Identifying the factors that impact on the problem solving performance of engineers

Harlim, J 2012, Identifying the factors that impact on the problem solving performance of engineers, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Electrical and Computer Engineering, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Identifying the factors that impact on the problem solving performance of engineers
Author(s) Harlim, J
Year 2012
Abstract One of the unique aspects of engineering education is the focus on the development of the engineers’ ability to solve problems. It is imperative to investigate how problem solving performance can be enhanced through formal instructions. The purpose of this study is to understand the problem solving process better from the perspective of engineers, identify what factors impact on problem solving performance with transferability into new problems being taken into account and discover a set of factors that can be developed as standards for measuring problem solving performance. These research questions are investigated: 1) What do engineers perceive to be aspects of good problem solving? and 2) What factors are the most vital for problem solving performance and transferability?

The study is conducted with a two-phase research design using mixed methods. In the first phase, qualitative data is collected using Grounded Theory and Repertory Grid Technique (RGT). This was carried out between August 2009 and February 2011, involving 22 engineers. Upon completion of the analysis of data from Phase 1, Phase 2 was commenced. Quantitative data collection via an online survey was carried out between 29 March 2012 and 16 June 2012, involving 273 engineers.

It was found the key to good engineering problem solving is the ability to understand the problem fully before resolving it. A misconception by young engineers that quick problem solving is good problem solving was observed. Expertise may have adverse impact on problem solving performance, especially for novel problems. Specific strategies that minimise the effect of personal assumptions are helpful when facing new problems; they involve the role of peers, and evaluation and reflection. Personal qualities that impact on performance and transferability are open-mindedness and self-efficacy. “Options” impact on the transfer of problem solving ability. “Options” are conditions that enable the problem solver to resolve problems quickly without understanding the rationale of the solution and reduce the problem solver’s need to evaluate personal assumptions and knowledge (e.g., relying on help from others).

The six key findings have implications for practice. It is recommended that courses should improve students’ ability to understand problems. Training should focus on strategies and tools that assist with problem analysis. Young engineers should be trained in the habit of evaluating and reflecting. A course should address misconceptions such as quickness in problem solving and the focus on solutions. “Options” should be minimised. The course design needs to take into consideration how open-mindedness and self-efficacy can be enhanced. Continuous training even for experts needs to be considered. To effectively evaluate problem solving courses, the following factors are recommended as indicators of performance and possible transfer: the ability to understand the problem well, open-mindedness and self-efficacy.

Key contribution to existing knowledge includes a better understanding of the problem solving process though the exploration of what, how and why. The findings also lead to the discovery that factors influencing performance are linked and not independent of each other. Factors that have a detrimental effect on performance and transferability were also identified.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Electrical and Computer Engineering
Keyword(s) Engineering problem solving
engineering education
transferability
novice
experts
engineering professional development
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Created: Fri, 21 Jun 2013, 08:45:37 EST by Brett Fenton
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