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The Impact of Scaffolding Prompts on Students’ Cognitive Interactions During Collaborative Problem Solving of Ill-structured Engineering Tasks

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Teaching In and Through Design, Maker Spaces, and Open-ended Problems

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Taylor Tucker University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Taylor Tucker graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering mechanics. She is now pursuing a master’s degree at UIUC through the Digital Environments for Learning, Teaching, and Agency program in the department of Curriculum and Instruction. She is interested in design thinking as it applies to engineering settings and lends her technical background to her research with the Collaborative Learning Lab, exploring ways to to promote collaborative problem solving in engineering education and provide students with team design experiences that mimic authentic work in industry.

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Emma Mercier University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign

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Emma Mercier is an associate professor in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her work focuses on collaborative learning in classrooms, and in particular, the use of technology for teachers and students during collaborative learning. Most recently Mercier's projects have focused on collaborative learning in required undergraduate engineering courses.

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Saadeddine Shehab University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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A Postdoc Research Associate at the Siebel Center for Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. He conducts research that informs the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development in order to facilitate the teaching and learning of Human-Centered Design (HCD) in formal and informal learning environments. His research interests focused on the role of the teacher in orchestrating collaborative problem solving activities in STEM classrooms.

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The Impact of Scaffolding Prompts on Students’ Cognitive Interactions during Collaborative Problem Solving of Ill-Structured Engineering Tasks

Research has established the importance of ill-structured tasks for meaningful collaborative problem solving. These tasks are especially important to college-level engineering courses because they are similar to authentic problems that students will encounter in their future workplaces. Solving collaborative ill-structured tasks allows students to expand their learning beyond “drill-and-practice”-type problem solving and engage in higher order thinking. Research studies have shown the need for scaffolding in ill-structured tasks and have identified two main roles for scaffolding: to guide students through the complexity of the task and to help them focus on the most relevant aspects. These studies recommend adding scaffolding prompts when designing ill-structured tasks, as students tend to be unfamiliar with the task design and can perform poorly without guidance. However, few studies examine the effectiveness of these prompts on students’ collaborative interactions or define the types of prompts that are most effective. This study addresses this gap in the literature by evaluating the influence of explicit scaffolding prompts on students’ interactions at the cognitive level to better inform the design of ill-structured engineering tasks for collaborative problem solving.

This study is part of a design-based implementation research project [blinded for review] that involves the design and implementation of authentic ill-structured tasks in actual undergraduate engineering classrooms. Our previous work has outlined four problem-solving processes necessary for solving an ill-structured engineering task: exploring the problem (P1), planning solutions (P2), attempting to solve (P3), and evaluating the solution and considering alternatives (P4). Researchers argue that these problem-solving processes are associated with better learning outcomes; thus, it is important for students to effectively engage in all four processes as they solve this type of task. We compared the collaborative interactions of students in working groups as they solved a scaffolded and then a non-scaffolded task (both developed during the project); findings indicated that the scaffolding prompts facilitated students’ participation in more interactions to evaluate their work (P4) and less interactions to solve the task (P3), which composed a distribution associated with higher task scores. We need to investigate how this change in the distribution of processes may have impacted the types of students’ cognitive interactions during collaborative problem solving. Findings from this paper will enrich our understanding of what characterizes quality cognitive interactions of students as they solve ill-structured engineering tasks.

In this paper, we will use a cognitive lens to analyze data from eleven groups solving the two tasks mentioned above. We will employ a coding scheme to identify students’ cognitive interactions, which provides insight toward how students thought about ideas and concepts associated with solving the task. Results will be compared between tasks (with and without scaffolds) to understand how the nature of these interactions differed. Our study promotes the evolution of collaborative problem solving by contributing to our understanding of the role of scaffolding in ill-structured task design, which will lead to designing stronger, more effective tasks.

Tucker, T., & Mercier, E., & Shehab, S. (2021, July), The Impact of Scaffolding Prompts on Students’ Cognitive Interactions During Collaborative Problem Solving of Ill-structured Engineering Tasks Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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