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KUANG-CHAO YU, SZU-CHUN FAN and KUEN-YI LIN

ENHANCING STUDENTS PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS


THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING
Received: 27 April 2013; Accepted: 12 May 2014

ABSTRACT. Problem solving is often challenging for students because they do not
understand the problem-solving process (PSP). This study presents a three-stage, contextbased, problem-solving, learning activity that involves watching detective films,
constructing a context-simulation activity, and introducing a project design to enable
students to construct a complete PSP. This study was conducted among 103 eighth-grade
students over a period of 14 weeks. The descriptive statistics and structural equation
model were used to analyze the students PSP performance. Results indicate that context
simulation is beneficial for cultivating students abilities to establish and analyze questions
and then select and develop solutions. In addition, the project design cultivated the
students ability to evaluate results and apply feedback. Findings from this study
demonstrate that context-based learning may effectively enable students to establish a
complete PSP.
KEY WORDS: context-based learning, problem-solving process, science detective films,
technological knowledge

INTRODUCTION
Both science and technology education have a commitment to teaching
procedural knowledge; the scientific method in science, design in
technology, and problem solving in both areas (Murphy & McCormick,
1997). The problem solving approach to teaching technology education
content closely parallels the way technologists think and go about the task
of finding solutions to problems. This approach provides students an
opportunity to experience the process of making a technology product.
However, problem-solving approaches are usually directed at concepts
rather than process in technology education (Hennessy, McCormick &
Murphy, 1993). Furthermore, problem-solving training provided in a
majority of school subjects consists mainly of structured conceptual
problem solving (Sutherland, 2002; Vermeer, Boekaerts & Seegers,
2000), not ill-structured problem solving (Dixon & Brown, 2012;
Johnson, Dixon, Daugherty & Lawanto, 2011; Sternberg, 2001).
Since the problem-solving experiences in daily life are typically illstructured, complex, and multifaceted, the reason for students inability to
International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 2014
# Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2014

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

solve problems outside of the classroom is that they lack appropriate


problem solving and knowledge application opportunities in real-life
contexts. Instead, students primarily learn to solve only well-structured
subject matter problems (Johnson et al., 2011). Wright (2001) contended
that to cultivate students problem-solving abilities, these problems
should be taught using real-life scenarios that provide students opportunities to become real-life problem solvers. This is the concept of situatedlearning, as well as context-based learning, which emphasizes learning in
real-life contexts using practical activities to ensure that knowledge
learning is rationalized and meaningful (Lave & Wenger, 1991;
McLellan, 1996). Both the terms of situated learning and contextbased learning are based on the idea that learning experiences occur in
real-world contexts (MacKeracher, 2004). Context-based learning is a
pedagogical methodology in science and technology education that uses
real-life or fictitious examples in teaching activities to help students learn
through actual or practical experience rather than just learning theoretical
knowledge (Putter-Smits, Taconis & Jochems, 2013; Rahayu,
Chandrasegaran, Treagust, Kita & Ibnu, 2011; Rose, 2012). In technology
education, Kelley & Kellam (2009) highlighted that contextual learning
and problem-solving approaches can work together to produce highly
conceptualized and meaningful learning that is focused on real-world
problems, therefore helping students to develop flexible problemsolving abilities.

PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS IN REAL-LIFE CONTEXTS


McCormick (1997) highlighted that problem solving is a specific higherorder procedural knowledge (p. 145). Procedural knowledge and
conceptual knowledge are two types of knowledge required for solving
technical problems (McCormick, 1997). Conceptual knowledge refers to
the knowledge, skills, and tools necessary for problem solving, whereas
procedural knowledge refers to the process skills used in the problemsolving process (PSP). There are many PSP models that portray the
process from low to high complexity (Dewey, 1910; Ge & Land, 2003;
Gick, 1986; McCormick, Murphy & Hennessy, 1994; Mioduser &
Kipperman, 2002; Sternberg, 2009). For example, in earlier studies,
Dewey (1910) highlighted five steps on how a problem is solved. These
steps are (1) a felt level of problem difficulty, (2) location and definition
of the problem, (3) suggestion(s) of possible solutions, (4) development
of a suggested solution, and (5) accept or reject the suggested solution

