Moving beyond formulas and fixations: Solving open-ended engineering problems

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Open-ended problem solving is a central skill in engineering practice; consequently, it is imperative for engineering students to develop expertise in solving these types of problems. The complexity of open-ended problems requires a unique set of skills. The purpose of this qualitative study was to investigate the approaches used by engineering students when solving an open-ended engineering problem. A think-aloud method was used to collect data about the problem-solving approaches of eight materials engineering students. Through the use of script analysis three approaches to solving the problem were identified, which were consistent with the Reflective Judgment Model of epistemic development. Students who used a linear, systematic approach were most successful at solving the problem. Less successful students were overwhelmed by its open-endedness and/or became fixated on a single aspect of the problem. These results point to a need to develop open-ended problem-solving skills throughout the engineering curriculum.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)627-651
Number of pages25
JournalEuropean Journal of Engineering Education
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • engineering education research
  • epistemology
  • problem-solving
  • think-aloud protocol

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • General Engineering


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