Distributing the task of problem solving is an active learning strategy related to theories of distributed learning wherein student groups (or individuals) assigned distinct but related assignments switch exercises and complete the work of their classroom peers. The essential skills required and strengthened are the conceptual understandings of the task and a proficiency in adaptable problem solving.

A user of what might be considered “distributed problem solving” is Dawson College physics professor Jean-François Brière. His method involves pairing up two groups of 5-6 students, each group being given a slightly different problem, which can deal with anything from force diagrams, motion/momentum, and so on (see Figure 1). While the numbers and visuals of the tasks differ, they are conceptually analogous. This similarity allows students to jump the gap between problems without becoming overwhelmed yet requires more personal involvement than simple formulaic competency or solving by rote.

Students are given time to dig into the problem but not solve it completely. At some half-way point the assigned problems are exchanged and the students are forced to read, analyze and build on the work of another group. Upon completion students are encouraged to participate in discussions with one another to justify their methods and reasoning, as well as aid and instruct classmates who made incorrect assumptions or weren’t as comfortable with the material. The cooperative and verbal stages give students the opportunity and time to reflect on the way they think and learn, refine their reasoning in the face of outside opinion, and improve their efficacy at explaining and being understood by others. Ultimately the individual improves his or her theoretical understanding.

Distributed problem solving can be flexible and need not proceed conventionally. Teachers can have students work from both ends of a problem to arrive at the other’s initial location, or complex concepts can be parcelled out in multi-tiered problems. This adaptability of form allows students to tackle the problem in various ways without inflating the required classroom time, a significant benefit to both teacher and student. Finally, by switching problems, the teacher easily maintains pupil interest and motivation.

For further information on this technique, or its results: contact Jean François Brière

Disclaimer: All information and opinions in this document are the work of the stated individuals alone, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the SALTISE consortium. Any use of these materials, in part or whole must be referenced back to the authors.