Engineering students are often given quantitative problems as homework. Problem solving provides students opportunities to retrieve knowledge, apply and adjust conceptual understanding, and build analytical skills. The organization and scaffolding of problems have been shown to be important in facilitating learning. And although it is intuitive that adding contextual elements, such as background information, narrative, images, and local references, to problems could play an important role in motivating students, this has seen limited investigation. This study surveyed students to gauge their perceptions of fundamentally identical problems presented either with or without significant contextual elements. The hypothesis was that homework-style problems crafted to include real-world details would increase student interest and curiosity; such increased motivation has been shown to produce better learning outcomes.
Students in a first-year statics course and students in a fourth-year system dynamics course participated in the study. A series of problems were produced in two versions: one version containing only the information necessary for solving the problem (the context-poor version), the other version containing the necessary information supplemented with additional contextual details tying the problem to a particular engineering or everyday context (the context-rich version). For each class, half of the students were randomly assigned the context-rich version of a particular problem while the other half received the context-poor version. Without attempting a solution, students were asked to indicate their agreement with six statements about the problem description on a five-point Likert scale. Each statement was designed to gauge one aspect of the student experience: interest-level, curiosity-level, ability to connect the problem to relevant principles/methods, problem-solving confidence, problem realism, and problem relevance to a practicing engineer.
In some cases, students presented with a context-rich problem expressed statistically higher levels of motivation versus students presented with the same problem lacking additional contextual details. In other cases, student responses to either version of a problem were nearly identical. This finding suggests that the effort of situating homework-style engineering problems in a specific engineering or everyday context is often, but not always, worthwhile. There is also evidence that providing context is more effective for first-year students than for fourth-year students. In future studies, the author hopes to explore how particular contextual elements influence student perception and whether adding contextual elements to problems affects student persistence and transfer of learning in future studies.
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