Weekly Teaching Note
Feb 23 2011
Working with Student Teams: Structured Problem Solving

Structured problem solving is a technique that is easy to introduce. It is effective in both small and large classes and is easily adapted for online and blended courses.

Purpose:  To increase students' problem-solving abilities by ensuring that all students in a team are actively involved with given tasks and able to serve as the team's spokesperson; to set an expectation that students will coach/teach one another (positive interdependence).


  1. Assign identities to each student within the team. You can have students simply number off (1,2,3,4) or use some other method such as playing card suits (heart, diamond, spade, club) or colored post-it notes (red, green, blue, and yellow, for example).
  2. Assign a challenging task that each team must complete together. In large classes, different teams can tackle different tasks. It might be questions in response to a case study (Management); a worksheet where students identify the parts of a flower (Botany); or an ill-defined problem in Engineering or Economics.
  3. Set a time limit. Tell students that you will not allow teams to select the spokesperson if they are called on to report back to the class. You will determine just prior to the report which student will speak based on their “identities” – for example, students with the yellow post-it notes will serve as spokespeople.
  4. Encourage teams to ensure that all members can articulate the team’s solution. This requirement means that all students are likely, if not to actively contribute, at least to pay attention. It also encourages students to request and offer clarifications and to engage in peer coaching.

Results: This approach discourages high achievers from dominating and slackers from "goofing off." It also means that you will hear from students who would rarely volunteer responses. You will find that they are more willing and more able to serve as team spokesperson because the selection process is not personal and because team coaching builds their confidence: they are providing a team response, rather than an individual one

Because students work at different speeds, it is useful to give each team a "sponge" or "extension" activity to move on to if they complete the originally assigned task. This ensures that the students stay focused on course content and allows teams to move on to more challenging activities rather than fritter away unused time in off-task "chit-chat."

Conclude the activity: In-class reports from all teams would be repetitious.  Use "luck of the draw,"—particularly in large classes—to determine which person in which team will report.  Draw cards from a deck matching teams and student identities:  “I just drew the jack of hearts.  Will the person in that team please summarize your group’s solutions to the problem?”  


  • An, Y-J. (2010). Scaffolding Wiki-Based, Ill-Structured Problem Solving in an Online Learning Environment. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6 (4). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol6no4/an_1210.htm accessed Feb 23, 2011.
  • Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K. A. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
  • Millis, B. J., and Cottell, P. G., Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty, American Council on Education, Series on Higher Education. The Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ.
  • Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Barbara Millis
Teaching and Learning Center
University of Texas at San Antonio

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