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Confidently Uncomfortable: First-year Student Ambiguity Tolerance and Self-efficacy on Open-ended Design Problems

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

First-year Programs Division: Self Efficacy

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Joshua L. Hertz Northeastern University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Hertz earned a B.S. in Ceramic Engineering from Alfred University in 1999 and then a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006. Following this, he worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology as a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow. He joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Delaware as an Assistant Professor in September 2008, leading a lab that researched the effects of composition and nanostructure on ionic conduction and surface exchange in ceramic materials. In 2014, he moved to Northeastern University to focus on teaching and developing curriculum for their First Year Engineering program.

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This complete evidence-based practice paper presents a study on first year engineering students’ attitudes about their work on open-ended design problems. First year college students are generally confident and able to self-direct when working on closed-ended tasks. In these tasks, the methods to be used are familiar, all needed data are provided, and the desired outcomes are clearly stated. These students are, however, generally much less confident or self-directed when the problems are open-ended along one or more of these metrics. It is naturally uncomfortable to work on open-ended problems, because the path forward is ambiguous. Nevertheless, some students seem to be more confidently uncomfortable, ready and willing to begin working on open-ended problems. We sought in this study to understand the factors that make a student better able to begin work on these projects without directed guidance from the instructor. In this study, we examined first year engineering students taking a required, year-long pair of foundational engineering courses. Each of the two courses was 4 credit hours and had content centered on design, programming, and CAD. The coursework included a variety of open-ended problem work, both individual assignments and a series of team-based design-and-build projects. A primary learning intervention tested in this study was the use of improv-theater inspired game breaks during class. Improv-inspired games were used because they are easy and fun to implement, and because improvisation is, effectively, an open-ended problem: the players must create something without knowing what the result will be or how they will do it. A number of experimental strategies were employed to improve students’ growth in confidence and ability to work on open-ended problems. In addition to the in-class games mentioned previously, the course asked students to complete a wide range of open-ended problems, ranging from 5-minute, in-class exercises, to week-long homework challenges, to semester-long design and build projects. Finally, the course content itself included an examination of strategies for working on design problems, including those where the design space is broad. Surveys were distributed to approximately 130 first year engineering students split into four sections. Two sections had the improv-game intervention during all weeks of the course, while the other two sections only had the games starting at week 5. Surveys were keyed to individual students, and data collected included demographic information and prior experience in teamwork, problem solving, and public speaking. In addition, self-efficacy along multiple metrics were collected before the course, after the 4 week time period of the improv-game intervention, and at the completion of the first semester. Surveys also included qualitative assessment of the games and self-assessment of their feelings and abilities on open-ended problems. These surveys were statistically analyzed for correlations between student characteristics, responses to qualitative questions, and levels and growth in self-efficacy on open-ended problems. Initial analysis of the results shows statistically significant growth in student self-efficacy towards open-ended problems and increased ambiguity tolerance during the first semester of the course (Table 1). While no statistically significant differences in self-efficacy or ambiguity tolerance were found when comparing sections that did or did not play improv games for the first three weeks of the course, overall response to the games was positive and suggested an net benefit to course climate.

Table 1. Average student self-assessment to questions about self-efficacy towards open-ended problems and ambiguity tolerance. Student responses were collected before the class began and after the class completed; the p-value indicates statistical significance of the difference in pre-class and post-class measurements. Both questions used a 6-level Likert scale, with 1 indicating strong disagreement with the statement and 6 indicating strong agreement.

Pre-class Post-class p I would be nervous to 3.91 3.56 < 0.01 start working on a problem that I haven't been taught how to solve.

I get frustrated or find it 4.60 4.20 < 0.01 annoying when instruc- tions are unclear and/or I don't know how to start a problem.

Hertz, J. L. (2018, June), Confidently Uncomfortable: First-year Student Ambiguity Tolerance and Self-efficacy on Open-ended Design Problems Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah.

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