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

based on observations and experimental test results. Gick (1986)


proposed a simplified schematic of the well-structured problem-solving
process that included the steps of constructing a problem representation,
searching for solutions, and implementing a solution. Then, Ge & Land
(2003) proposed the process of ill-structured problem solving as: (1)
problem representation, (2) developing possible solutions, (3) making
justifications for generating or selecting solutions, and (4) monitoring
and evaluation. Deek, Turoff & McHugh (1999) synthesized a
common model for problem solving, which included a six-stage
process of formulating the problem, planning, designing, translating,
test, and delivering of a solution. Sternberg (2009) describes seven
steps of problem-solving cycle, which includes (1) problem identification, (2) problem definition, (3) strategy formulation, (4) organization of information, (5) allocation of resources, (6) monitoring, and
(7) evaluation. In science education, Shahat, Ohle, Treagust &
Fischer (2013) synthesized a model for problem solving that included
an eight-stage process of identifying and formulating the problem,
activating preknowledge related to the problem, defining and
representing the problem, formulating an expected result, exploring
a possible way of solving the problem, performing a selected solution
process, fixing data and calculating, looking back to the idea, and
making an evaluation of the results.
In technology education, many studies focused on exploring the key
steps of PSP in solving ill-structured problems in technology learning
activities. For example, Hennessy & McCormick (1994) characterized
PSP as some kind of idealized process involving the sub-process of
recognizing a problem, generating and implementing a solution, and
evaluating the results. Mioduser (1998) generalized that most general
PSP, which is typically taught in design and technology classes, as
involving the following steps: (1) identifying needs and problems, (2)
investigating and generating a design brief, (3) generating and exploring
substitute solutions, (4) choosing a solution and modeling it, (5) building
the chosen solution, (6) evaluating the results, and (7) moving to a return
path form evaluation stage to all stages when needed. Meanwhile,
according to the Standards for Technological Literacy (International
Technology Education Association [ITEA], 2000), the common problem
solving steps in design process consists of following seven steps: (1)
defining a problem, (2) brainstorming, researching and generating ideas,
(3) identifying criteria and specifying constraints, (4) exploring possibilities and selecting an approach and developing a design proposal, (5)
making a model or prototype, (6) testing and evaluating the design using

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

specifications and refining the design, and (7) communicating the process
and results.
From the problem-solving procedures previously stated, the authors of
this study summarized seven key steps that are most often used to teach
technology learning activities. These steps are (1) problem definition and
analysis, (2) data collection, (3) generating potential solutions, (4)
selecting the optimum solution, (5) implementing the optimum solution,
(6) evaluating the results, and (7) revising the solution based on results.
These steps were used to assess students problem-solving abilities in this
study. Although it is a common practice to interpret the problem-solving
process as ordered steps in a linear process, however, as noted by Lave
(1988), most problem-solvers do not follow an invariably linear process,
but exhibit inventive and flexible approaches that are adapted to the
different situations that they face.
Therefore, understanding the meanings and function of each of the PSP
steps is crucial for a successful problem solving. Hill (1998) stated that in
real-life contexts, the design processes to solve problems should be a
creative and iterative process that can engage exploration, combine
relevant knowledge, and reflect on the interactions between technology
and society. Mioduser & Kipperman (2002) proposed that problem
solving can be characterized as a multifaceted course of action in which
informed doing-and-evaluation loops gradually advance the generation of
the solution. However, McCormick et al. (1994) found that without fully
understanding the PSP, students would lack the perception of the
continuity and the nature of the process. McCormick et al. also found
that the specification or planning made at earlier stages was often ignored
at the implemention and evaluation stages. Similarly, Yu, She & Lee
(2010) asserted that the main reason for middle-school students inability
to solve problems is their inability to understand PSP. Furthermore, many
studies noted that the key differences between expert and novice problemsolvers was the ability to define problem, collect data, and analysis the
feasibility of potential solutions (Atman, Adams, Cardella, Turns,
Mosborg & Saleem, 2007; Conley, 2011; Crismond & Adams, 2012).
Therefore, using instructional strategies to enhance students deeply
understanding of each PSP should be emphasized, therefore helping
students to gain flexible abilities and skills to solve ill-structure problems
in different contexts.
Numerous studies have employed different learning methods and
focused on different key factors to assist students with developing
problem-solving skills (Barak & Mesika, 2007; Hong, Hwang & Tai,
2012; Kirschner, Paas, Kirschner & Janssen, 2011). One of the most

