Designing Problem Sets

Designing Problem Sets

For decades problem sets have been used in science, mathematics, and engineering courses but over the last decade or so they have found their way into courses in the humanities and social sciences, business, law and medicine.

The DePaul University Teaching Commons site offers very specific problem set design strategies, along with techniques for matching learning goals to assignment types, followed by a list of resources to use for specific types of assignments.

The University of California, Santa Barbara, Office of Instructional Development gives some specific considerations to consider in designing such problem sets including such factors as alignment with course goals, weightings, overlap checks, feedback expected from students, etc.

Barbara Gross Davis’ classic, Tools for Teaching (second edition, 2009), has an entire chapter on problem sets.  The chapter begins by looking at general strategies to keep in mind such as:

  • distributing the workload evenly throughout the term,
  • deciding when you want announce homework assignments,
  • conveying the goal of each assignment, and,
  • limiting the amount of class time devoted to reviewing homework.

The author then goes on to looking at the specifics of preparing problem sets such as:

  • making the first assignment a review,
  • coordinating problem sets with course topics,
  • creating meaningful assignments,
  • being selective in your choice of problems, and
  • culling problems sets from a variety of sources.

The original 1993 edition continues to offer some very useful advice on how to align problem set design with student learning levels.  Here are some examples:

Measuring Knowledge

To measure Knowledge (common terms, facts, principles, procedures), ask these kinds of questions: Define, Describe, Identify, Label, List, Match, Name, Outline, Reproduce, Select, State.

Example:  "List the steps involved in titration."

Your Example:

Measuring Comprehension

To measure Comprehension (understanding of facts and principles, interpretation of material), ask these kinds of questions: Convert, Defend, Distinguish, Estimate, Explain, Extend, Generalize, Give examples, Infer, Predict, Summarize.

Example:  "Summarize the basic tenets of deconstructionism."

Your example:

Measuring Application

To measure Application (solving problems, applying concepts and principles to new situations), ask these kinds of questions: Demonstrate, Modify, Operate, Prepare, Produce, Relate, Show, Solve, Use.

Example:  "Calculate the deflection of a beam under uniform loading."

Your example:

Measuring Analysis

To measure Analysis (recognition of unstated assumptions or logical fallacies, ability to distinguish between facts and inferences, breaking down into component parts, seeing the hierarchy of ideas), ask these kinds of questions: Diagram, Differentiate, Distinguish, Illustrate, Infer, Point out, Relate, Select, Separate, Subdivide.

Example:  "In the President's State of the Union address, which statements are based on facts and which are based on assumptions?"

Your example:

Measuring Synthesis

To measure Synthesis (integrate learning from different areas, solve problems by creative thinking, produce something new or original from component parts), ask these types of questions: Categorize, Combine, Compile, Devise, Design, Explain, Generate, Organize, Plan, Rearrange, Reconstruct, Revise, Tell.

Example:  "How would you reconstruct the school day to reflect children's developmental needs?"

Your example:

Measuring Evaluation

To measure Evaluation (judging, assessing), ask these types of questions: Appraise, Compare, Conclude, Contrast, Criticize, Describe, Discriminate, Explain, Justify, Interpret, Support.

Example:  "Why is Bach's Mass in B Minor acknowledged as a classic?"

     Your example:

See Also

We offer some excellent Course Preparation Resources that you can take advantage of in the preparation of problem sets and related learning tools.