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Why Is Teaching Problem Solving So Difficult?

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2003 Annual Conference


Nashville, Tennessee

Publication Date

June 22, 2003

Start Date

June 22, 2003

End Date

June 25, 2003



Conference Session

Three P's in Introduction to Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

8.1311.1 - 8.1311.8



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Paper Authors

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Ruben Schwieger

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

Session 3453

Why Is Teaching Problem Solving So Difficult? (and how to make it easier)

Dr. Ruben Schwieger

The University of Southern Indiana Evansville, Indiana


This paper discusses the difficulties experienced by teachers and students of mathematical problem solving in engineering education. The particular sources for these difficulties are pointed out and suggestions for dealing with them are given. The primary sources of difficulty are: language and terminology, textual and written materials, and student attitudes and expectations. Included is a discussion of the understanding that it is not sufficient to teach engineering mathematics with the assumption that when that is well taught and learned, the ability to solve problems necessarily follows. Intentional teaching of problem solving per se is required.


Though there is increasing promotion of teaching problem solving by mathematics educators and various professional organizations, we still struggle with exactly what that means, with how to do it, with texts and materials which often actually hinder rather than help, and with students who are unprepared and/or reluctant to engage in problem solving. This paper discusses both overt and subtle reasons why teaching problem solving is difficult in pre-engineering education and in engineering education classrooms. It also suggests techniques and approaches teachers can use to ease the difficulties teachers and students experience in attempting to solve mathematics based problems. Otung suggests that it may help to de-emphasize the mathematics in the traditional initial stages of engineering education in favor of a focus on engineering problems.11 The concern apparently is that an initial difficult experience with problem solving may preclude adequate future work in problem solving.

Several aspects of the origins of problem solving difficulty students face will be examined. These include: language effects on problem solving, textual materials issues, and student attitudes toward, and understanding of, problem solving, and with each are suggestions for teaching strategies that will help deal with the difficulties. The last section discusses the intentional teaching of problem solving and useful strategies to use for that.

“Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2003, American Society for Engineering Education”

Schwieger, R. (2003, June), Why Is Teaching Problem Solving So Difficult? Paper presented at 2003 Annual Conference, Nashville, Tennessee. 10.18260/1-2--11434

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2003 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015