Study sheds light on student problem solving


Study sheds light on student problem solving

Feb 01, 2004
By staff

Columbia, Mo.-There's a definable difference between the problem-solving techniques of students and the approach most experts take when it comes to evaluating patients.

That's the gist of an educational study conducted by researcher Dr. Laura Hardin, assistant professor of basic sciences at Mississippi State University. The results, published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, focuses on 17 University of Missouri-Columbia students completing their second year of veterinary medical education and an analysis of their problem-solving abilities.

The purpose: to define problem-solving characteristics so they can one day be taught.

"An experienced clinician can develop a hypothesis first, then go about strengthening that hypothesis," Hardin says. "Non-experts gather a lot of information hoping it will fall into place.

"We want veterinarians to become good at problem solving, and we as instructors want to become better educators. Studying education is a way to do that."

Study layout

For nearly two months, Hardin used a series of questionnaires, knowledge-based examinations and practice and clinical scenarios to gather data. While verbalizing their thoughts on cases presented, students determined whether to continue taking the patient history, physical examination, laboratory and diagnostic procedures or treatment. They were informed that the scenario should be resolved in the sequence they thought would best solve the case. For each step, the investigator would then provide the corresponding answer. Progressive disclosure was continued until a student verbally indicated he or she felt the scenario was complete, the study says.

Data assessment

Each question on the knowledge-based examination was scored right or wrong, the study says. The think-aloud transcripts of the scenarios were evaluated by a problem-solving taxonomic code developed by Hardin and used to classify each of the statements made by students into one of six stages of problem solving: choose/inquire; study/perceive/interpret; explain; hypothesize; summarize/problem formulation; conclude.

It was here the data revealed there was no single, dominant problem-solving method used.

"We didn't look at personality; there was no correlation with grades," Hardin says. "Still, there was so much difference among students; the way they approached problems varied quite a bit."


No single consistent pattern of problem solving was found during the study. Some students were more likely to gather a lot of information and look at it for clues, while others took a single piece of information, evaluated it and then went back for more, Hardin says. What method was most successful has yet to be determined, she adds.

"There's no prescribed problem solving method we can say is the best," Hardin says. "But if we analyze the steps, that will help us teach better. My advice to students is to keep an open mind. Look at a lot of things rather than focusing too narrowly too soon."