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

crucial factors is to teach students to understand the function of each of


the steps involved in problem solving. As McCormick (1996) highlighted
that if teachers only go through the design process as a ritual without
requiring students to examine and think carefully about each step and
show a rationale for their choice, the overall process may contribute
nothing to the students problem-solving ability. Voss & Post (1988)
indicated that experts typically spend more time defining problems,
whereas beginners tend to attempt solutions without first defining the
problem. Whitten & Graesser (2003) contended that problem-solving
skills are related to problem-defining abilities and that teachers should
first assist students with defining the problem. As Dewey (1910)
emphasized that reflective thinking was a key factor during PSP, Ahmed,
Wallace, Lucienne & Blessing (2003) highlighted that in planning,
experts conduct a preliminary analysis and evaluation of their design
before gradually implementing improvements. Meanwhile, Mioduser &
Kipperman (2002) emphasized that the innovation process (evaluation
modification loops) after the first model construction were the key
process of a successful PSP. The evaluationmodification loops included
exploration, implementation, goal adjustment, and evaluation. Nevertheless, all the concepts discussed above emphasize that teachers must impart
accurate procedural knowledge to students and help students to connect
the PSP with real life contexts, which is the crux of the PSP.

CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING
The context-based learning is a curriculum design and instruction
approach that uses problem-based, student-centered practical activities
to ensure that knowledge learning is meaningful and relevant to the
contexts of real-world problems (Rose, 2012). Context-based approaches
should both bring the learning to students lives and show how the use of
contexts would improve their interest and enhance their understanding
(Pilot & Bulte, 2006). In real-life scenarios, the setting typically
comprises multiple contexts, and the issues encountered are often
multilevel problems (Lochhead & Zietsman, 2001). Young & Paterson
(2007) noted that context-based learning is a philosophical variation of
problem-solving learning. Williams (2008) pointed out that context-based
learning is an innovative method that situates student learning in realistic
settings and entails the implemention of procedural knowledge. In other
words, problem solving can be seen as a main process of context-based
learning that helps students develop problem-solving skills for real-life

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

contexts (Williams, Spiers, Fisk, Richards, Gibson, Kabotoff, McIlwraith


et al., 2012). In brief, the emphasis of context-based learning is focused
on developing students to become real-life problem-solvers (Vermeer
et al., 2000) by constructing student-centered learning situations that
reflect real-life environments (Fechner, 2009). The distinction between
the context- and the problem-based learning is unapparent in their
philosophy foundation. However, context-based learning emphasizes that
students must consider the social context of the learning environment and
the real context of knowing, which are pivotal to the acquisition and
processing of knowledge.
The process of context-based learning involves students being
provided with a scenario, and undertaking a process of hypothesis,
action, and evaluation that results in the development of student-centered
learning (Trimmer, Laracy & Love-Gray, 2009). As recommended by
Rose (2012), the process of context-based learning should involve distinct
phases. First, the learner participates in actual experience or interactive
discussion, which integrates prior knowledge with new knowledge.
Second, the learner conceptualizes the concepts and theoritical knowledge, drawn from one or more academic disciplines, via completion of
learned tasks. Third, the learner uses conceptual and theoretical
knowledge to solve real, concrete problems or to demonstrate knowledge
in action. Finally, the results and conclusions are generated and reported
in a variety of ways.
To set up an appropriate scenario in context-based learning, Arroio
(2010) suggested that cinema and films be used as context-based learning
tools to mediate science teaching and learning and to help students
facilitate knowledge construction through critical analyses of the movies
use of scientific principles that they have previously learned in the
classroom. Many studies have shown that films offer an advantage over
formal instruction by providing a connection between the students
learning of conceptual knowledge and a possible application of this
knowledge in real-world contexts (Efthimiou & Llewellyn, 2004;
Dubeck, Moshier & Boss, 2004; Labianca & Reeves, 1981). Detective
stories are a type of cinema that focuses on a detective who solves a crime
or complex problems by reasoning about the events surrounding the crime
or problems. Using detective films in a context-based learning activity
can provide a realistic, visual context for students to develop their science
knowledge and problem-solving processes (Aduriz-Bravo, Izquierdo &
Estany, 2001; Labianca & Reeves, 1981). In addition to using detective
films as scenarios in context-based learning, simulation is a learning-bydoing context-based approach that helps students experience situations

