Towards the Effective Implementation of Collaborative Problem Solving in Undergraduate Engineering Classrooms: Co-Designing Guidelines for Teaching Assistants

Document Type

Conference Paper

Journal/Book Title/Conference

ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings




American Society for Engineering Education

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Typically, in higher education STEM classes, teaching assistants (TAs) perform teaching duties such as leading and running discussion sections where students apply concepts they have encountered in lectures. Nevertheless, research studies show that TAs struggle to effectively implement collaborative problem solving activities. One contributing factor is the lack of actual guidelines that can help TAs translate the theoretical ideas about implementing collaborative problem solving into concrete actions. This paper presents guidelines that can be used by TAs to implement collaborative problem solving activities in undergraduate engineering classrooms. Three researchers and two engineering teaching assistants participated in two, two-hour long workshops and co-designed the guidelines as part of a design-based implementation research project (blinded for review) that aims to develop tools to support collaborative learning in undergraduate engineering courses. Both workshops were audio recorded. Two researchers extracted the teaching strategies the team discussed during the workshops. All members of the team were asked to review the guidelines separately, and then met to approve and finalize the guidelines. The co-designed guidelines can be implemented at the beginning, during, and end of class to support students’ collaboration. In order to set the stage for effective collaboration to happen, TAs need to stress the importance of developing collaborative practices as a major objective of the course. They need to create common expectations and understanding of collaboration with the students and embed collaboration in the assessment metrics for the course. At the beginning of class, the TAs need to remind students to create a joint space to explore and test out solutions as a group; giving them details about the task-related concepts and procedures during the introductions can hinder this process. During class and before intervening TAs need to monitor a group to diagnose the group’s difficulties and decide if an intervention is necessary. When TAs intervene, providing the group with explicit problem solving procedures or answers takes away the need to co-construct knowledge. Instead, TAs can ask group members to check their answers with each other. They can also demonstrate desired collaborative behaviors to groups by addressing all group members when speaking and by challenging students’ ideas. At the end of class, TAs need to discuss different groups’ answers and ask students to comment on successful collaborative instances. The co-designed guidelines were used by the TAs to create concrete collaborative tips that can help future TAs facilitate collaboration when students are working on specific worksheets. They can also be used to inform the content of preparation programs that aim at helping TAs better perform their teaching duties. Future studies must assess the impact of using these guidelines on how TAs implement collaborative problem solving activities in undergraduate engineering classes. They must also assess the impact of using these guidelines on the TAs’ perceptions of collaboration and the development of teaching practices to orchestrate collaborative problem solving classrooms.

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