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Using Collaborative Problem Solving to Improve Learning

Collaborative problem solving is an active learning strategy that promotes a richer understanding of course content, application, and significance than traditional lecture-based pedagogy. When students participate in collaborative problem solving, they not only learn course content, but they also practice critical process skills, including information

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In this high-tech era teachers often look askance at blackboards, most of which aren’t even black any more. Blackboards are something math instructors still scribble on, and are good for leaning against, although they dust your clothing and make you sneeze. And we all cringe

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Whiteboards as an Alternative to Discussion Forums

Online teachers generally assume that student discussion and collaboration should occur in a learning management system’s (LMS’s) discussion forum. But for certain uses, online whiteboards work better than the LMS due to their fundamentally different design.

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Collaborative problem solving is an active learning strategy that promotes a richer understanding of course content, application, and significance than traditional lecture-based pedagogy. When students participate in collaborative problem solving, they not only learn course content, but they also practice critical process skills, including information processing, problem solving, and critical thinking. Additionally, collaboration fosters process skills like teamwork, oral and written communication, self-management, and leadership. Research has shown that student populations that learn these process skills experience increased confidence and self-efficacy (De Gale & Boisselle, 2015). In our courses, we have found collaborative problem solving beneficial for addressing three key student learning goals: factual recall, concept review, and content skill building (e.g., stoichiometry in a chemistry course).

While there are countless ways to facilitate collaborative problem solving, we have found gamification via quizzing apps and collaboration via online visual whiteboards to be highly effective across all learning modalities (virtual, online, and hybrid). Quizzing apps are well suited for factual recall and concept review, while whiteboards are better for concept skill building. Here we present apps that are ideal for each purpose.

Collaborative quizzing for factual recall and concept review

Factual recall and concept review require that students know the material and can quickly regurgitate information. Quizzing apps by their nature may be timed and multiple choice, a format that works best when rapid recognition of key content and facts is the objective. We have used quizzing apps to incorporate low or no-stakes assessments as pre-tests to assess students’ prior knowledge, as check-ins to monitor student progress and inform in-class activities, and as reviews before summative assessments. But they can also be used collaboratively.

Kahoot! is a free (with a paid version), web-based student response system that provides instant feedback for students and instructors. With its game show–like design, it is a robust tool for practicing factual recall and reviewing concepts in a team setting. At the end of every question, students can see who is leading and by how many points, and the background music helps build excitement, contributing to a competitive experience.

For both instructors and students, Kahoot! is highly intuitive. Instructors can use questions from their own question banks or from another instructor. They can choose the time limit for each question and include images or videos as hints for students. Students can log on from any browser or device (phone, tablet, or computer). They receive points based on the number of correct answers and time spent answering the questions. That students can play during or after class provides additional flexibility. On the back end, Kahoot! tracks and reports which questions students missed and which students are struggling.

When played in teams, Kahoot! allows students to discuss the questions and then choose consensus answers, thus increasing peer-to-peer learning and providing opportunities for them to practice communication and critical thinking skills. To ensure that students discuss the query rather than try to win points, we typically provide extra time to answer questions. One drawback of team mode is that the app does not record team participants’ names; independently tracking the names of students in each group can help navigate this challenge.

Students have good things to say about Kahoot! They appreciate the immediate feedback and opportunities to ask their peers for help. One potential issue is that some students find note-taking difficult during such a fast-paced activity. Adding additional time for questions can help slow the pace of the Kahoot! so that students who need to write down information can do so.

Online whiteboards for content skill-building

Class time is an opportunity for students to engage in active learning by practicing essential course skills. A key skill for a physics course might involve calculating the current passing through a resistor; for an algebra class, the skill could be solving the quadratic formula. Rather than asking students to solve problems individually, consider having them work collaboratively on a series of problems with various difficulty levels. Online collaborative whiteboards are another excellent tool for easily tracking the entire class’s progress in real time. Instructors can use these and open-ended questions to probe student thought processes more deeply than they can with quizzing apps, which are multiple choice by default and only show whether a student is right or wrong. With this richer level of detail, instructors can pinpoint specific errors and misunderstandings and make rapid adjustments to learning activities according to student needs. Furthermore, online whiteboards allow instructors to use more complex active learning activities, such as peer review.

