If you’re anything like 97% of the student population, just reading the term "problem sets" probably made you nod off, groan out loud, or maybe start whimpering quietly to yourself. So just brace yourself and try and stay awake (and optimistic) for a bit. Problem sets can be a good way to assess student learning and help insomniacs fall asleep, so understanding just how to use this tool in your classroom is a good thing.

Problem sets are meant to encourage the practice of concepts learned in class and to keep students sharp on the material. You can find these little assignment gems in physics, engineering, chemistry, math, and economics.

The idea may be kinda boring, but problem sets are useful as summative assessments. They normally count for a small portion of one’s overall grade in the course, but some classes may see a teacher who tallies up all the P-set scores and averages ‘em out for the final grade.

Hey, stranger things have happened.

Usually problem sets are issued continuously, so that students are constantly practicing the material. And don’t forget: that’s a good thing. The assessment benefit is that you, the teacher, get a weekly or biweekly update on individual student’s learning. And even better, the scores of the problem sets can be recorded and tracked, highlighting where additional class instruction may be needed.

But you know we wouldn’t be bringing them up if there weren’t a bit of controversy involved. Here it is: some dirt has arisen regarding problem sets because of the ease of collaboration online. Which means that yet again, Internet morality has come into question, as online forums are set up to discuss and solve problems in the sets.

Plus, for better or worse, problem sets can be magnets for student collaboration. Many students meet in study groups to work out the sets together and turn in their own, handwritten assignments. Some teachers encourage working together, while others consider it cheating. The bottom line: before assigning problem sets in your class, be sure that you know where you stand on the whole "work with a group or not" idea.

Did you stay awake? Kudos. Will your students? We’ll keep our fingers crossed.

If you're looking for other ideas to engage students in your lessons, why not check out our teaching guides?