Rubiks cube

Problem-Solving

Creative problem-solving is an essential skill that students need in and outside of the classroom. Use these strategies to get students to approach problems in new ways.

 

Learning through failure

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions

Instructions:

  1. Divide the class into groups of 3-4 students.
  2. Assign groups the task of deliberately designing something for failure. Groups may be assigned the same thing or something different.
  3. Allow groups the opportunity to share what they’ve created, along with their thought processes for the creation.

Examples:

  • In a civil engineering course: Design a bridge that is likely to collapse or a tunnel that is likely to flood.
  • In a food science course: Create a diet totally lacking in nutrition.
  • In a political science course: Outline the most oppressive or unworkable government imaginable.

Variation:

Present students with a scenario that includes a failure, such as why a bridge collapsed. Ask students to brainstorm all the reasons they can imagine, in the context of the scenario, why the bridge collapsed. Follow-up with an activity that would allow the students create a solid bridge suitable for the given scenario.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, p. 62.

Send-a-problem

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Divide students into groups.
  2. Provide each group with a problem.
  3. Ask students to write a solution to the problem on a sheet of paper.
  4. Instruct students to pass the problem—with the solution hidden—to another group, who will write a different solution to the problem without looking at the previous group’s solution.
  5. After several passes, have each group examine all solutions on the paper they ended up with and decide on the best solution.
  6. Call on groups to present their chosen solution to the whole class.

Example:

In a political science course, “How would you increase voter participation among voters with limited physical mobility?”

Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 232-233.

Pass the problem

Online adaptation: Possible in OneDrive and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Divide students into groups.
  2. Give groups a problem to solve or a case to analyze.
  3. Ask students to identify and write down the first step in solving the problem or analyzing the case.
  4. Have students pass the problem to the next group for them to identify and write down the next step.
  5. Continue until all groups have contributed.

Example:

In an urban planning course, address how a city could pilot and then implement a city-wide composting program over a period of several years.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Ranking alternatives

Online adaptation: Possible in OneDrive and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Give groups a problem to solve or a case/situation to explain.
  2. Ask students to think up as many alternative courses of action to solve the problem or explanations of the case/situation as possible.
  3. Compile a list. (You can designate a student to take notes.)
  4. Ask students to work in groups to rank the alternatives by preference.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Buzz groups

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Divide the class into small groups.
  2. Assign students a specific problem to solve or a question to address. Allot a set amount of time for students to engage in the task; enforce the time limit.
  3. Ask students to briefly present their findings to the whole class so that you can respond to comments and encourage discussion.

Example:

In a communications class for engineers, students receive a technical manual and are asked to re-write different sections to make them accessible to a non-expert audience.

Variation:

When students present their findings, challenge groups to contribute only ideas that haven’t yet been mentioned.

What's the principle?

Online adaptation: Possible in myCourses Discussions and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Provide students with a list of principles used to solve problems in your field.
  2. Present students with a problem.
  3. Have students assess what principle to apply in order to solve it.

Variation:

Have students generate the list of principles used for problem-solving.

Yee, K. (n.d.). Interactive techniques. Retrieved from http://www.usf.edu/atle/teaching/handout-interactive-techniques.pdf. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Roundtable writing

Online adaptation: Possible in OneDrive and Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Divide students into groups of four.
  2. Communicate a time limit for this activity that will allow all group members an opportunity to participate.
  3. Display a discussion prompt on the screen or board.
  4. Ask students to pass around a sheet of paper clockwise on which they write—in short phrases or sentences—their respective responses to the prompt.
  5. Have students read their responses aloud in their groups so that peers can reflect upon them while the paper moves around the group.
  6. Conclude with a whole-class discussion of students’ responses.

Example:

In a course on scientific principles, this prompt is shown to the class: “Identify important scientific discoveries of the 20th Century in the field of medicine.”

Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 299.

Variations:

  • Use fairly simple, straightforward prompts that keep the paper moving around the group.
  • Encourage student to respond or build on) the comments of those who have already written on the sheet.
  • Use in conjunction with the “muddiest point” strategy: students write down their muddiest point, check those muddiest points that have already been written by others and expand as appropriate. Follow up by facilitating a discussion of the muddiest points.
  • One student can assume the role of Scribe. The Scribe writes down each student’s responses on a computer, creating a file that can be saved and emailed to the group participants or the whole class.

Simulations

Online adaptation: Possible in Zoom and myCourses Discussions (video uploads)

A person, system or computer program demonstrates an action, symptom or scenario that illustrates a problem.

Instructions:

  1. Ask students to take the appropriate action or to give a detailed verbal explanation of what they would do to solve the problem or address the situation.
  2. In a whole-class discussion, debrief students’ responses.

Examples:

  • Students in a health and safety course practice using a defibrillator with a lifelike mannequin.
  • Students in an investment course buy and sell stocks in a trading room simulation, evaluating the success of their portfolio and explaining their rationale for various decisions made.

Variation:

Students take turns role playing the appropriate action, symptom or scenario, to which peers then respond.

Group breakout room discussion and presentation

Online implementation: Possible in Zoom

Instructions:

  1. Pose a question or share a discussion prompt in the chat.
  2. Provide students with guidelines for discussion (e.g., how long they’ll have to discuss; if roles, such as moderator and note-taker, should be assigned; how/where they should record their discussion).
  3. Send students to breakout rooms to discuss the question or prompt. Let students know that the instructor and TAs might circulate through breakout rooms.
  4. When the discussion time has elapsed, close the breakout rooms so that students return to the large group.
  5. Students from each breakout room group present a synthesis of their discussion to the class.
     

Variations:

  • Students debrief in larger groups, still in breakout rooms.
  • Students take notes on their discussion in a collaborative document (e.g., OneDrive) for sharing with peers in myCourses.
  • Students share a synthesis of their discussion (e.g., two key take-aways) in the chat or orally.

(Variation from instructor responses to McGill’s March 2021 Remote Teaching Survey)

 

 


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