Peer Review

Advancing Student Success through Faculty Intentionality in Problem-Centered Learning

Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York (Queensborough) is a minority-serving institution with over 16,000 students who originate from approximately 140 countries and more than a third of whom speak a language other than English. A majority of our students (more than 70 percent) transfer to senior colleges or universities, and others obtain the necessary skills for career advancement. As part of the Queensborough Academies plan for student success, the college offers seven high-impact practices (HIPs): writing-intensive courses, academic service-learning, learning communities, collaborative assignments and projects, common intellectual experiences, undergraduate research, and global and diversity learning—in each of its five academies: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM); Liberal Arts; Visual and Performing Arts; Health-Related Sciences; and Business.

Our Advancing Student Success through Faculty Intentionality in Problem-Centered Learning project team is composed of faculty who regularly employ HIPs and are experienced in the assessment of student learning. Each team member conducts research related to teaching and learning and reflects on their own teaching practice to enhance student success. We are scholars within our disciplines of mathematics, biology, sociology, English, speech and communication, and educational psychology. The members of the project team actively serve on various college committees and initiatives, including serving on the college’s Senate and General Education Task Force.

When the AAC&U project call for proposals was announced, Queensborough immediately recognized this as a valuable opportunity for our college to (1) support our faculty professional development; (2) support our general education reform efforts; (3) learn effective ways to assess HIPs; and (4) enable our faculty to participate in national research of transparent problem-centered learning for the benefit of student success.

Participation in this project is well aligned with our college’s strategic vision to increase student equity and access to quality HIPs. In support of these goals, this project benefits our students and can serve as a model for other colleges and universities. Queensborough’s participation in this project enabled our faculty to collaborate with faculty from other educational institutions and to assess and enhance student learning for underserved students. In the following sections we describe our experiences with the project including the most critical dimensions and essential elements, the integration process, student responses, challenges, and future opportunities.

Critical Dimensions of Transparency and Essential Elements in Implementation

Through this project, we determined the following three critical dimensions that make courses and assignments more transparent for students (1) set clear goals and expectations, (2) select transparency strategies to be implemented at optimal times, and (3) provide students with specific criteria for which they will be evaluated. Implementing these critical dimensions in courses and assignments provides a framework that encourages students to be thoroughly engaged in their coursework. For this project, students were asked to clearly define a problem providing evidence from different contextual factors; find multiple approaches in trying to solve the problem; and justify and evaluate their solutions using logical reasoning and examples from their life, culture, or society.

At different points throughout the semester, we employed the following eight transparency strategies to help ensure that our students could clearly understand how to successfully complete their assignments:

  1. Engage in extensive in-class discussions on assignment learning goals, requirements, and expectations;
  2. Scaffold the assignments;
  3. Directly link assignments with the identified course learning outcomes;
  4. Word assignments clearly and provide a rationale for choosing the assignment;
  5. Allow students to explore the topic and voice their opinions;
  6. Assess whether the students and the instructor share the same notion of transparency and adjust as needed;
  7. Connect assignments to real-world applications and provide opportunities for reflection; and
  8. Articulate clear guidelines for evaluation.

Encouraging students to frequently reflect on the significance and relevance of the work in relation to the real world was an integral component of identifying the purpose of the assignment. We added emphasis on “real-world” reasons for knowing the material and making direct connections between the assignments and the theoretical concepts students had to learn.

We scaffolded the assignments to provide the optimal amount of support students needed, and then we gradually removed those scaffolds as our students became more proficient in their problem-solving abilities. We also used the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric as a model to organize the different sections of the assignments. Simultaneously, we made sure that, at the content level, the assignments had the same parameters and language of the highest levels of the rubric.

Transparency strategies were used in order to help students understand the purpose of the task and meet the requirements stated in the assignments and in the rubric. We asked ourselves how much information should we provide our students, and at what point in the class? This was to ensure that we were providing the students with the optimal amount of information to enhance their learning. Students were presented with and encouraged to use assessment tools and sample essays, such as an annotated version of essay samples, together with outcomes assessment sheets, which delineate the criteria for assessment of the students’ work. We engaged students in class discussions on the assignments’ requirements and expectations, explaining the content and the goals of the assignments. Further, we made use of technology platforms, such as Blackboard’s discussion board, where students could retrieve detailed assignment outlines and instructions and discuss their questions online.

Integrating Students’ Learned Experiences into the Design of a Problem-Based Assignment

At Queensborough, participating faculty integrated students’ learned experiences into the design of a problem-based assignment in the following three ways: (1) grounding the assignment in students’ experiences, (2) demonstrating the utility of problem-based assignments, and (3) regularly asking students to revisit their experiences. The significance of each of these ways suited a specific moment in the unfolding of the problem-based assignment; participating faculty often drew on all three in the course of the semester.

The process of grounding the assignment in students’ experiences included selecting a problem that was of inherent interest to students. For example, one faculty member related certain mathematics concepts to transfer data in higher education (which is of use to Queensborough students tasked with the “problem” of moving beyond an associate’s degree). Another faculty member chose to demonstrate the problem’s significance to her students. Describing how she used a fifty-question pre-assessment survey to reveal the problem’s relevance, she stated, “this survey sparked a lot of interest and questions from the students as the survey inquiries were directly related to everyday living.” Still other faculty selected problems that were reflective of the diverse contexts in which Queensborough’s students are known to live and learn, focusing on “problems” related to culture, language, and/or ethnicity.