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

that are similar to real-world events (Kadash, 2012). The characteristics of


simulations are that they place students in a safety and realistic context
environment in which to help them develop their understanding,
knowledge, and abilities (Parush, Hamm & Shtub, 2002). Most researches
implement simulations via the computer, however, the concept of
simulation is nearly identical to the concept of a hands-on activity
(Michael, 2001). A simulation can also be used to enable students to
analyze a problem and examine solutions via scientific principles and
tools during PSP.
The present study used a three-stage strategy (filmsimulationdesign)
to reflect the social context by film, simulation, and real context by
design. In the three stages, students were guided toward applications of
science and technology knowledge to solve problems, through which they
were also instructed to understand PSP and how and why the steps of
problem solving should be used, which is of critical importance to the
constructivists view of effective teaching and learning. The guiding
process of this study reflects the learning theory of constructivism, which
provides students with a social activity to actively participate in the
construction of knowledge.
The theoretical framework of this study is based upon the contextbased learning theory. From this perspective, we argue that knowledge is
often embedded in the context, especially in technology education
(McCormick, 2004). The aim of this study was to analyze students
PSP development and progression during the context-based problemsolving learning activity as well as to examine the factors that influence
the problem-solving performance during context-based activities. Results
from this study are expected to assist students with problem-solving skills
by cultivating a complete PSP.

METHODS
Context-Based Problem-Solving Learning Activity Design
The context-based problem-solving learning activity comprises the
following three stages: detective films, context simulation, and project
design. In total, the students were allocated 2 h/week for 14 weeks to
complete the activities across three stages. The framework is shown in
Fig. 1.
In the detective film stage (hereafter shortened to the film stage),
learners watched a detective employ reasoning and conceptual knowl-

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

Addressed to Context-based learning


Use films to help students facilitate
knowledge construction (Arroio,
2010). Learn science and
technology knowledge and tools in
real context (Rose, 2012).

Conceptualize and apply


science and technology
knowledge via simulation
task (Rose, 2012).

Use science and technology


knowledge to solve problems
(Rose, 2012).

Addressed to PSP
Learn how to solve
problem from detective
film.

Learn how to define


problems, develop
possible solutions,
simulate and assess the
feasibility of solutions.
Learn how to
implement all PSP, to
evaluate the solutions
and make
improvement.

Figure 1. The framework of context-based problem-solving learning activity

edge, such as problem analysis and the application of knowledge and


tools, to solve a case. The film featured a detective who used scientific
principles and various tools to assist the police with solving a challenging
case. During the film, the students were required to observe and record
the tools and scientific concepts included in the film, such as elasticity,
Newtons first and third laws of motion, an electric soldering iron, timer,
and a bowstring. To ensure the students had an accurate and complete
conceptual knowledge of the film, after watching the film, the teacher led
a class discussion with the students to explain the scientific principles and
tools that were featured in the film. Then, the film was shown again to
ensure that the students had understood the science and technology
knowledge presented in the film. In the film stage, the total instruction
time was 6 h equally divided over 3 weeks.
In the context-simulation stage (hereafter shortened to the simulation
stage), a context-based problem was employed to enable students to
define and analyze a problem, as well as determine the feasibility of
solving the problem, thereby strengthening the students understanding of
PSP. The context of simulation activity was based on the film plot. The
students were asked to portray the protagonist and propose solutions to
the emergencies in the film plot. The simulated context involved a
scenario in which the protagonist was required to rescue an injured hiker
who needed medical attention; however, along the way, a sudden
earthquake caused a rock avalanche that blocked the road and prevented
their escape. The students were required to determine how to use elements

