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The Problem with Students Who Won't Problem Solve

This semester I am teaching two sections of Web Page Design. This is the third year that I have taught the class at the high school level, but I still struggle with some of the same issues.

The two sections of the class are like night and day. The first class has some really good problem solvers and the students are able to process the coding that we are working with to create some really nice work. The second class has few students with problem solving skills and they all seem to rely on me when "something is wrong with my project." Sometimes I wonder: "How can two classes from the same student body be so different?"

The other day I assigned a due date for a simple project we have been working on in class over several weeks. Only three students within the first class didn't complete the assignment on time and needed additional help to complete the assignment. In the second class, only three students completed the assignment on time. Almost the entire class was waiting for me to help them with their projects!

I have one student who requires a predominant amount of my time during the class time to complete his work. He constantly is asking me "What do I do next?" or "Why won't this work?" I try to treat this student as I do all my students, as I tend to answer questions with a question. I try to get my students to think through the problem to find their own answer. This can be extremely frustrating for some students, as they have been trained to expect the teacher to always give them the answer.

I wish there were some way to teach students to become better problem solvers. Wouldn't it be nice if teaching students to problem solve was similar to correcting students' coding errors?

Dave Burkhart
CSTA Task Force Chair


Sounds like you're doing a fine job. Certainly can't expect every student to become better problem solvers at the same pace. Perhaps the one batch has never been forced to develop answers on their own.

I have no easy solution to the problem of lack of problem-solving background. There are no substitutes for both practice and persistence, and some students seem to have a lot of catching up to do in both areas.

But I can offer one answer to your first question ("How can two classes from the same student body be so different?") Having been responsible for scheduling at a couple of schools, I've seen this sort of unintentional grouping happen frequently, due to the OTHER courses that the students are taking.

Here's an over-simplified example: suppose Web Page Design has two sections, in Periods 1 and 2. An Honors Algebra course is scheduled in Period 2. Any student who signed up for both WPD and Honors Algebra would be put into your Period 1 WPD section. And to achieve a balance in class sizes, students who aren't taking Honors Algebra would be placed in Period 2. So now your "non-grouped" course has inadvertently been divided into levels.

It wouldn't have to be a math course; it could be any course whose prerequisite courses have expected students to solve problems and complete their assignments, even when they're challenging. So the difference in the problem-solving expectations (and level of practice) in those previous courses leads (indirectly) to differences like those you're observing in your own sections.

(Scheduling is really a huge Discrete Math problem, but that's a topic for another day!)

Ben and Debbie, Thanks to both of you for your comments. Debbie, I never thought about this as a scheduling issue. This makes complete sense.

I wholeheartedly agree with Debbie. I have four sections of AP Computer Science. Two of my classes are polar opposites: one is filled with regular math students and the other is filled almost entirely with honors math students. I truly believe this is due to the other courses they are taking. The first class is comprised mostly of students who need a lot of encouragement to start their task, while the second is filled with students who routinely finish early and are eager for more work.

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