The impact of scaffolding prompts on the collaborative problem solving of ill-structured tasks by undergraduate engineering student groups
Ill-structured tasks are important to college-level engineering courses because they are similar to authentic problems that students will encounter in their future workplaces. As they solve these tasks, students practice applying theoretical concepts to problems they are likely to face in the future. Solving collaborative ill-structured tasks allows students to expand their learning beyond “drill-and-practice”-type problem solving and engage in higher order thinking. However, it is necessary to scaffold ill-structured tasks because they are unfamiliar to students, who are often unsure about how to begin solving the problem. Research has reported on the learning processes and outcomes associated with implementing these tasks in the classroom. However, it is not clear what scaffolding prompts can foster students’ participation in effective collaborative interactions that include not only attempting to solve the task, but also setting up the task, planning how to solve, and evaluating the completed solution. This paper examines two different collaborative ill-structured engineering tasks, and contrasts how the different scaffolding prompts influenced 1) students’ verbal interactions as they worked and 2) the groups’ final scores on the task.
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. In previous work (blinded for review), we developed a framework that outlines the four collaborative problem-solving processes necessary for solving an ill-structured 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 engage in all four processes as they solve this type of task. Ill-structured tasks developed from our on-going project were implemented in an undergraduate engineering classroom, where small groups of students worked collaboratively while video and audio data were collected. Our recent analysis of our task design found that the task design inherently prompted students to engage in all four processes, but with an overwhelming majority of time spent on solving the problem (P3).
In this paper, we will analyze the data from eleven groups solving two tasks—one that was scaffolded using explicit prompts, and one that did not include explicit prompts. Scaffolding the tasks by including explicit prompts for P1, P2, and P4 allows students to participate more frequently in these types of turns, leading to more effective collaborative interactions and higher final solution scores. Our study promotes the evolution of collaborative problem solving by expanding on ill-structured task design theory. This research is especially relevant for engineering educators because it provides concrete recommendations on how to scaffold ill-structured tasks for engineering students.
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