COOPERATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING AS A LEARNING APPROACH
IN HETEROGENEOUS CLASSES: A PRELIMINARY STUDY
Kamil Y. Kapusuz,a Ali Kara,a,b
aElectrical & Electronics Engineering, Atılım University, Kızılcaşar Mahallesi, 06836 İncek Gölbaşı,
b TUBITAK-BILGEM, Ankara, Turkey
Cooperative learning is a generic term used to describe any teaching approach in which students work together, and it can be used effectively with classical classroom instruction. It has been, and will be, a fundamental component of educational systems, in particular, engineering education, as training of new generations will tend to be much more student centered than those in the past. One of the new concepts in cooperative learning is group problem solving or cooperative problem solving (CPS). It is a relatively new concept in engineering education, and there has been very few papers regarding with CPS. They are on how cooperative problem solving can be implemented, effectively, in language education. On the other hand, non homogeneous class, or heterogeneous class (or heterogeneity in classes), is the class where learners' levels are dissimilar (different knowledge or background, different learning ability or motivations). This paper presents results of a study on CPS activity with a heterogeneous class. CPS has been employed in order to increase effectiveness of learning process. The research study has been conducted on a third year course with 63 students in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. There were 8 CPS sessions in the semester, each starts with problem description, group formation/management, cooperative working and assessment. In order to observe the effect of the CPS activity, students were interviewed by a graduate student, who was not engaged with the course activities, at the end of the semester. In the interview, 43 pre-determined questions were directed to 54 interviewed students (~86%) to evaluate the CPS techniques and its impact on students. Questions used in the interview cover various dimensions of the CPS activity, and student responses and feedbacks have been very promising for improvement of this activity. The paper presents preliminary results of the study.
Keywords: Cooperative problem solving, group working, heterogeneous classes. 1. Introduction
Cooperative learning is a way of learning where students work together to achieve a task (Johnson, 2000). Cooperative learning is a generic term used to describe any teaching approach that can be used in classroom teaching. Then, any instructional technique in classrooms that uses interaction among students (group investigation, team accelerated instruction, jigsaw procedure etc.) can be a cooperative learning. However, a question is still open: which cooperative learning method is most effective in your class? As the learning sytle of student may differ, the techniques that are effective will differ (Dunn, 1989). For example, small group learning for undergraduate students has been found very effective in some undergraduates (Springer et al. 1999). At higher level, group working has, in general, been very effective teaching approach in educational systems from primary schools to universities. Among the works published, (Hicks, 2011), (Johnston, 2005), (Bolton, 1999), (Vik, 2011), (Brewer and Mendelson, 2003), (Michaelon, 2003), (Holtmon, Melville and Soldhi, 2006), and (Maples, 1988) have been remarkable, and mainly they provides efforts on forming an effective group, group management and assessment strategies. Many case studies have also been reported toward how an efficient group working could be achieved by providing results of practices along with quantitative measurements. There is no doubt that cooperative learning has been, and will be, a fundamental component of educational systems, in particular, engineering education, as training of new generations will tend to be much more student centered than those in the past. One of the new concepts in cooperative learning is group problem solving or cooperative problem solving (CPS). It is relatively new concept in engineering education, and there has been very few papers regarding with this concept. Most of them are on how cooperative problem solving can be implemented, effectively, in language education (Adodo and Agbayewa, 2011), (Milrood, 2002) and (Felder and Brent, 2005).
In classes with homogenous student profile, students’ levels (knowledge, learning ability or potential learning ability) are assumed to be “very similar”. On the other hand, non homogeneous classes, or heterogeneous class (or heterogeneity in classes), is the class where learners' levels are dissimilar (different knowledge or background, different learning ability or motivations) (Milrood, 2002) and (Pospisilova, 2008). Heterogeneous classes are not common in engineering schools due to the fact most of the student placement/selection systems may prevent, not perfectly but to some extent, heterogeneous classes in engineering education. However, it may still be come across in some schools and countries including Turkey.
Cooperative problem solving (CPS) would be employed in heterogeneous classes in order to increase effectiveness of learning process, and increase homogeneity in the class with time. Although formation of groups in standard group working is still an open discussion for researchers, group formation to be based on mixed-learning ability (skills or levels) would effectively work for cooperative problem solving activities in heterogeneous classes. This is because the objective in this type of activity could be to increase interaction between the learners rather than finding a complete solution to the problem at hand.
In this work, results of a preliminary study on cooperative problem solving are presented. Cooperative problem solving sessions/activities were conducted on an undergraduate course (EE 301 Communication Systems) with 63 students. In each session, a problem related to the subject taught is assigned, and student groups were formed, randomly. Toward the end of the semester, 54 out of 63 students were interviewed by a graduate student, with a list of pre-determined questions. Preliminary results have indicated that the students, generally, find the activity interesting and very effective way to increase their performance in the course. They also provide comments on how to improve cooperative problem solving sessions.
