Moving beyond formulas and fixations: Exploring approaches to solving open-ended engineering problems

Elliot P. Douglas, Mirka Koro-Ljungberg, Zaria T. Malcolm, Nathan McNeill, David J. Therriault, Christine S. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Open-ended problem solving is a skill that is central to engineering practice. As a consequence developing skills in solving such problems is imperative for engineering graduates. Open-ended problems are ill-defined and can have more than one viable solution. Solving openended problems therefore requires consideration of a complex array of constraints and the paths to a solution are many. The qualitative study presented in this paper explores the approaches taken by eight materials science students to solving an open-ended problem. A think aloud method was used to collect data and analyze the problem solving approaches of each student. Each student described their actions and thought processes aloud as they worked through the problem and these think aloud sessions were video recorded and transcribed for analysis. In addition, each participant's final written solution was graded for quality. Among the eight participants a spectrum of solution paths and problem-solving processes was apparent. Through the use of script analysis, three approaches to solving the problem were identified (extreme fixation/overwhelmed, fixated and uncertain, and systematic and linear). The participants with the lowest solution scores had difficulty making important decisions due to extreme fixation on a single task, whereas the participants with the highest scores took very systematic and linear approaches to the problem, avoided fixations on irrelevant concepts or reconceptualizations, and were able to identify critical decision points in the problem solving process. Results suggest that performance on open-ended problems is related to the processes students use. Thus, careful attention must be paid to the way in which open-ended problem solving is taught.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Engineering(all)


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