Demonstrating the utility of the course material to students’ future learning (and lived) experiences was the second approach. For instance, one faculty member designed her entire sociology course around students’ professional aspirations, demonstrating how the unique perspective and methods of the discipline can help students both predict and better understand society’s career trends and needs. Another faculty member showed students how the statistical techniques that guided their multicriteria decision making in matters of college transfer could also help them evaluate FICO scores and have a better understanding of other matters of post-college financial planning.

A third way was to ask students to revisit their learning experiences on a regular basis, as the project—and the semester—unfolded. For example, the faculty members who focused on ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity asked students to reflect on issues of miscommunication in light of each newly learned concept and theory. While this reexamination added nuance to students’ understanding of the “problem” or issue at hand, it also demonstrated the relevance and importance of each of the concepts and theories learned.

How Students Responded

As demonstrated, one of the key features of Queensborough’s implementation of this project was the integration of the students’ personal and academic aspects of their life. An outcome of this integration was that students responded with greater and deeper engagement towards the academic subjects they studied. For example, in a biology class, the students were engaged by the thematic pre-survey which aimed to determine the students’ prior knowledge on the course topic. Because the survey included questions related to everyday living, the students related to these questions, which prompted spirited in-class discussions. The lively conversations which students conducted in the experimental class demonstrated that they were able to understand the academic concepts and their practical applicability. During the students’ PowerPoint presentations on various global issues, they discussed their personal stances and supported their positions with findings from the literature.

Across the disciplines in which our problem-based courses were taught, students demonstrated enthusiasm for the practical application of the concepts and, in some cases, made surprising discoveries and important professional progress. In a communications class, students became aware that conflicts do not simply emerge from personal issues but are the product of the speakers’ cultures. One student analyzed the differences in hosting a dinner in China and in the United States. In the Chinese collectivistic culture, when guests are asked whether they would like more food, they are expected to respond negatively. The host ignores the negative answer and proceeds to place more food on the plates. Whereas, in the United States, a negative response in the same situation is generally perceived at face value and the guests would not be given more food. Before this, students completed the transparent problem-solving assignment, she explained that the differences are based on personal preferences. However, after completing the assignment, this student was able to conclude that the differences are cultural rather than personal.

Students’ personal insights were also noticed in an introduction to literature course. One student continually emphasized that the assignment inspired him to research his cultural heritage, with which he was only vaguely familiar at the beginning of the semester, on an even deeper level. In addition, he claimed that as a result of both assignments, he planned to visit the country of his ancestors and to continue his investigation not only through reading about the country but also through experiencing its environment personally and perhaps by reestablishing lost family connections.

While students’ positive responses are always a welcome ingredient in the classroom, in some cases faculty needed to seek ways to motivate students to examine the course concepts rather than only focusing on their practical application. In a statistics course, several students showed less interest in the core course concepts of weighted mean and relative risk and were significantly more attentive to the concepts’ practical applicability, such as FICO score calculations and multiple-criteria decision making related to deciding to which school they might transfer.

Students demonstrated much enthusiasm for the practical application of the academic concepts in a sociology course. The course focused on concepts such as culture, socialization, identity, and structural inequality, as well as on fieldwork and other research methods. Students were most interested in the ways in which these concepts connected to their career pursuits. Two students were even able to find internships through the problem-based assignments.

Most Prevalent Challenges and Opportunities for Student Success

The problem-solving rubric and the use of transparency methods provides a useful framework for faculty and students in operationalizing transparency and problem-based assignment constructs while still allowing for variability in choice and interpretation. The rubric articulates the process of problem-solving well with the understanding that what qualifies as a “problem” varies among disciplines. More so, assignments that would normally be accepted as problem-centered may not incorporate some dimensions of the problem-solving process. Given the range of disciplines involved and the diversity of our students, it became apparent that we should remain flexible in the process of implementing transparent, problem-centered assignments.

There were several factors that we needed to consider and adjust for when designing effective problem-centered assignments. Our introductory general education courses serve a diverse student population, and we sought to develop assignments that met the academic level of the course but which also considered students’ preparation level. Integrating problem solving can present a challenge to introductory courses where knowledge acquisition and comprehension are typically the primary goals. At the same time, it provided an opportunity to increase student engagement and improve academic performance in these courses. It helped that we sought assignments with real-world problems that would seem relevant to the students’ lives. This led to students being more accepting of the problem-solver role.

We recognize the challenge of engaging students in their coursework to help ensure their academic success. This project has provided a meaningful experience for our students and for our project team. There is great potential for more faculty to participate in professional development activities in designing transparent, problem-centered assignments, implementing these approaches in their classes, and enhancing learning for our students in a most significant way. 

Andrea Salis, faculty fellow for the Office of Academic Affairs and assistant professor, health education; Franca Ferrari-Bridgers, assistant professor, speech communications and theatre arts; Simran Kaur, associate professor, biological sciences and geology; Kostas Stroumbakis, assistant professor, mathematics and computer science; Amy Traver, associate professor, sociology and education; Tanya Zhelezcheva, assistant professor, English—all of Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York    


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