Every Tuesday from 12 to 12:50 p.m., I attend section for MATH 0180: Intermediate Calculus. During these fifty minutes, we solve challenging problem sets in groups of two or three. Every Tuesday at 12:50 p.m., I leave class feeling more confident in my understanding of multivariable calculus.
I’ve only experienced this kind of section in one other class: MATH 100: Introductory Calculus, Part II, also taught by Professor Dan Katz. Group problem solving is an incredibly useful learning tool. More professors at Brown should encourage, and perhaps even require, students to solve problems in groups.
Group problem solving is beneficial to both students who are struggling and students who have a strong grasp of the material. When I do not understand a concept, sometimes I need to hear it explained a different way. During these sessions, my peers will explain concepts differently than the professor and teaching assistants do, which often leads to a new level of understanding.
When completing group work in subjects I am more knowledgeable about, I also benefit. While I am not naturally talented at math, as an economics concentrator, I am quite comfortable using Stata software to solve problem sets for economics classes. Explaining my process of writing code helps me better understand the underlying concepts I am using the solve the problem.
Outside of my own positive personal experiences, there is significant empirical evidence that group problem solving helps students learn. For example, one randomized controlled study conducted by researchers at Columbia found that students who completed a group-based problem solving activity did better on an assessment at the end of class than students who were told to complete a problem set individually during class. While both groups of students performed similarly on test questions that simply asked them to recall information, the students who worked in groups performed better on questions that required them to apply knowledge in a new context. Thus, this study shows that group problem solving can help students obtain a deeper understanding of the problem.
While most of my professors have allowed me to collaborate with other students on problem sets, other professors, particularly in the computer science department, have strict collaboration policies. Because these classes often do not have tests or quizzes, students are only evaluated on the quality of their homework and projects; the collaboration policy attempts to “ensure individual learning.” But there is significant evidence that this policy is hurting students. Last spring, The Herald reported that the collaboration policy contributed to feelings of stress and isolation for CS students. Furthermore, the anti-collaboration policy means students must rely on TAs for help, leading to long wait times during TA hours. I personally haven’t taken a computer science class, and therefore do not have first-hand experience with these challenges. But hearing horror stories about all-nighters and four hour wait times is a large reason I have not attempted to take a computer science course. It seems that students would learn better — and be less stressed out — by discussing hard problems amongst each other more frequently than they do now.
Some professors have taken steps to encourage group work. For example, some projects for CSCI 0170: Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction are completed in pairs, and CSCI 0150: Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science allows students to work together under the supervision of a TA. While these are steps in the right direction, the bulk of students’ work must be completed individually. In order to allow students to fully reap the benefits of group work, CS professors should consider relaxing the collaboration policy.
Room for improvement in fostering collaborative work extends beyond computer science. As an economics and public policy student, I have taken classes with papers — they tend to be discussion based — and others structured around problem sets. The problem set courses, typically in the economics department, frequently permit students to work together as long as they write the names of those they collaborate with on their homework. While this does allow for group work, economics professors should do more to facilitate group problem solving. Most economics courses have weekly sections taught by the TAs. During section, the TAs will typically answer questions and solve problems on the board that are similar to the weeks problem set. While this can be useful, allowing students to attempt the problems in small groups before solving it on the board would enhance the section experience significantly.
It is true that group problem solving can be stressful for some more introverted students, but professors can address this concern and still encourage more group work. For example, they could give students the option of working together during TA sections, rather than requiring collaboration. Group problem solving helps students gain a deeper understanding of course concepts and materials. Professors should facilitate collaboration— both by allowing students to work together on homework and by creating formal opportunities for students to solve problems together.
Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.