Tips from the McMaster Community

In problem solving sessions or tutorials, some students are able to solve several problems in the time allotted while others may not solve even one.
Phil Wood, Chemical Engineering

To make sure that all students get a solid understanding of how to solve the problems, I use the "jigsaw" method, which involves the entire class working together co-operatively rather than students working individually.

If there are five problems to study during the tutorial, the class is divided into five groups, each group working on one of the problems. In other words, Group 1 works on Problem 1, Group 2 works on Problem 2, and so on. Each group is working on one and only one problem.

Up to one third of the available time is spent in this way. Students work on the problem within their group, seeking help from the professor or TA if required. The students should not simply solve the problem, but also study the fundamentals underlying it so they could recognize it later as part of a general class of problems.

For the remainder of the time, the groups are re-formulated into new groups consisting of "experts" from each of the original groups (at least one "expert" for each of the problems). The class spends the remainder of the tutorial working in their new groups solving as many of the five problems as they can.

In this second group, the "experts" act as facilitators. They don't merely show the others how to solve the problem; instead they might lead a discussion on what is being asked, what the fundamentals are and so forth.

This method is a good example of group or co-operative learning. Students who differ in skill level, ethnic background, gender, or proficiency in English can help each other. The social interaction is not the least of the benefits. Students gain additional background in at least one area and feel empowered. As a result, fewer TAs or less instructor time is required for the second part of the tutorial. Most teachers know that we really learn the material when we have to teach it. This gives the students a taste of that learning activity.

The problems need to be well chosen to illustrate different concepts of the course. They should also be of suitable length for the available time. A good motivational tool is to tell the students that one of the problems from the tutorials will appear on a test or examination.

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