Most students struggle when faced with complex and open-ended tasks because the strategies taught in schools and universities simply require finding and applying the correct formulae or strategy to answer well-structured, algorithmic problems. Over the past several years I have been working with colleagues on pedagogies how to develop students' ability to solve ill-structured problems.
Together we have developed an online tool (ThinkSpace) that makes it easy for faculty to add complex, real-world cases to university courses. ThinkSpace is used in physics, vet med (clinical and anatomic pathology, toxicology, pharmacology, parasitology, internal medicine, microbiology, physiology and animal welfare), food safety, biology, advertising, geology, teacher education, mechanical engineering, and industrial engineering. As of Spring 2011 over 2000 students have solved cases using ThinkSpace in over 100 courses. ThinkSpace is now an incubator project of JASIG with the goal of disseminating this to many other universities.
We have learnt several key aspects of how students solve problems:
- As the semester progresses students become more selective — requesting facts later in the problem-solving session and requesting less irrelevant information. As the semester progresses, students submit their qualitative analysis of the problem earlier in the class session, suggesting that this task moves from being one to complete solely to satisfy the requirements, to a task that helps students solve the problem. (Educ Inf Technol (2011) 16:323–34)
- Students’ beliefs about
physics problem-solving change over the course of a semester working on
these problems. The frequency of strategies such as the Rolodex method
reduces only slightly by the end of the semester. However, there is an
increase in students describing more expansive strategies within their
reflections. In particular there is a large increase in
use of diagrams, and thinking about concepts first. (Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 5, 020102 (2009))
Contact me if you are interested in working on these projects either as an undergraduate or graduate student.