By Nicole Tuttle, Department of Chemistry and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching 

Homework assignments typically make up the majority of the time that your students will spend interacting with the material for your class. Writing well-designed homework and problem sets is therefore a worthwhile investment of your time. We offer these strategies to help you prepare these assignments.

Write questions that reflect the course material

Begin by defining the content knowledge and skills that you want students to master. (Reference the CTL paper related to learning goals here.) As you write questions, make sure that they focus students’ practice on achieving those goals.

Vary questions to incorporate lower- and higher-order skills

To encourage higher-order thinking, write questions that require students to recall content knowledge AND critically analyze or use that knowledge. Benjamin Bloom, a former faculty member of the University of Chicago, classified these cognitive skills from lowest to highest order. The elements of his famous taxonomy are outlined below (taken from Tools for Teaching, 1993) and give a sense of the kinds of questions to write in problem sets.

Knowledge: common terms, facts, principles, and procedures

Ask these kinds of questions: Define, Describe, List, Name, Outline

Example: “List the steps involved in titration.”

Comprehension: understanding of facts and principles, interpretation of material

Ask these kinds of questions: Explain, Generalize, Give examples, Infer, Predict

Example: “Summarize the basic tenets of deconstructionism.”

Application: solving problems, applying concepts and principles to new situations

Ask these kinds of questions: Demonstrate, Prepare, Relate, Show, Solve, Use

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

Analysis: recognition of unstated assumptions or logical fallacies, ability to distinguish between facts and inferences

Ask these kinds of questions: Distinguish, Illustrate, Infer, Relate, Select

Example: In the president’s State of the Union address, which statements are based on facts and which are based on assumptions?”

Synthesis: integrate learning from different areas or solve problems by creative thinking

Ask these kinds of questions: Categorize, Design, Generate, Organize, Reconstruct

Example: “How would you restructure the school day to reflect children’s developmental needs?”

Evaluation: judging and assessing

Ask these kinds of questions: Appraise, Compare, Criticize, Justify, Interpret, Support

Example: Why is Bach’s Mass in B Minor acknowledged as a classic?”

Write problems that link to reading or discussion topics

Rather than asking students to answer abstracted questions (e.g. “What is the standard deviation of this set of numbers?”), connect the problems directly to readings or class discussion by asking them to assess claims or test theories from the course (e.g. “Author A predicts that we should see certain kinds of trends/outcomes. Do your results support this hypothesis?”)

Do all the problems yourself before giving them to students

Catch problems before it is too late by doing the problems in advance. This also helps you estimate the time it will take students to accomplish the problem set. One rule of thumb is that a problem that you can do in two minutes will take students ten minutes.

Provide plenty of practice

Write questions for each learning goal over two different assignments. Beginning an assignment with review material builds students’ confidence for the assignment ahead.

Promote meta-cognitive thinking about their work

Ask students to describe in words how they solved one or more problem in the assignment. This will help you see their thinking processes and help them develop problem-solving skills.

References

  • Bloom, B.S. (ed.). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay, 1956.
  • Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Fuhrman, B.S., and Grasha, A.F. A Practical Handbook for College Teachers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.