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

of the setting (fallen rocks, tree trunks, and slopes) and the available tools
to devise an appropriate solution to their trapped situation. In this context,
the students were required to apply the scientific principles and tools they
acquired in the film stage to define the problem and propose different
solutions. At the end of simulation stage, the students needed to simulate,
explain, and demonstrate their solution via a self-made simple model to
the class. The teacher and other students would offer comments to help
the presenters in evaluating and understanding the feasibility of their
proposed solutions. In this stage, students spent 6 h over 3 weeks to
complete the simulation activity.
During the project-design stage (hereafter shortened to the design
stage), practical activities were employed to assist the students in
cultivating an ability to evaluate and solve problems and, by performing
certain activities, enable them to experience each step of the PSP. This
design project could provide students with context-based problems to
solve with a focus on teaching students how to apply knowledge, skills,
and tools to solve problems encountered in daily life (Daugherty, 2001;
ITEA, 2000; Terri, 2005). The practical activities involved a scenario that
showed the need for aid relief supplies to be transported to an area where
the road was blocked. The students were required to design a vehicle
capable of transporting goods, able to navigate down slopes, and, if
obstacles are encountered, launch the goods to their destination (Fig. 2).
Therefore, the students needed to employ the science and technology
knowledge they had acquired during the film stage, the problem defining
and analysis abilities gained in the simulation stage, and through the
performance of design planning and actual testing, actually assess and
evaluate the feasibility of the solution and implement improvements. In
the design stage, students completed their design project in 8 weeks over
16 h.
Context description
Design and produce a small
wooden van that can successfully
launch its cargo to the destination
after traveling down a slope and
hitting a barrier.
Figure 2. Task description of the project design

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Participants
The study participants were 103 eighth-grade students (52 males and 51
females) recruited from three classes in a junior high school located in an
area in Taipei, Taiwan. The school, which serves approximately 3,400
students in grades 79, was chosen because their teachers have greater
flexibility with curriculum construction compared to most other public
schools in the Taipei area. The participating teacher in this study had
8 years of teaching experience in science and technology programs. He
also had a masters degree in technology education and was certified to
teach science and technology programs at the secondary school level. The
researchers of this study worked with the teacher to develop a contextbased problem-solving learning activity. The teacherresearcher interactions and discussions provide the teacher an opportunity to understand the
essence of this study and to reflect on how context-based learning differs
from his regular teaching practices.
Student Assessment and Data Collection
A variety of data sources were used to assess how students performed
their PSP. Three learning assessments were conducted among students.
These assessments were PSP perception, PSP application, and problemsolving performance. The structure of the students problem-solving
assessments is shown in Fig. 3.
PSP Perception. To understand the change in the students PSP
perceptions after completing the context-based problem-solving learning
activity, the students were required to draw a PSP chart reflecting their
understanding of each PSP stage (the items of PSP chart 1, PSP chart 2,
and PSP chart 3 are shown in Fig. 3) after each stage was completed. The
researchers of this study then used the following seven steps of problem

Figure 3. Structure of the problem-solving assessment

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

solving, which summarized from related literature above, as the basic


standard for analyzing the changes and completeness of the PSP charts
created by the students. These steps were (1) problem definition and
analysis, (2) data collection, (3) generating possible solutions, (4)
selecting the optimum solution, (5) implementing the optimum solution,
(6) evaluating the results, and (7) revising of the solution.
PSP Application. To understand the students application of the PSP in
each of the stages, the researchers of this study used learning sheets and
design projects to analyze the students performance at various stages.
The material used to assess the film stage was the film viewing learning
sheet. The students recorded the scientific principles and tools that they
learnt from the film on the learning sheet, which was then used to assess
the students understanding regarding the scientific principles shown in
the film. The total score possible for the film stage was 100. The material
used to assess the simulation stage was the simulation learning sheet.
The content of the learning sheet would first led the students to analyze
the problem presented in the context, and then asked students to devise,
analyze, and explain possible solutions via scientific principles. From this
learning sheet, the students abilities in problem definition and analysis
could be assessed. The total score possible for the simulation stage was
100. The material used to assess the design stage was the design
portfolio, which included the design blueprint of the product and
description of the design principles. The design portfolio in the design
stage demonstrated students design and problem solving skills. From
this, the integration of science and technology knowledge and problemsolving skills could be assessed. The total score possible for the design
stage was 100.
Problem-Solving Performance. To evaluate students integrated
problem-solving performance after completing all three stages, the
researchers of this study analyzed the students design and demonstrated
performance of their final product in design stage. The structure of
design, function, and materials/tools application of the final product were
assessed as problem-solving performance. The performance of the
challenging task shown in Fig. 2 was also assessed. The total points
possible for problem-solving performance was 100.
Data Analysis
Two technology educators and two junior high school science and
technology teachers were invited to examine the appropriateness of the

