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Compound Problem Solving: Work Place Research To Inform Engineering Education

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Professional Skills and the Workplace

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.318.1 - 13.318.14



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Paper Authors

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Johannes Strobel Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Monica Cardella Purdue Engineering Education

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Compound Problem Solving: Workplace Lessons for Engineering Education


For practitioners and researchers who incorporate real-world problems into their teaching, it is essential to understand real-world problem solving and the nature of problems for better design of the instruction. Several models exist that address the categorization of problems. David Jonassen’s meta-theory of problem solving describes eleven different problem-types mapped on a four-dimensional scale. Real world problems are more likely to be compound problems meaning they contain a variety of different problem types. This paper describes the findings of two studies, (a) a single-case study of a steel engineer and (b) a multi-case study comparing the findings to 90 problem-solving narratives of other engineers. Both studies are located in a US- American context. Results confirm that real-world problems are intertwined problems (compound problems) and that transitions from one problem type to another within a compound problem are a unique class of problems themselves. These ‘transition problems’ have properties, which are not represented in other problem types, and therefore extend the meta-theory.

I. Introduction

For years, reports have validated the importance of problem solving in the workplace. For instance the SCANS Report “What Work Requires of Schools” [1], states that problem solving is an essential thinking skill for workers. Engineers, physicians, managers, etc. are hired, retained, and rewarded for their abilities to solve workplace problems. For engineering education, this means a challenge to integrate workplace real-world problems into the curriculum and staying abreast with new challenges and changing roles of engineers in the workplace.

If education programs are to fulfill these challenges, a better understanding of the nature of workplace problem solving is necessary. This holds especially true for instructional and educational strategies that heavily utilize problems, like ‘problem-based learning’ (PBL) or case- based teaching. Understanding problems and problem solving is essential in order to better design problems, better design support structures for students engaging in PBL, and research the effectiveness on students’ performance and conceptual development. Several models exist that address the categorization of problems. One of the most comprehensive is David Jonassen’s meta-theory of problem solving in which he describes eleven different problem-types mapped on a four-dimensional scale [2,3]. Although, these problem types are helpful to classify problems, real world problems, as acknowledged by Jonassen, are more likely to be “meta-problems” or compound problems containing a variety of different problem types. While there is a growing body of literature on researching differences in solving the variety of different problem types [4], little research provides understanding of compound problems or the interaction of problem types within compound problems. This paper tries to provide some insights on this gap in the literature.

Strobel, J., & Cardella, M. (2008, June), Compound Problem Solving: Work Place Research To Inform Engineering Education Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3310

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