Context-Rich Problems

Developed by: University of Minnesota Physics Education Research Group

middle schoolhigh schoolintro collegeinter-mediateupper levelgrad school   other

 Intro College Calculus-based
calc based
 Intro College Algebra-based
alg based
 Intro College Conceptual

Mechanics  Electricity / Magnetism  Waves / Optics  Thermal / Statistical
Lecture - Small (<30 students)  Recitation/Discussion Session  Studio

What? Students work in small groups on short, realistic scenarios, giving them a plausible motivation for solving problems. The real-world scenarios are more complex than traditional problems and may include excess information or require students to recall important background information.

Why? Context-based exercises have been consistently validated by physics education research. This specific method can produce high levels of student engagement. Well-crafted problems challenge students to push themselves to the edge of their capabilities and better retain key concepts.

Why not? Collections of context-rich problems often do not include answer keys or guidance for how to use them, and may be difficult for an inexperienced teacher to use effectively. Creating appropriate problems is challenging. Close supervision and guidance by skilled instructors is optimal.

Example materials


Student skills developed

Designed for:
  • Conceptual understanding
  • Problem-solving skills
Can be adapted for:
  • Making real-world connections

Instructor effort required

  • Medium

Resources required

  • Tables for group work

Developer's website: Context-Rich Problems
Intro Article: P. Heller, R. Keith, and S. Anderson, Teaching Problem Solving Through Cooperative Grouping. Part 1: Group Versus Individual Problem Solving, Am. J. Phys. 60 (7), 627 (1992).

The University of Minnesota has created a free online archive of context-rich problems, where you can find problems for many topics in introductory mechanics and electromagnetism.

Bronze Validation
This is the third highest level of research validation, corresponding to:
  • at least 1 of the "based on" categories
  • at least 1 of the "demonstrated to improve" categories
  • at least 1 of the "studied using" categories
(Categories shown below)

Research Validation Summary

Based on Research Into:

  • theories of how students learn
  • student ideas about specific topics

Demonstrated to Improve:

  • conceptual understanding
  • problem-solving skills
  • lab skills
  • beliefs and attitudes
  • attendance
  • retention of students
  • success of underrepresented groups
  • performance in subsequent classes

Studied using:

  • cycle of research and redevelopment
  • student interviews
  • classroom observations
  • analysis of written work
  • research at multiple institutions
  • research by multiple groups
  • peer-reviewed publication