skip to main content

Title: Characterization of problem types in statics textbooks.
This work in progress research paper considers the question, what kind of problems do engineering students commonly solve during their education? Engineering problems have been generally classified as ill-structured/open-ended or well-structured/closed-ended. Various authors have identified the characteristics of ill-structured problems or presented typologies of problems. Simple definitions state that well-structured problems are simple, concrete, and have a single solution, while ill-structured problems are complex, abstract, and have multiple possible solutions (Jonassen, 1997, 2000). More detailed classifications have been provided by Shin, Jonassen, and McGee (2003), Voss (2006), and Johnstone (2001). It is commonly understood that classroom problems are well-structured while workplace problems are ill-structured, but we cannot find any empirical data to confirm or deny this proposition. Engineers commonly encounter ill-structured problems such as design problems in the field therefore problem-solving skills are invaluable and should be taught in engineering courses. This research specifically looks at the types of problems present in the two most commonly used statics textbooks (Hibbeler, 2016; Beer, et al., 2019). All end-of-chapter problems in these textbooks were classified using Jonassen’s (2000) well-known typology of problem types. Out of 3,387 problems between both books, 99% fell into the algorithmic category and the remaining fell into the logic more » category. These preliminary results provide an understanding of the types of problems engineering students most commonly encounter in their classes. Prior research has documented that textbook example problems exert a strong influence on students' problem-solving strategies (Lee et al., 2013). If instructors only assign textbook problems, students in statics courses do not see any ill-structured problems at that stage in their education. We argue that even in foundational courses such as statics, students should be exposed to ill-structured problems. By providing opportunities for students to solve more ill-structured problems, students can become more familiar with them and become better prepared for the workforce. Moving forward, textbooks from several other courses will be analyzed to determine the difference between a fundamental engineering course such as statics and upper-level courses. This research will allow us to determine how the problem types differ between entry level and advanced classes and reveal if engineering textbooks primarily contain well-structured problems. Keywords: problem solving, textbooks, ill-structured problems « less
Award ID(s):
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract— In this Work in Progress Research paper, we present preliminary results on the analysis of the problems present in a common engineering textbook. In order to transition students from novice to expert problem solving, they must have practice solving problems that are typical of engineering practice, i.e. illstructured and complex. While it is generally believed that classroom problems are for the most part closed-ended and not complex, there is no work in the literature to confirm this belief. In order to address this gap, we analyzed the types of problems present in a commonly used statics textbook, using Jonassen’s well-known typology. Our findings show that almost all of the problems are algorithmic, with a few rule-based and story problems. There were no problems with higher levels of illstructuredness, such as decision-making, diagnosis-solution, or design problems. Some educators may believe that because statics is an introductory level class, it is appropriate to only present wellstructured problems. We argue that it is both possible and necessary to include ill-structured problems in classes at all levels. Doing so could potentially support students’ critical transition from novice to expert problem solvers. Keywords—problem-solving, statics, ambiguity
  2. Workplace engineering problems are different from the problems that undergraduate engineering students typically encounter in most classroom settings. Students are most commonly given well-structured problems which have clear solution paths along with well-defined constraints and goals. This paper reports on research that examines how undergraduate engineering students perceived solving an ill-structured problem. Eighteen undergraduate civil engineering students were asked to solve an ill-structured engineering problem, and were interviewed after they completed solving the problem. This qualitative study is guided by the following research question: What factors do students perceive to influence their solving of an ill-structured civil engineering problem? Students’ responses to seven follow-up interview questions were transcribed and reviewed by research team members, which were used to develop codes and themes associated with these responses. Students’ transcripts were then coded following the developed codes. The analysis of data revealed that students were generally aware of the main positives and negatives of their proposed solutions to the ill-structured problem and reported that their creativity influenced their solutions and problem solving processes. Student responses also indicated that specific life events such as classes that they had taken, personal experiences, and exposure to other ill-structured problems during an internship helped them developmore »their proposed solution. Given students’ responses and overall findings, this supports creating learning environments for engineering students where they can support increasing their creativity and be more exposed to complex engineering problems.« less
