Cooperative pair problem solving: a teaching-learning strategy for tutorials in mechanical engineering thermodynamics
Van Niekerk, W.M.K.
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This study was conducted to find a solution to the problem of poor pass rates in the first introductory thermodynamics course that I teach, as well as to address the perception of students that the course is very demanding and the concepts difficult to understand. Using pair programming and pair problem solving as departure points, a cooperative teaching-learning strategy that can be implemented during problem-solving tutorials (CPPS) was developed. The procedure was developed to be suitable for large classes of a hundred students or more, but is also suitable for classes with fewer students. A theoretical framework for CPPS was developed based on the social cognitive theory, the social constructivist theory, and the social interdependence theory. To evaluate the success of CPPS, empirical data was collected using qualitative and quantitative methods. The qualitative methods used were interviews with students, a questionnaire with six open-ended questions completed by the student assistants, observer reports, the researcher's journal, and two open-ended questions in a student questionnaire. The quantitative methods consisted of a test written by the students assessing their conceptual understanding, a questionnaire with Likert-scale statements filled in by the students, and data over four years on academic performance. It was found that the five elements of cooperative learning were successfully structured in CPPS. The procedure was well worth the effort of implementation for several reasons. It dramatically reduced the teaching load of the instructor during the tutorial due to peer instruction and active learning. The implementation of the procedure was made significantly easier by using a laptop for group formation and having the students submit their answers on a dedicated website using their cell phones. Attending CPPS tutorials improved students' academic performance, but had no effect on their conceptual understanding. Generally, students were positive about the procedure. Some did not like specific aspects at all, such as the fact that they could not choose their own partners. Others did not mind or even welcomed the opportunity to meet new people. An explanation for the difference in student attitudes towards working with strangers is proposed. CPPS is a well-structured, easy to implement, cooperative teaching-learning strategy suitable even for large groups of hundred students or more in engineering-science problem-solving tutorials. CPPS creates an effective teaching-learning environment and results in a positive and cheerful atmosphere in class.
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