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

content and learning sheets to ensure reliability and validity of the


learning tools and assessment instruments. The four participating
educators were science and technology teachers with more than 15 years
of teaching experience and active in curriculum design. All data analyses
were conducted by the two participating teachers using consensual
assessment. A reliability assessment of the two participating teachers
produced a Kendall coefficient 0.830.
For the PSP perceptions, the charts were evaluated in a step-by-step
manner to determine whether they contained those problem-solving steps.
If the PSP chart included one of these steps, it was coded as 1; otherwise,
it was coded as 0. Descriptive statistics were used to analyze the
frequency of the steps listed in each of the three stages and to identify the
steps used by the students in the PSP.
To explore the influence of these activities on the students problemsolving performance, a structural equation model (SEM) was used to
construct a best-fit model for the three stages of learning activities. The
variables included in the structural equation model were the performance
of PSP application for the film, simulation, and design stages (i.e., the
science understanding, problem definition and analysis, and problemsolving skills, respectively). The dependent variable was the students
problem-solving performance (i.e., the final product of project design).

FINDINGS
Development of PSP
The frequency of the steps listed in each of the three stages as shown in
Fig. 4. Of the three PSP charts, generating possible solutions and
implementing the optimum solution appeared most frequently. According to the figures for the film stage, problem definition and analysis,
selecting the optimum solution, and revising the solution were not as
frequently listed by the students, indicating their initial lack of
understanding of these steps. However, after the simulation stage, two
steps, evaluate the results and revise the solution, were listed more
frequently by the students, indicating that after context simulation, their
solution assessment and feedback correction abilities had improved. After
the design stage, more students listed the steps problem definition and
analysis, selecting the optimum solution, evaluating the results, and
revising the solution. This implied that through the learning activities of
the three stages together, the students began to understand that to solve an

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

Figure 4. The problem-solving steps used in various stages

ill-structured problems, the problem itself must first be defined clearly. In


selecting the optimum solution, the students chose their solution based
on the evidence offered by their research and simulation results,
considering all possible restrictions. In evaluating the results and
revising the solution, the students recognized that the problems may not
be solved after only one attempt and they would revise their designs. If an
attempt was unsuccessful, the students could analyze the reasons for the
failure and identify the steps that needed to be followed after the failed
simulation attempt.
To investigate the frequency distribution of a seven-step process, the
PSP charts, which the students had created across three stages, were
examined. The findings show that the average numbers of steps used were
3.77 (SD = 0.99) during the film stage, 4.12 (SD = 1.14) during the
simulation stage, and 5.44 (SD = 1.03) during the design stage.
According to the results in Table 1, throughout all three stages, most
students could only list three to four steps in their first chart;
however, after the design stage, most of the students could list at
least five steps.
This result shows a clear increase in the number of steps recognized by
the students when encountering problem solving. Overall, from the initial
findings shown in Fig. 4, Tables 1 and 2, context-based problem-solving
learning activities positively influenced students PSP development
(t = 6.20, df = 102, p = 0.00; t = 26.33, df = 102, p = 0.00).

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TABLE 1
The number of steps recognized by students (n = 103) in the three stages
Film stage

Simulation stage

Design stage

No. of steps used


by students

No. of students (%)

No. of students (%)

No. of students (%)

1
2
3
4
5
6
7

0 (0)
4 (3.9)
44 (42.7)
35 (34.0)
13 (12.6)
6 (5.8)
1 (1.0)

0 (0)
9 (8.7)
20 (19.4)
36 (35.0)
28 (27.2)
8 (7.8)
2 (1.9)

0 (0)
0 (0)
3 (2.9)
14 (13.6)
39 (37.9)
29 (28.2)
18 (17.5)

