A cognitive study of problem solving in statics

Thomas A. Litzinger, Peggy Vanmeter, Carla M. Firetto, Lucas J. Passmore, Christine B. Masters, Stephen R. Turns, Gary L. Gray, Francesco Costanzo, Sarah E. Zappe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

101 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND Even as expectations for engineers continue to evolve to meet global challenges, analytical problem solving remains a central skill. Thus, improving students' analytical problem solving skills remains an important goal in engineering education. This study involves observation of students as they execute the initial steps of an engineering problem solving process in statics. PURPOSE (HYPOTHESIS) (1) What knowledge elements do statics students have the greatest difficulty applying during problem solving? (2) Are there differences in the knowledge elements that are accurately applied by strong and weak statics students? (3) Are there differences in the cognitive and metacognitive strategies used by strong and weak statics students during analysis? DESIGN/METHOD These questions were addressed using think-aloud sessions during which students solved typical textbook problems. We selected the work of twelve students for detailed analysis, six weak and six strong problem solvers, using an extreme groups split based on scores on the think-aloud problems and a course exam score. The think-aloud data from the two sets of students were analyzed to identify common technical errors and also major differences in the problem solving processes. CONCLUSIONS We found that the weak, and most of the strong problem solvers relied heavily on memory to decide what reactions were present at a given connection, and few of the students could reason physically about what reactions should be present. Furthermore, the cognitive analysis of the students' problems solving processes revealed substantial differences in the use of self-explanation by weak and strong students.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)337-353
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Engineering Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive
  • Metacognitive
  • Problem solving

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Engineering(all)


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