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Scaffolding To Improve Reasoning Skills In Problem Formulation

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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

Problem Solving and Misconceptions

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1064.1 - 13.1064.18



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Paper Authors


John Jackman Iowa State University

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Dr. John Jackman is an Associate Professor in the department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering at Iowa State University His work in engineering problem solving has appeared in the Journal of Engineering Education and the International Journal of Engineering Education. His research focuses on how engineers use and create information during the development process in order to improve their productivity and reduce development time.

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Sarah Ryan Iowa State University

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Dr. Sarah Ryan is an Associate Professor in the department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering at Iowa State University. She has integrated complex, ill-structured problem solving experiences into her engineering economy course. Dr. Ryan's research focuses on decision-making under uncertainty in energy systems, asset management with condition monitoring, and closed-loop supply chains.

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Craig Ogilvie Iowa State University

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Dr. Craig Ogilvie is an Associate Professor in Physics and Astonomy at Iowa State University. He is a recognized leader in both nuclear physics and in the teaching of problem-solving skills in large enrollment physics classes.

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Dale Niederhauser Iowa State University

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Dr. Dale Niederhauser is an Associate Professor in Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University. His assessment work includes developing a scale to examine intrapersonal factors that influence technology integration and classroom teachers’ use of technology relative to national standards.

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

Scaffolding to Improve Reasoning Skills in Problem Formulation Abstract Educators in engineering and science disciplines are well aware of student difficulties in formulating problems. Correct problem formulation is a critical phase in the problem solving process because the solution follows directly from the formulation. Students in this phase are engaged in reasoning and argumentation activities that result in support for a specific formulation. Empirical evidence from our work in ill-structured STEM problem solving indicate that more research is needed to understand the nature of problem formulation and what the cognitive challenges are for STEM students. Students work in teams to solve ill structured problems in the Problem Solving Learning Portal (PSLP). In this study we examine the use of scaffolding in the problem formulation stage in the context of an Engineering Economy course having students from multiple engineering disciplines.


Correct problem formulation is critical at the onset of problem solving because the solution process follows directly from the formulation.1 The ability to recognize a problem type is considered to be an essential cognitive skill in problem solving.2 This recognition of the nature of a problem is an important step within problem formulation and adds some immediate structure to the problem that can evolve during problem solving. Problem formulation could be instantaneous for simple problems, or may require some investigation, analysis, evaluation, and iterative development. French et al. suggested that problem formulation is iterative in nature and recommended that students should revisit individual steps in the formulation until they converge on an acceptable formulation.3

In Jonassen’s model for solving ill structured problems, problem formulation includes an articulation of the problem space and constraints along with identifying different perspectives on the problem.4 These types of activities add structure to the problem and lay the foundation for the necessary operations that will lead to a solution. The formulation includes some reasoning or argument that supports the formulation. Having the associated domain knowledge is critical in the problem formulation phase, making problem formulation challenging for novices who typically lack sufficient domain knowledge to recognize whether their initial conceptualization of the problem includes the essential elements—or if their initial solution strategy is reasonable.5 . Murphy studied the nature of messages in a collaborative problem solving environment based on team members participating in online asynchronous discussions. It was found that the majority of messages were related to resolving or solving the problem as compared to problem formulation.6 This may indicate that students tend to move to the solution process prematurely. A similar phenomenon was observed by Kelsey, who found that discussions about problems focused primarily on finding the solution as opposed to problem formulation.7 Volkema observed that problem formulation occurs early in planning and design activities (core activities in engineering).8 He suggested that factors contributing to poor problem solving performance include problem complexity, expertise, problem solving environment, and processes used by the problem solver to formulate the problem.

Jackman, J., & Ryan, S., & Ogilvie, C., & Niederhauser, D. (2008, June), Scaffolding To Improve Reasoning Skills In Problem Formulation Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3994

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