Analysis of the Structural Equation Model in Students Development


of PSP
From the changes in PSP shown above, the three-stage activities
implemented in this study can effectively assist students in building a
complete PSP. To further explore the influence that these activities had on
the students problem-solving performance, an SEM was used to
construct a best-fit model for the three stages. As presented in Table 3,
skewness and kurtosis values demonstrate few extreme scores for each of
the assessment items. Overall, the mean score of students science
knowledge performance was 67.64 (SD = 19.71). The average score of
students problem definition and analysis performance during simulation
task was 50.34 (SD = 16.69). For the design stage, the average score of
students design blueprint of the product and description of the design
principles was 58.49 (SD = 15.12).
The average score of students problem-solving performance was
60.54 (SD = 17.71). Regarding the effect among the four factors of
film, simulation, design, and problem-solving performance, the
TABLE 2
The paired-sample t test of PS steps used between stages (n = 103)
Stage

SD

t value

Film stage
Simulation stage
Design stage

3.77
4.12
5.44

.99
1.44
1.03

6.20* (simulation9film)
26.33* (design9simulation)

*p G .01

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

relationship among the variables was adjusted according to the AMOS


suggestions and is shown in Table 4.
The simulation can be clearly seen to have directly affected the
students problem-solving performance, and with a path consistence of
0.39. Design also directly affected the students problem-solving
performance, with a path consistence of 0.25. However, film did not
directly affect the students problem-solving performance, and its path
consistence was 0.12. The path consistence of the explained variance was
0.27. Thus, the learning experience from simulation and design stages
were key factors that influence students problem-solving performance.
The results in Fig. 5 show that the 2 value was 0.00 and that the
research model was suitable for the tested data. Chin & Todd (1995)
proposed a strict standard that the ratio value of 2 and df should be below
3. In this study, the ratio value was 0.00, which indicated that the research
model was acceptable. In addition to the ratio value, Hair, Anderson,
Tatham & Black (1998) asserted that the GFI value should be close to 1;
the value of GFI in this study equaled 1, which further supported the
research model. The comparative fit index (CFI) was 1.00 and the
standardized root-mean-square residual (SRMR) was 0.00, which
indicated that the goodness-of-fit of SEM was high. According to the
values of GFI, CFI, and SRMR, the goodness-of-fit of SEM was high and
the research model was supported.
In summary, the research model was appropriate for the tested data.
According to the results of the best-fit mediation model, simulation and
project design can affect students problem-solving performance. In other
words, two of the three stages of context-based learning influenced
students problem-solving performance.

TABLE 3
The descriptive statistics of psp application and problem-solving performance (n = 103)
Assessment item

SD

Skewness

Kurtosis

PSP application/film stage


(science understanding)
PSP application/simulation stage
(problem definition and analysis)
PSP application/design stage
(problem-solving skills)
Problem-solving performance
(the final product of project design)

67.64

19.71

.67

.38

50.34

16.69

.28

.83

58.49

15.12

.28

1.91

60.54

17.71

2.00

4.55

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

TABLE 4
The path consistency of the structural equation model
Correlation

Path consistency

p value

Significance

Simulationfilm
Designsimulation
Designfilm
PS performancedesign
PS performancefilm
PS Performancesimulation

0.07
0.21
0.09
0.25
0.12
0.39

.51
.03
.33
.00
.16
.00

Null
Yes
Null
Yes
Null
Yes

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS


According to the previously mentioned findings, both the changes in the
number of PSP steps and the results of the SEM suggest that contextbased learning activities can assist students in constructing a complete
PSP. Experience gained during the simulation stage and the performance
in design stage was also found to be key factors in the development of
students PSP.
As stated in context-based learning theories, activities based on reallife scenarios can effectively assist students in accumulating rational and
meaningful conceptual knowledge (Lave & Wenger, 1991; McLellan,
1996; Rose, 2012). During the learning process, the most significant
improvement was students understanding of the steps problem
definition and analysis, selecting the optimum solution, evaluating
the results, and revising the solution. Examining the students
problem-solving diagrams from a qualitative perspective showed that by
watching detective films, the students were able to apply a detectives
approach to analysis of the problems, which presented in the plot. This
result was in line with the findings of Arroio (2010). According to the
e1

