Article Pedagogy

Using Cooperative Group Problem Solving to Promote Classroom Discussion

Joe Muise
Written by Joe Muise

Through my first years of teaching, I noticed a decline in students’ willingness to engage in challenging problems. I also felt the need to promote discussion between my students about the physics that they were doing – to find a way to encourage them to see physics as a cooperative process, rather than something done in isolation. This was reinforced by former students who had gone on to study engineering who felt it important that high school students spend more time in collaborative situations.

After reading Randall D. Knight’s Five Easy Lessons – Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching1, I decided to give Cooperative Group Problem Solving in Physics2, as developed by Kenneth and Patricia Keller of the University of Minnesota’s Physics Education Research and Development Group.  

After a bit of research3, it seemed like adding a collaborative piece like this would accomplish my goals, as collaborative approaches tend to promote critical thinking skills; develop social support system for learners; and involve students actively in the learning process. 

The Questions

As the goal of Cooperative Group Problem Solving is to help generate student discussion, I have felt it important to build questions that wouldn’t be solved with an approach that involved pulling all of the numbers out of the given question and then calculating. When looking at cars turning and going around a non-banked curve, I have them look up the coefficient of friction for tires, and use Google Maps to determine the radius of curvature for an off-ramp of their choice. In a gravitation question, they have to pick an altitude that lies within the thermosphere, on the way to calculating the sampling rate for a CubeSat over the South Pole. To further reinforce that this is a different activity than our regular problem-solving activities, I print the questions on a formatted 11 x 17 inch (size A3) sheet like the one below.

Forming groups

In Cooperative Group Problem Solving, students are divided into groups of three or four, with assigned roles (table 1). At first, students have found these roles to be awkward and restrictive, but soon realize that everyone really works to solve problems and these roles are what they try to fall back on when they get stuck. 

Manager: Keeps the group on track to complete the problemSkeptic: Suggests alternate ideas, and makes sure that the group is seeing all of the angles
Recorder: Scribe of the group; checks for understanding in all membersEnergizer: Suggests new ideas; 
Table 1:  Group roles in Cooperative Group Problem Solving

After a bit of testing, I have found seems that three is the ideal group size, with the manager, recorder and skeptic present. I only add the energizer when I don’t have smooth groups of three. I also try to never have groups of two, as the conversation has a higher chance to end up being one-sided. The students stay in the same group for a unit of the course, but rotate roles each new question. I shuffle the groups between units.

Of particular interest to me were the recommendations for group formation in the Cooperative Group Problem Solving documentation – that groups should be formed of either three male students, three female students, or two female and one male student.   The rationale is to prevent female voices from being ignored.

“I don’t know where to start.” “Why don’t we try this?”

Adding Cooperative Group Problem Solving to my classes required a leap of faith on my part, and a generous amount of buy-in from my students. The first time through with any group always starts with silence and confusion as they come to terms with the fact that they can’t just grab an equation and start calculator work. They are bothered by the fact that this format requires them to estimate values, or go look up data that they might need for the question. But soon, in every group, someone stepped up and said “Hey, why don’t we try this?” or “this sort of relates to stuff we were doing last class” and from there the conversations started, and it was really some of the best student-to-student dialogue I’ve had in my classes.

Circulating the room during discussion, it is clear that students are discussing physics.  Conversations jump from determining what the question is asking, to what they know and don’t know. It then shifts to what thinks they have to assume and what the how they can apply the equations. By the end of the first round they are debating the details of their work in really involved conversations. Some students that normally hadn’t engaged in conversations in class were quite vocal in explaining to their peers why they should be taking their point of view.

I have surveyed student opinions on this format, and over 80 percent of students found this format more enjoyable than traditional problem solving, and over 90 percent reported that cooperative problem solving required them to think creatively about physics in a way that hadn’t previously. Upon the completion of a cooperative problem solving session, one student reported “This is really cool – I had to think a lot to solve this one. I’m not sure I like that!”  Students also found the need to look up and estimate values, which was an interesting change. It becomes less about just using formulas and more about thinking critically.”  Others reported that they found it interesting that they “could all have different answers, and all still be correct”

Feedback like the above quotes, and observing the dynamics in the classroom during these sessions, has firmly convinced me that cooperative problem solving is a good fit for my classroom.

I have been using Cooperative Group Problem Solving for a few years now, and it definitely provides a nice change of pace from other lessons that we do. Once students are familiar with the format, these sessions can be as quick as twenty-five minutes, nicely fitting into the end of a block when time allows.

1.  Knight, R. D. (2004). Five easy lessons: Strategies for successful physics teaching. San Francisco, Calif: Addison Wesley.


3.  Benefits of Cooperative Learning (

Featured photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

About the author

Joe Muise

Joe Muise

Joe has been teaching physics and astronomy for 16 years in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. In addition to teaching, he has a strong interest in Physics Pro-D, and finding experiential learning opportunities for his students. He has brought students to the Canadian Light Source to run experiments at the synchrotron, and had students competing in the ESA CanSat competition. Joe can be found on Twitter @jm_muise

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