How to Use the Pass-the-Problem Activity to Encourage Collaboration and Enhance Critical Thinking

Here's how you can use the Pass-the-Problem strategy in your classroom to encourage collaboration and promote critical thinking.It's an excellent activity for flipped classrooms and active learning environments.

I was first introduced to the "Pass-the-Problem" strategy from one of my colleagues who teaches Economics. We were planning to co-facilitate a classroom management workshop for graduate teaching assistants, and we wanted to introduce several case studies and "real world" scenarios. And we wanted to encourage students to talk with each other, ask questions, and share their own experiences.

That's when my colleague told me about the Pass-the-Problem strategy. With this strategy, we were able to design 6 case studies, and we analyzed all of them in our 90-minute workshop.

The students enjoyed the process of being involved in creating ideas to address some of the most challenging classroom management strategies. And as facilitators, we enjoyed the process of sharing our experience and referencing certain university policies without having to stand at the front of the room and lecture on and on about rules, regulations, and procedures.

Benefits of the Pass-the-Problem Strategy for Students

The Pass-the-Problem strategy is perfect for flipped and active learning classrooms. Why?
  • This activity places students in the center of the learning experience.
  • It challenges students to address complex issues from multiple perspectives.
  • It allows students to apply their experience and their knowledge of course content.
  • It allows more than one or two dominant voices to be heard.
  • It encourages students to come up with more than one solution to a problem.

Benefits of the Pass-the-Problem Strategy for Faculty

The Pass-the-Problem is valuable for faculty too! How?
  • You become more comfortable with how it feels when your role changes to a facilitator of learning rather than the lecturer.

  • It gives you an opportunity to get a little more comfortable with taking risks. Moving from lecturing to becoming a facilitator of learning can be risky. Sometimes we aren’t prepared for those feelings of uncertainty.

    When I lead professional development workshops, I always include candid conversations about the shifting role of the instructor in the flipped classroom. Your comfort level, your ability to harness those nerves, and your willingness to take risks significantly influence the success of the flipped learning experience. The Pass the Problem strategy allows you to address some of these challenges.

  • It allows you to hear many ideas from many of your students rather than just one or two perspectives from the students who are always the first to raise their hands.

  • It helps you sharpen or organization and classroom management skills. It does take some upfront planning, but once you know how to organize and structure the activity, you'll be ready to teach from the sidelines rather than from the front of the room.

  • It helps you practice "letting go" as you take on a more "passive" role in the classroom.

  • It’s a good strategy to try if you’re still managing a few nerves and want to practice your facilitation skills.

Let's see how the Pass-the-Problem strategy works in the classroom.

Flipped Strategy:  Pass the Problem (Note: The term "pass the problem" was published in Millis, B. J. & Cottell, P. G. Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education. Westport, CT: ACE/Oryx Press. pp. 103-105. However, this post is my own interpretation of that teaching strategy and includes adaptations based on my personal teaching experience, teaching style, learners, and recommendations from other colleagues who have tried the strategy. You may need to adapt this strategy to work with your teaching style and discipline as well.)

The Preparation:
  • Decide how many groups you want to create in your class. I’d recommend no more than 4 people in a group, just so everyone has time to contribute.
  • Write a problem or case study on a sheet of paper. The more complex, the better. Write the problem or case using a higher level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Think of problems or cases that require analysis, evaluation, and/or creativity skills.
  • Take the sheet of paper with the case, and staple or tape it to the outside of a large envelope (a 9x12 size for example). You will need one envelope per group, and each group should receive a different problem or case study. If you have a large class with many groups, you may decide to give the same case to multiple groups just to save your sanity.
  • Put several sheets of blank paper in the envelope. Don’t seal it.
The Process:
  • Once your students are in groups, give each group one envelope. Ask the students to read the problem or case study, discuss their responses, and then write their response on one of the blank sheets of paper in the envelope.
  • After you’ve given the students a certain amount of time to write their responses, call time and tell them to put their response, along with the extra sheets of blank paper, back into the envelope.
  • Ask each group to pass their envelope to the next group, going clockwise around the room.
  • Once they receive their envelope, ask the group to read the case BEFORE reading the previous group's response. Give them time to discuss their response and then ask them to open the envelope and read the previous groups’ response.
  • Their task is to add their own response without duplicating what has already been written by the previous group.
  • This process can be repeated for as many rounds as you want or for as much time as you have. At some point, the original group will get their original envelope so they can see how many more approaches/responses there are to solving their original problem.
  • This is an easy way for groups to report out to each other without actually standing up and "reporting out" during the class time. And it encourages students to see multiple approaches to solving problems and thinking critically about an issue or topic.
Additional Tips:
  • If you have a smaller class, you could do this activity in pairs or threes.
  • If you have a large class, you could give 2 or 3 groups the same problem or case, just to save your sanity! It takes time to create well-developed cases and complex problems worthy of a group activity.
  • Put the directions for this activity on a PowerPoint slide so all students can see the process and know what they’re expected to do. This will reduce the number of "What are we supposed to be doing?" questions.
  • To stay organized and to make it easy to reference the cases for discussion, label the envelopes using 1, 2, 3, or A, B, C, etc. You could also try using different colored envelopes.
  • If you’re having trouble creating cases or problems, try using an exam question. Or, go through the students’ previous assignments or tests and see where students are confused and where they struggled with the most.
If you decide to try the “Pass-the-Problem” flipped strategy, you will quickly notice that you are not the center of attention once students receive their envelopes. 

You will feel your role shift almost instantly. You’ll probably ask yourself, “What am I supposed to do while they’re working?”

This is where your role is changing from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” You’re involving students in the process of learning. You’re flipping the work to them. 

You may find you’re a little uncomfortable or nervous not knowing what students will ask or where the conversations may go. And that’s okay! That’s part of your process of becoming successful in these dynamic learning environments and harnessing your nervousness.

And nerves aren’t bad…my mentor in graduate school told me, “Barbi, don’t worry. Being nervous before you teach is a good thing! It means you care and you want to do a great job. You should worry when you aren’t nervous at all.”