Establishing Problem-Solving Habits in Introductory Science Courses

By DiLisi, Gregory A.; Eulberg, Jennifer E. et al. | Journal of College Science Teaching, March-April 2006 | Go to article overview

Establishing Problem-Solving Habits in Introductory Science Courses


DiLisi, Gregory A., Eulberg, Jennifer E., Lanese, James F., Padovan, Patricia, Journal of College Science Teaching


Byline: Gregory A. DiLisi, Jennifer E. Eulberg, James F. Lanese, and Patricia Padovan

Students crave problem-solving strategies that promise increased achievement on tests. Student ambitions seem to align with teacher goals, yet students resist using these strategies for various reasons. We seek to establish a pedagogy modifying student behavior so they are more likely to use any strategy a teacher deems useful.

Most undergraduate teachers, especially those in science and engineering courses, believe establishing good problem-solving habits in their students, through the structured repetitive use of the same strategy or template, will maximize student performance and increase student achievement on examinations (Larkin, McDermott, Simon, and Simon 1980; Bunce and Heikkinen 1986; Huffman 1997). The need and desire for such strategies is evident since students often complain they are unsure of how to independently formulate a plan for tackling a given problem. We have all heard students lament that they can follow a solution in class, but without guidance they cannot construct a planned approach on their own: "When you do a problem in class, it seems so clear, but on my own, I don't even know where to begin." Despite student pleas, researchers find many students resist an instructor's attempts to establish good problem-solving habits because of the students' perception of the time and effort needed to develop the strategies (McClosky 1983; Gunstone 1987; Maloney 1994). In this study, we seek to identify a method by which undergraduate science teachers can impart good problem-solving strategies to their students through behavior modification. Our study was conducted in the setting of an undergraduate introductory mechanics physics course, but is broadly designed so our results apply to all scientific fields. The focus of the study is not the physics-specific problem-solving strategy; rather, we seek to answer the following questions:

Can we change student habits with respect to a given problem-solving strategy through behavior modification? In other words, using in-class behavior modification techniques, can we increase student implementation of a problem-solving strategy?

Can we change student attitudes toward a given problem-solving strategy through behavior modification?

If we are able to change student habits and attitudes, does the use of the prescribed problem-solving habits enhance student achievement?

These questions are answered with data accumulated over three semesters. By tracking indices that measure habit usage over time, employing student surveys, and auditing performance on examinations, we measure student implementation of our problem-solving strategy, assess changes in student attitudes, and evaluate the effectiveness of this strategy on a series of examinations.

Methods

For this study, a typical physics textbook multistep, problem-solving strategy, examined extensively in the science education literature, is simplified to five observable behaviors or habits (Bunce and Heikkinen 1986; Heller and Hollabaugh1992; Woods 1993; Huffman 1997):

Habit 1: Symbolically tabulate all known values given in the problem, together with their units, in the left hand margin of the paper.

Habit 2: Similarly, below the known variables, symbolically identify all that is asked for in the problem (i.e., the unknowns), together with their units.

Habit 3: Sketch the physical situation, relating known and unknown variables.

Habit 4: Write the governing equations below the sketch.

Habit 5: After substituting quantities into the developed solution, perform a dimensional analysis checking for unit consistency.

The sample used in this study includes all students enrolled in the introductory mechanics physics courses during three semesters at a midwestern liberal arts college with a total undergraduate student population of ~3,500. …

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