S10-DISC5-2 - Characterization of Problem Types in a Statics Textbook

3. Research Work In Progress
Elliot P. Douglas1, 2 , Nicole Goetz3, David J. Therriault4, Marah B. Berry1
1 Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida
2 Department of Engineering Education, University of Florida
3 Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, University of Florida
4 School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education, University of Florida

In this Work in Progress paper we present preliminary results on analysis of the problems present in a common engineering textbook. Problem solving is considered to be the central activity of engineering. Professional engineering practice involves solving problems that are ill-structured, complex, and that often have multiple paths to a correct answer. The importance of developing skills to successfully address ill-structured problems has been widely recognized by both engineering educators and accreditation agencies for engineering programs. 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. More detailed classifications have been provided by various authors. The most well-known typology of problems comes from Jonassen, who classified problems into 10 (originally 11) types, ranging from algorithms to dilemmas.

Another important aspect of problem solving is the problem solver’s expertise. It is clear that experts know more about their domain than novices, but experts also perform tasks in a qualitatively different way than novices. 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. ill-structured 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. Therefore, we have embarked on a study to answer the following research question:

What types of problems are present in typical engineering textbooks?

We use textbooks since most homework problems assigned to students come from textbooks, and homework constitutes the bulk of their problem solving in school. We have conducted a preliminary analysis of one popular statics textbook using Jonassen’s 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 ill-structuredness, such as decision-making, diagnosis-solution, or design problems. In our presentation we will present our coding scheme and preliminary results in order to obtain feedback on our procedures, which will inform analysis of additional textbooks.

Some educators may believe that because statics is an introductory level class, it is appropriate to only present well-structured 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