Cooperative Group Problem Solving

Why Cooperative Group Problem Solving

Students in introductory physics courses typically begin to solve a problem by plunging into the algebraic and numerical solution -- they search for and manipulate equations, plugging numbers into the equations until they find a combination that yields an answer (e.g. the plug-and-chug strategy). They seldom use their conceptual knowledge of physics to qualitatively analyze the problem situation, nor do they systematically plan a solution before they begin numerical and algebraic manipulations of equations. When they arrive at an answer, they are usually satisfied -- they rarely check to see if the answer makes sense.

To help students integrate the conceptual and procedural aspects of problem solving so they could become better problem solvers, we introduced a structured, five-step problem solving strategy. However, we immediately encountered the following dilemma:

If the problems are simple enough to be solved moderately well using their novice strategy, then students see no reason to abandon this strategy -- even if the structured problem-solving strategy works as well or better.

If the problems are complex enough so the novice strategy clearly fails, then students are initially unsuccessful at using the structured problem-solving strategy, so they revert back to their novice stratege.

To solve this dilemma, we (1) designed complex problems that discourage the use of plug-and-chug strategies, and (2) introduced cooperative group problem solving. Cooperative group problem solving has several advantages:

  1. The structured problem-solving strategy seems too long and complex to most students. Cooperative-group problem solving gives students a chance to practice the strategy until it becomes more natural.
  2. Groups can solve more complex problems than individuals, so students see the advantage of a logical problem-solving strategy early in the course.
  3. Each individual can practice the planning and monitoring skills they need to become good individual problem solvers.
  4. Students get practice developing and using the language of physics -- "talking physics".
  5. In their discussion with each other, students must deal with and resolve their misconceptions.
  6. In subsequent, whole-class discussions of the problems, students are less intimidated because they are not answering as an individual, but as a group.

Of course, there are several disadvantages of cooperative-group problem solving. Initially, many students do not like working in cooperative groups. They do not like exposing their "ignorance" to other students. Moreover, they have been trained to be competitive and work individually, so they lack collaborative skills.