Using online whiteboards for impromptu problem solving

Online whiteboards are useful in both unstructured and structured settings. Perhaps you would like to conduct a simple check-in of a skill on the fly. In such instances, an online collaborative whiteboard where you can write questions by hand and students can quickly write their responses may be the most appropriate. There are numerous online collaborative whiteboards, including Lucidspark, SketchTogether, Miro, Stormboard, Microsoft Whiteboard, and MURAL. Due to its simple, intuitive user interface, we have found Microsoft Whiteboard to be particularly effective for incorporating skill check-ins on the fly.

Accessible via a Microsoft account, Microsoft Whiteboard, is a free, user-friendly application that allows users to draw and add sticky notes, images, and more. Below is an example of student responses to an unstructured skills check-in an organic chemistry course. Note the simplicity of the layout: the focus is squarely on the students’ work.

Handwritten questions with student responses and instructor feedback using Microsoft Whiteboard.  The questions involve nomenclature of alkanes
Figure 1. An example of an impromptu organic chemistry skills check-in using Microsoft Whiteboard

Student feedback about Microsoft Whiteboard has been overwhelmingly positive. Students enjoyed interacting with their peers and discussing problems both in and outside the classroom. They also reported that these activities helped them improve their critical thinking abilities and aptitude for problem solving.

Using online whiteboards for highly structured activities

Perhaps your students are ready to synthesize course concepts and apply what they know in new and creative ways. In this instance, consider using an online collaborative whiteboard for highly structured skill-building activities featuring detailed instructions and explicit learning outcomes. Importantly, highly structured activities allow the instructor to incorporate more complex active learning strategies such as student-generated questions and peer review. As always, because active learning can occupy substantial amounts of class time, consider using a flipped or “tipped” classroom (Bayraktar, 2021) to ensure successful delivery of all course information.

We have found the online visual whiteboard MURAL to be particularly well suited for highly structured skill-building activities, offering an improved alternative to Microsoft Whiteboard. Unlike Microsoft Whiteboard, which requires a Microsoft subscription fee, educators can create up to five free MURALS, and students can join a MURAL without creating an account. In contrast to Microsoft Whiteboard, which comes with about 50 simple pre-built templates, MURAL is highly visual and features hundreds of colorful, engaging templates for educators, ranging from team-building exercises to group study boards. All MURAL board elements are entirely customizable, and facilitators can easily lock elements.

Colorful and detailed MURAL template with a world map and multiple spaces for student-generated work.
Figure 2. Example of a team warm-up template in MURAL

Because the infinite whiteboard of MURAL can initially feel overwhelming, it is important to provide opportunities for students to practice using MURAL’s tools before their first official activity. The pre-built obstacle course template works well for this purpose.

Students seemed extremely engaged while using MURAL. Notably, they were able to apply course concepts in ways they never had before.

Below is a summary of the three apps, including applicable student learning goals, key pedagogical features, and active learning types.

 Kahoot!Microsoft WhiteboardMURAL
Student learning goal   
Factual recall  
Concept review
Content skill-building 
Key features   
Minimal prep time  
Pre-built templates
Real-time feedback
Active learning type   
Quizzing  
Student-generated questions
Peer review 
Table 1. Overview of Kahoot!, Microsoft Whiteboard, and MURAL for collaborative problem solving

Conclusion

We have found three web-based apps to be particularly well-suited for team-based problem-solving activities: Kahoot!, a quizzing app; Microsoft Whiteboard; and MURAL, a visual collaboration tool. The benefits and applications of these apps include serving as formative assessment for students, ease of use across multiple devices, and the instructors’ ability to build a reservoir of activities to gauge student understanding. Using these apps consistently increases student engagement and provides opportunities for practicing key process skills.

References

Bayraktor, B. (2021, September 28). Tip: The “tipped” classroom. Tips for Teaching Professors. https://higheredpraxis.substack.com/p/tip-the-tipped-classroom

De Gale, S., & Boisselle, L. N. (2015). The effect of POGIL on academic performance and academic confidence. Science Education International, 26(1), 56–79. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1056455.pdf


Gifty Blankson, PhD, is an assistant professor of biochemistry, Anuradha Vummenthala, PhD, is the assistant dean of natural sciences and an associate professor of chemistry, and Natalie Ulrich, PhD, is an assistant professor of chemistry, all at Maryville University.