Teaching Tip: Send a Problem

Looking for a different way to structure some group activity in your class?  This week’s tip was contributed to a consortium of faculty developers who share ideas that have worked on their campuses.  If you give it a try, please share your experiences with us!

Purpose:  To challenge students to think critically about key issues and open-ended questions in each discipline.  This three-part process encourages students to question assumptions and explore alternative solutions.

How to Conduct: The instructor brings to class file folders or envelopes with one problem posted on each one.  She announces the activity and its time limits.  She distributes the folders, one per team.  In large classes several teams can work simultaneously on the same problems with the caveat that they cannot be seated close together.  The activity proceeds in a highly structured manner:

(a)    Each team discusses its particular problem and generates within the given time frame as many solutions as possible; the solutions, recorded on a sheet of paper, are placed in the folder or envelope on which is written the problem addressed.

(b)    The folders are then passed clockwise to another team which does not open the folder.  That team, seeing only the problem posed but not the solutions generated by the previous team, follows an identical procedure and brainstorms solutions, placing their recorded conclusions in the folder or envelope.

(c)  The folders are passed a third time, but in this case, the third team opens the folder and reviews the ideas/solutions generated by the other two teams.  They can add additional ideas of their own or consolidate those already suggested by the two other teams.  Their primary task, however, is to identify the most viable solutions to the given problem or issue, usually by synthesizing all three teams’ answers.

Those familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) will recognize that this activity brings students to the highest levels of critical thinking because the final step requires sophisticated evaluation and synthesis.  Group reports can provide useful closure.

Discipline applications:  Instructors will find that Send-a-Problem activities are limited only by their imagination.  Virtually all disciplines lend themselves to problem-solving activities where “many heads are better than one:” For example, what things would a clinician need to know before considering a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit Disorder/AIDS/Alzheimer’s?  What features would an art historian look for to authenticate an original Rembrandt/Renoir/Klee?  Biology students could be asked to design various experiments, including a list of equipment:  Compare the rates of growth of two different kinds of bread molds; compare the rates of growth of fruit fly populations under different vitamin supplements; compare the rates of growth of two hybrid varieties of bean plants.  A class in religion might identify challenges facing the Catholic Church today (challenges to Papal authority; the declining priesthood, etc.) and have students discuss the ramifications of these issues and possible solutions.  A class in history might outline the various claims to territory of the cattleman, the farmers, and the native Americans.  Courses in literature could break down various aspects of a novel or short story with teams locating and explaining examples of things such as color imagery, symbols, and figures of speech in books such as The Great Gatsby.  Geography students could discuss these topics: What makes the Balkan region unique as compared to other shatter belts?  Explain the effects of linguistic diversity on European unity. Describe and explain the impact of colonialism and the resulting economies of a given region.

The Send-a-Problem concept does not need to be limited to issues only.  In place of the folders, geologists can pass around rocks needing identification; paralegal instructors can have teams fill out work sheets on various legal books; and ESL teachers can have teams caption various cartoons using the target language.

Submitted by Barbara Millis
Teaching and Learning Center
University of Texas at San Antonio


One Response

  1. I tried this today and the students LOVED it. The course was Human Development and we used the assignment to brainstorm/reflect on the reading as we prepared to discuss a new phase of the lifespan: early adulthood. So the questions that students answered were questions such as: How do we know when someone is an adult? What are the age boundaries of “early adulthood”?
    What do people look for when selecting a mate?
    Why do people choose to become parents?
    What are the health concerns of early adulthood?
    This technique allows the students to talk to each other instead of to me and synthesize information.

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