Context Rich Problems

At the University of Minnesota Department of Physics we have cooperative group problem solving in our discussion sections. In plain English, this means we have groups of students working together to solve a problem. These groups are more than just students sitting together, but are structured learning groups, but this is the subject of another WWW page.

Through several years of evaluating these learning groups we have seen that in order for the groups to function properly, the problems need several characteristics:

  • The problems need to be challenging enough that a single student cannot solve it, but not so challenging that a group cannot solve it.
  • The problems need to be structured so that the groups can make decisions on how to proceed with the solution.
  • The problems should be relevant to the lives of the students.
  • The problems cannot depend on students knowing a trick nor can they be mathematically tedious.

In short, traditional end-of-chapter textbook problems are inadequate.

To satisfy these constraints, we have created what we call context rich problems. Context rich problems have the characteristics listed above and more. They are strikingly different from traditional problems. Our use of context rich problems has expanded from our recitations into exams and our laboratories. Creating context-rich problems is not an obvious task, so we have guidelines to help people create context rich problems. Once a problem is created it is important to judge the problem for difficulty. It is easy to make context rich problems too difficult.

These WWW pages are designed to introduce you to context rich problems. You can also visit our on-line archive of context rich problems where you can find context rich problems for many topics in introductory physics. Feel free to modify these problems to suit your needs and use them in your classes.