University of Minnesota

Physics Education Research and Development Group

Creating Context Rich Problems

One way to invent context rich problems is to start with a textbook exercise or problem, then modify the problem. You may find the following steps helpful:

0. Always start a context rich problem with "You." This personalizes and motivates the problem for the students.

1. If necessary, determine a context (real objects with real motions or interactions) for the textbook exercise or problem. You may want to use an unfamiliar context for a very difficult group problem.

2. Decide on a motivation -- Why would anyone want to calculate something in this context?

3. Determine if you need to change the target variable to
(a) make the problem more than a one-step exercise, or
(b) make the target variable fit your motivation.

4. Optional: Write the problem like a short story.

5. Decide how many "difficulty" characteristics (characteristics that make the problem more difficult) you want to include:
(a) determine extra information that someone in the situation would be likely to have
(b) leave out common-knowledge information (e.g., the boiling temperature of water);
(c) write the problem so the target variable is not explicitly stated;
(d) think of different information that could be given, so two approaches (e.g., kinematics and forces) would be needed to solve the problem instead of one approach (e.g., forces), or
(e) depending on the context, leave out explicitly giving some of the problem idealizations (e.g., massless rope).
6. Check the problem to make sure it is solvable, the physics is straight-forward, and the mathematics is reasonable.

BEWARE!Good group problems are difficult to construct because they can easily be made too complex and difficult to solve. A good group problem does not have all of the characteristics that make a problem more difficult, but usually only 3-4 of the these characteristics.

Some common contexts include:

  • physical work (pushing, pulling, lifting objects vertically, horizontally, or up ramps)
  • suspending objects, falling objects
  • sports situations (falling, jumping, running, throwing, etc. while diving, bowling, playing golf, tennis, football, baseball, etc.)
  • situations involving the motion of bicycles, cars, boats, trucks, planes, etc.
  • astronomical situations (motion of satellites, planets)
  • heating and cooling of objects (cooking, freezing, burning, etc.)

Sometimes it is difficult to think of a motivation. We have used the following motivations:

  • You are . . . . (in some everyday situation) and need to figure out . . . .
  • You are watching . . . . (an everyday situation) and wonder . . . .
  • You are on vacation and observe/notice . . . . and wonder . . . .
  • You are watching TV or reading an article about . . . . and wonder . . .
  • Because of your knowledge of physics, your friend asks you to help him/her . . .
  • You are writing a science-fiction or adventure story for your English class about . . . . and need to figure out . . . .
  • Because of your interest in the environment and your knowledge of physics, you are a member of a Citizen's Committee (or Concern Group) investigating . .
  • You have a summer job with a company that . . . . Because of your knowledge of physics, your boss asks you to . . . .
  • You have been hired by a College research group that is investigating . . . . Your job is to determine . . . .
  • You have been hired as a technical advisor for a TV (or movie) production to make sure the science is correct. In the script . . . ., but is this correct?
  • When really desperate, you can use the motivation of an artist friend designing a kinetic sculpture!

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  • Last modified on October 15, 2012