A. Heterogeneity in Classes
Homogeneous class is the class where students’ levels (knowledge, learning ability or potential learning ability) are assumed to be “very similar”. Similarly, non homogeneous classes, or heterogeneous class (or heterogeneity in classes), is the class where learners' levels are dissimilar (different knowledge or background, different learning ability or motivations). Normally, heterogeneous classes are not common (ignoring classical diversities in a typical class) in engineering schools due to the fact most of the national (and international) student placement/selection systems may prevent, not perfectly but to some extent, heterogeneous classes in engineering education. In general, this is achieved by some nationwide examinations. However, it may still be come across in some schools and countries like Turkey (OSYM 2012). In Turkey, there are foundation universities whose students are chosen by centralized placement system. Placement system includes several centralized university entrance examinations followed by a placement stage. Students fill a placement form where he/she chooses universities and departments according to his/her performance in the examinations, she/he took in that year. Foundation universities, in Turkey, are non-profit organizations, and they provide partial and full scholarships (partial or full exemption of tuition fees) to successful students. Students who have acquired high scores in the examinations can select one or several of those scholarships depending on their scores. Then, in a typical engineering class of most foundation universities, there may be several levels of students. In Table 1, maximum and minimum scores of entrance examination (taken from the nationwide placement table for a popular engineering department) for a foundation university and three state universities in a typical class (the same department or discipline) is provided.
Table 1: Comparison of entrance examination scores of foundation and state universities: categorization in foundation universities (the figures are taken from official documents of OSYM, and all scores represent the same engineering discipline) (OSYM, 2012)
University Type Category (Level) Minimum Maximum Difference
Full scholarship (L1) 430,1 450,8 Partial scholarship (50%) (L2) 333,6 379,7 Partial scholarship (25%) (L3) 250,4 318,4 Foundation University No scholarship (L4) 217,5 242,5 212,6/208,3 (L4-L1) State University A 403,4 445,3 41,9 State University B 408,1 468,4 60,3 State University C 382,3 425,8 43,5
There are four levels (four different scholarship categories) for the foundation university in this class or department. The difference between the maximum and minimum scores is more than 233 while the largest difference among the three state universities is only ~60. This extremely large difference in scores naturally causes heterogeneous classes in foundation universities. This suggests that the classes in foundation universities are quite different from those in state universities, and different educational approaches and methodologies should be determined to handle such heterogeneous classes.
B. Cooperative Problem Solving (CPS) Activities
In this paper, it is not the heterogeneity in age, gender or other demographic features. Instead, it is only on learning ability, motivation and/or knowledge/ background of students. Cooperative problem solving may be applied to such heterogeneous classes at different levels The earlier it is applied, the better homogeneity of students can be achieved. The course to which the CPS applied is a third year compulsory course, EE 301 Communication systems as a core course for the department. It is a 4 credits (3 hours lecture +2 hours laboratory activity) or 8 ECTS course, and it has 50-60 students on average every year. Apart from the concepts taught in the course, there are hands on experiments, remote laboratory experiments and simulation activities as a part laboratory activity. The students are evaluated with the grades of two midterm examinations, a final examination at the end of the semester along with the laboratory activities (with in lab examinations) and CPS activities for this year. The course has been designed according to the requirements of ABET. That is, its objectives and learning outcomes target ABET requirements, its assessment and evaluation stages all have been improved in accordance with the ABET accreditation requirements (Felder and Brent, 2005)
CPS activities were introduced as a new cooperative learning tool in this year of the course. There were, totally, 8 CPS activities in the semester. A typical CPS activity starts with group formation. Students are left free to form their own groups, and instructor intervened rarely in group formation process. Usually, students sitting closely are formed a group, spontaneously. In the next, the question is distributed, and all formulas and course materials are free to use in solving the problem. Then, didactical issues on the design of the problem could be critical, and problems should contain different components in order to improve various didactical skills of students. No inter group discussion is allowed. In this CPS activity, the objective was to improve student’s learning and problem solving skills, especially, for those who have weaknesses in learning and problem solving methodology. Each CPS activity continued 20-40 minutes depending on the problem content and importance of the subject taught.
