On Synthesis and Problem-Solving (Semester Review Part 2)

In the new grading system, the skills list for each unit ends at 4/5.  Any student who wants a 5/5 must apply their skills to a novel context (not explicitly taught in class), choose their own problem-solving strategy, and combine ideas from at least two units.

I put a L5 question on a quiz at least once per unit as a way to assess problem-solving and synthesis.  They’re doing that quite well.  But they have had a host of unexpectedly positive benefits for the class. Top 10 reasons I love the “L5 question”:

1.  I can put anything on a quiz.  Since L5 questions by definition include synthesis, the students understand that anything is fair game: skills we’ve learned in other units, in co-requisite courses, in pre-requisite courses.  So L5 questions free me from the compartmentalization that the skills-based grading scheme might otherwise enforce.


2.  Students use it to practise “trying something” even though they don’t know the right answer. A L5 question on a quiz feels like a bonus question, so there’s less stigma attached to getting them wrong.  Unlike other levels, your score on L5 questions can not go down.  So, you can write any wacky thing that goes through your head, and there’s no penalty.  I give 30 minutes for quizzes, and deliberately choose the questions so that even the slower students finish in about 25 minutes.  That means there’s nothing left to do except think about the L5 question.  This helps students practice creating representations, choosing symbols, and thinking about unfamiliar things in a low-stakes environment.  (Who would have thought that a quiz would become a low-stakes environment??)


3.  It’s great for introducing a new unit.  Since every unit builds on the previous one, a student who has mastered the tricky questions from Unit 1 probably has all the skills to do the easy questions from Unit 2, if they can figure out how to apply them.  I throw these on the quiz and one of two things happen: some students get them right, in which case they’re primed to make sense of the new unit; some students get them wrong, in which case I’m introducing Unit 2 at the exact moment when they’re dying of curiosity to know how it works.


4.  It doesn’t have to go on a quiz. A L5 question can be a research project or an invention or a presentation to the class or an interpretive dance or a graphic novel, if it meets the synthesis/problem-solving criteria.

5.  It’s a great response to tangential questions in class (“Interesting, I’m not sure of the answer… How could you find out?  Sounds like a great L5 question.”)


6.  It’s a good way bring up neat topics that don’t quite fit in the curriculum. I make a list of some of them at the bottom of each skill sheet.  Any student who is curious can learn more about one of those topics.  It’s then up to them to propose both a question and the assessment of its answer.


7.  It’s an instant way to incorporate fix-it projects, service-learning opportunities, and inter-program collaborations that cross my desk every semester.

  • The head chef from the culinary program went to Europe and fried the power supply of his fancy sous-vide cooker, so a student traced the problem, selected and ordered a replacement for the obsolete part, and  put it back together.
  • A student in Disability Services needs help building a rehabilitative technology toy for developing fine-motor skills, so a team of four 1st-year students are working together to help him out.
  • The Academic Chair’s Roomba isn’t finding its dock properly anymore.  I ask for volunteers, and voila — Level 5 question.

I don’t need the thing to work at the end; I expect the student to have developed a sensible problem-solving strategy and synthesized their skills.  (Proving to me that it shouldn’t be fixed — for economic or other reasons — might be perfectly legitimate.  It depends on whether you have enough evidence to convince me).


8.  The students are free to propose a problem. About anything.  As long as it requires them to synthesize and problem-solve.  They can bring in something broken from home and work on it.  They can decide to experiment with something they read about in a trade journal or diy magazine.

  • The other day a student completed his assigned exercise early (using an inductor to light a 120V lamp using a 12V supply).  So he went out to the parking lot, removed the relay from his trunk latch, wired it into the lamp circuit as a crude boost chopper, and used a signal generator to energize the relay fast enough to make it look like the light was on continuously.
  • Two students figured out how to test a transistor before I taught the unit — so they asked for permission to destroy one to test their algorithm.  I agreed, on the condition that they teach their methods to the class.

The assessments don’t have to be involved or time-consuming; they just have to deepen a student’s thinking.  About 3/4 of my students have at least one L5 question.


9.  They are a built-in back-up plan for students who finish their work in class early.


10.  The students get stoked about them.


  1. Mylene,
    I like this. But refresh my memory, in terms of the final student grade, is there a difference between a 4/5 or a 5/5 in terms of the final grade? Is it the difference between an 80% and 100%?

    • Yes; a student who completes all the skills on the skill sheet gets an 80% (a B).

      I think of it this way: the core of our trade is about troubleshooting — so it’s problem-solving all the way down. A junior tech can grow into that on the job if they have a solid mastery of the basic skills. But the jobs all entail “figuring out what to do,” rather than doing what you’re told. A related advantage of this setup, which I forgot to mention, is that it gives us a weekly opportunity to talk about the frustration and uncertainty that can sometimes arise on the job (a major contributor to “imposter syndrome”, especially for young women), and discuss/practice ways of handling them. Hm. That makes me think of how this connects to workplace pressures. A post for another day…

  2. Hi Mylene,

    I would love to see a couple of the 5/5 questions that you have put on your quizzes to gain a sense of how they are getting the student to synthesize.

Leave a Reply to Chasing Student-Initiated Tangents « Shifting Phases Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s