  3. Problem solving is an essential part of engineering. Research shows that students are not exposed to ill-structured problems in the engineering classrooms as much as well-structured problems and do not feel as confident and comfortable solving them. There have been several studies on how engineering students solve and perceive ill-structured problems, however, understanding engineering faculty’s perceptions of teaching and solving such problems is important as well. Since it is the engineering faculty who teach students how to approach engineering problems, it is essential to understand how they perceive solving and teaching of these problems. The following research question has guided this research: What beliefs do engineering faculty have about teaching and solving ill-structured problems? Ten tenure-track or tenured faculty in civil engineering from various universities across the U.S. were interviewed after solving an ill-structured engineering problem. Their responses were transcribed and coded. The findings suggest that faculty generally preferred to teach both well-structured and ill-structured problems in their courses. They also acknowledge the advantages of ill-structured problems, in that they promote critical thinking, require creativity, and are more challenging. However, the results showed that some are less likely to use ill-structured problems in their teaching compared to well-structured problems. Wemore »also found that faculty became more comfortable teaching ill-structured problems as they gain more experience in teaching these types of problems. Faculty’s responses showed that while they solve ill-structured problems as part of their research on a regular basis, some faculty do not integrate these problems in the classes that they teach. These results indicate that although faculty recognize the importance of using ill-structured problems while teaching, the lack of experience with teaching these problems, other faculty responsibilities, and the complex nature of these problems make it challenging for engineering faculty to incorporate these problems into the engineering classroom. Based on these findings, in order to improve faculty’s comfort and willingness to use ill-structured problems in their teaching, recommendations for faculty are provided in the paper.« less
  4. Introduction: The work reported here subscribes to the idea that the best way to learn - and thus, improve student educational outcomes - is through solving problems, yet recognizes that engineering students are generally provided insufficient opportunities to engage problems as they will be engaged in practice. Attempts to incorporate more open-ended, ill-structured experiences have increased but are challenging for faculty to implement because there are no systematic methods or approaches that support the educator in designing these learning experiences. Instead, faculty often start from the anchor of domain-specific concepts, an anchoring that is further reinforced by available textbook problems that are rarely open in nature. Open-ended problems are then created in ad-hoc ways, and in doing so, the problem-solving experience is often not realized as the instructor intended. Approach: The focus in this work is the development and preliminary implementation of a reflective approach to support instructors in examining the design intent of problem experiences. The reflective method combines concept mapping as developed by Joseph Novak with the work of David Jonassen and his characterization of problems and the forms of knowledge required to solve them. Results: We report on the development of a standard approach – a templatemore »-- for concept mapping of problems. As a demonstration, we applied the approach to a relatively simple, well-structured problem used in an introductory aerospace engineering course. Educator-created concept maps provided a visual medium for examining the connectivity of problem elements and forms of knowledge. Educator reflection after looking at and discussing the concept map revealed ways in which the problem engagement may differ from the perceived design intent. Implications: We consider the potential for the proposed method to support design and facilitation activities in problem-based learning (PBL) environments. We explore broader implications of the approach as it relates to 1) facilitating a priori faculty insights regarding student navigation of problem solving, 2) instructor reflection on problem design and facilitation, and 3) supporting problem design and facilitation. Additionally, we highlight important issues to be further investigated toward quantifying the value and limitations of the proposed approach.« less
  5. One of the main skills of engineers is to be able to solve problems. It is generally recognized that real-world engineering problems are inherently ill-structured in that they are complex, defined by non-engineering constraints, are missing information, and contain conflicting information. Therefore, it is very important to prepare future engineering students to be able to anticipate the occurrence of such problems, and to be prepared to solve them. However, most courses are taught by academic professors and lecturers whose focus is on didactic teaching of fundamental principles and code-based design approaches leading to predetermined “right” answers. Most classroom-taught methods to solve well-structured problems and the methods needed to solve ill-structured problems are strikingly different. The focus of our current effort is to compare and contrast the problem solving approaches employed by students, academics and practicing professionals in an attempt to determine if students are developing the necessary skills to tackle ill-structured problems. To accomplish this, an ill-structured problem is developed, which will later be used to determine, based on analysis of oral and written responses of participants in semi-structured interviews, attributes of the gap between student, faculty, and professional approaches to ill-structured problem solving. Based on the results of thismore »analysis, we will identify what pedagogical approaches may limit and help students’ abilities to develop fully-formed solutions to ill-structured problems. This project is currently ongoing. This work-in-progress paper will present the study and proposed methods. Based on feedback obtained at the conference from the broader research community, the studies will be refined. The current phase includes three parts, (1) problem formulation; (2) protocol development; and (3) pilot study. For (1), two different ill-structured problems were developed in the Civil Engineering domain. The problem difficulty assessment method was used to determine the appropriateness of each problem developed for this study. For (2), a protocol was developed in which participants will be asked to first solve a simple problem to become familiar with the interview format, then are given 30 minutes to solve the provided ill-structured problem, following a semi-structured interview format. Participants will be encouraged to speak out loud and also write down what they are thinking and their thought processes throughout the interview period. Both (1) and (2) will next be used for (3) the pilot study. The pilot study will include interviewing three students, three faculty members and three professional engineers. Each participant will complete both problems following the same protocol developed. Post-interview discussion will be held with the pilot study participants individually to inquire if there were any portions of the tasks that are unclearly worded or could be improved to clarify what was being asked. Based on these results the final problem will be chosen and refined.« less