Toward the end of the semester, a graduate student who was not engaged with the course activities interviewed students, one by one. In the interview, 43 pre-determined questions were directed to 54 interviewed students, enrolled in the course (attendance was ~86%=54/63), to evaluate the activity and its impact on students… Questions used in the interview covers various dimensions of the CPS activity. Students are asked to give marks between 1(dissatisfactory) to 5(satisfactory). After the analysis of the data, some preliminary results have been obtained. In the analysis, rates of 1 and 2 are summed to indicate dissatisfaction while rates of 3, 4 and 5 are summed to indicate satisfaction for that question. Then, some of the striking results are as follows:
87,1% of the students think that method used in the CPS activities is appropriate
83,3% of the students think that CPS activities improve learning and they were instructive 96,3% of the students found the instructor’s attitude positive
88,9% of the students think CPS activities improve their group working skills
77,85 of the students think that CPS activities improve their knowledge on the subjects of CPS activity
81,5% of the students think that their problem solving ability on the subjects of CPS activities have
increased greatly when they are studying for examinations
94,4% of the students think that questions in the CPS activities improve their learning in the course Dissatisfactions
57,4% of the students (31) think that they are uncommunicative in the course, and 24,1% of the students
(13) think that the instructor is responsible from this (however, this was not verified from the course evaluation forms from university administration)
40,7% of the students think that their individual grades are dissatisfactory, or they are not happy with the grades (this may be a common problem with group works because students neither evaluate individual member of a group nor they like when the instructor does this for themselves)
Q: Suggest ways to improve the CPS activities (6 responses)
Increase duration, provide hints, announce the activities in advance, provide mistakes and corrections on our group solutions
Q: Suggest ways to improve group-working skills in CPS activities (14 responses)
provide solutions, more problem solving hours, increase CPS activity number, do not grade, more
illustrations in CPS problems, plan preliminary works
Q: Suggest ways to improve learning process in CPS activities (12 responses)
Solve the problem after CPS, more problem solving hours, give more CPS activity, change CPS activity
to an individual activity
The instructor, however, has tried to observe students preferences in formation of groups during the activities throughout the semester. From this observation, it can be concluded that students have tended to form a group, before the activity begins, by sitting closely. This may be due to two reasons: first, some students may be anxious regarding performance of group members in the activity question, and they may try to reduce the risk by choosing group members, and second, they may not pleased to study with someone randomly chosen from the classroom.
This study presents preliminary results, and the following conclusions can be drawn: Heterogeneous classes in engineering education is a reality (at least for Turkey)
There should be various approaches that need to be developed toward increasing effectiveness in those
classes, convergence to homogeneous classes
Cooperative problem solving (CPS) could be classroom instructional way to encounter didactical issues
in heterogeneous classes, to improve effectiveness of learning
CPS for heterogeneous classes in engineering education has not been worked out, only several
attempts, without details, for first year students are available
The preliminary results indicate that CPS applied in this study should further be improved
Three different stages should be studied in the CPS activities: problem description, group formation and management, and assessment of activity
Students may provide very constructive feedbacks in improving CPS activities, and increase its
effectiveness, interviews (or similar activities) should continue in future works
As a future work, CPS activities should be designed to provide improvements in three stages given above. This may require further research on different level of courses and with different engineering departments, even different universities.
Adodo S.O., Agbayewa J.O.Effect of homogenous and heterogeneous ability grouping class teaching on student’s interest, attitude and achievement in integrated science. International Journal of Psychology and Counselling. 3 (3): 48-54, 2011. Brewer W., Mendelson, M.I.Methodology and Metrics for Assessing Team Effectiveness. International Journal of Engineering Education. 19 (6): 777-787, 2003.
Bolton M.K. The Role Of Coaching in Student Teams: A “Just-in-Time” Approach To Learning. Journal of Management Education. 23 (3): 233-250, 1999.
Dunn R., Jeffrey S. B., Klavas A.A Survey of Research on Learning Styles. Educational Leadership. 50-58, 1989. Felder R.M., Brent R.Understanding student differences. Journal of Engineering Education. 94 (1): 57-72, 2005.
Felder, R.M., Brent, R. Designing and Teaching Courses to Satisfy the ABET Engineering Criteria. Journal of Engineering Education. 92 (1): 7-25, 2005.
Hicks C. Guiding Group Work: Activities to maximize student learning from group projects. Teaching Innovation Projects. 1 (1), 2011.
Holtham C.W., Melville R.R., Sodhi M.S. Designing Student Groupwork in Management Education: Widening the Palette of Options. Journal of Management Education. 30 (6): 809-817, 2006.
Johnston T. C. Roles and Responsibilities In Team Projects. Journal of College Teaching & Learning. 2005, 2 (12): 59-70, 2005.
Johnson D. W. Cooperative Learning. Report, University of Minnesota. 2000. Millrood R. Teaching heterogeneous classes. Journal of ELT. 56 (2): 128-136, 2002.
Michaelson R. “Assessing Group Work. 2003. Briefing paper for LTSN-BEST.
http://www.business.heacademy.ac.uk/publications/misc/briefing/gruupwork/assessing%20group%20work%20-%20michaelson.pdf. Last accessed April 2007. OSYM. Official OSYS Tables. 2012.
Pospisilova.Teaching in Heterogeneous classes. Master’s Thesis. 8-10, 2008.
Springer L., Stanne M. E., Donovan S. S. Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 69 (1): 21-51, 1999.
Vik G.N. Doing More to Teacher Teamwork Than Telling Student to Sink or Swim. Business Communication Quarterly. 62 (4): 112-119, 2011.