article is the method these authors have developed for assessing student work in these groups. Performance in the case discussion counts for between 10 percent and 15 percent of the course grade. The scientific content of each student’s posting is given a numerical rating from one to 10. The rubric used to make these determinations is included in the article.

Typically, individual scores start out low, but as students acquire information, start asking the right questions, and get the data they need, they are able to hone their postings and the point totals start to rise. The highest contribution score achieved within the group as a whole becomes the final group grade. Individual student grades are assigned relative to the group grade, based on both participation and quality of individual contributions. The grading mechanism is explained in detail on pp. 255-256 of the article, including how much time is involved and how senior students can be trained to help with the grading.

The grading system allows faculty to track the problem-solving abilities of students throughout the course and sometimes even two courses (as two of these courses were part of a sequence). They found that this activity did improve the problem-solving abilities of many students, although they also found a group of students who consistently applied the same ineffective strategies. Those students did not improve without faculty intervention. The beauty of the approach, though, is that it allows faculty to work with those students who most need help.

Generally, students responded to this activity positively. Sixty percent found that the case studies helped them understand biochemical concepts and that the experience of working with other students was enjoyable. About 10 percent of the students responded negatively to the experience. “By far the most common negative comment was that students did not trust their peers to contribute correct biochemistry content.” (p. 258) The solutions students developed to the problems showed that this fear was unfounded.

The authors see two main benefits with this approach. First, it provides students “with a forum to discuss and apply their biochemistry learning.” (p. 261) Opportunities like this are not often a part of large courses. Second, the activity gives instructors the opportunity to analyze individual students’ problem-solving strategies. “The data obtained in the online discussions allow a far more precise and constructive method of student assessment than is possible in the face-to-face setting.” (p. 261)

Reference: Anderson, W. L., Mitchell, S. M., and Osgood, M. P. (2008). Gauging the gaps in student problem-solving skills: Assessing individual and group use of problem-solving strategies using online discussions. Cell Biology Education, 7, Summer, 254-262.

Excerpted from “Developing Problem-Solving Skills via Online Discussions.” The Teaching Professor, 23.10 (2009): 6.