e2

0.00
Film

0.07

Simulation

e3

0.05
0.21

Design

0.27
0.25

-0.09
0.39
0.12
Figure 5. SEM results of the best-fit mediation model

PS Performance

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

content analysis of PSP chart 1, most students were able to describe the
process and key factors needed to solve the case, including searching for
evidence, inferring the modus operandi, and using experiments for
verification. However, because the detective in the film typically solved
the cases effortlessly, this generated the illusion that problem solving was
simple. Most of PSP chart 1, developed by the students, adopted a simple
linear mode, e.g., problemcollect datadevelop possible
solutionsimplement the optimum solutionsolve the problem.
Compared to the seven steps of problem solving used in this study, the
students did not consider defining the problem, assessing the feasibility of
solutions, or dealing with failure, and also lacked modification according
to feedback.
When the learning activity went through a simulation stage, students
learned to define and analyze the problem, and also attempted to devise
possible solutions using scientific concepts and tools. According to
Whitten & Graesser (2003), the key factor that influences problemsolving performance is cultivating students ability to define problems
and analyze solutions. During the simulation stage, this study found that
by requiring the students to evaluate and implement their solution through
simulations, the influence that factors such as skills, materials, and time
constraints on the students solution formulation could be eliminated. In
other words, students can focus on an analysis of the solution and
comprehension of how scientific principles can be applied to define the
problem and then assess the feasibility of the solution. Figure 6 contains
the problem-solving diagrams created by student A (PSP chart 1); the
chart contains a step that is simply labeled decision, but no explanation
of how the solution is selected.

Solution 1
Problem
Solution 2

Decision

Solution 3
Fail

Figure 6. PSP chart 1 for student A

Experiment

End

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

In PSP chart 2 (Fig. 7), before selecting a solution, besides considering


the problem, the feasibility of the solution is verified through a
simulation. This was likely influenced by context simulation learning.
Furthermore, the SEM analysis demonstrates that inspiration during the
simulation stage is crucial to students PSP; its influence is greater than
that of learning in the design stage. In other words, before teachers
implement problem-solving or practical activities, they should allow the
students to conduct an appropriate simulation experiment, thereby
enabling them to develop and analyze possible solutions from a scientific
perspective. This ensures that the students do not blindly employ trial and
error to get the solution. This enables them to experience how the
problem definition and analysis and the selecting the optimum
solution can really work in solving problems. In brief, the simulation
stage practiced the reflective thinking of Dewey (1910) and led the
students thought from a novice to an expert. It can be a bridge between
conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge.
Furthermore, regarding the analysis of student As PSP chart 3 (Fig. 8)
and his design plan, besides the learning experience from the simulation
stage, evaluating and adjusting the practical activities is important to
enable the students to experience the essential steps of evaluating the
results, and revising the solution.
After completing the first two stages, the students no longer employed
trial and error for testing and correction. Instead, they understood that
they should adopt a scientific approach, assess failures, repeat the various
steps, and implement modifications and improvements. A comparison of

Fail (Reselection)
Solution 1
Problem

Thinking

Solution 2

Verify solutions
through
simulations

Select
possible
solutions

Solution 3
Review

Figure 7. PSP chart 2 for student A

Solve problem

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

PSP chart 3 (Fig. 8) with chart 1 (Fig. 6) created by student A showed


that his performance of problem solving had improved significantly. His
analysis and assessment abilities had also improved substantially.
Based on the SEM findings, the model showed that the relationship
between the film stage and the students problem-solving performance did
not reach significance, indicating that the science understanding performance presented by the students during the film stage did not
significantly enhance their subsequent problem-solving performance. A
possible explanation is that the solutions to ill-structured problems
differed among the students. Thus, students might not fully apply the
science concepts showed in the film. However, according to the analysis
results in Fig. 4, we found that the frequency of data collection and
selecting the best solution were lowest among the seven steps. The
simulation stage was also found to help students learning how to definite
problem and analyze solutions via science knowledge. Students might fail
to solve the problem if they did not know how to gain necessary data or
additional knowledge by themselves during simulation stage. In other
words, what students need is the ability to employ appropriate knowledge
and collect necessary data to formulate and analyze solutions. This could
also explain why simulation stage plays a crucial role in enhancing

Figure 8. PSP chart 3 for student A

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

students problem-solving skills. Based on these two points, the learning


experience of simulation stage seemed to be the key factor that influenced
students problem-solving performance.
As students progress from novice to expert, Conley (2011) noted that
the novice must proceed step-by-step in a simple linear fashion, but the
expert, on the other hand, can quickly operate simultaneously with many
likely outcomes in mind while testing assumptions on the way to a
conclusion. The experts problem-solving process should be more
complicated and nonlinear. In summary, the content of students PSP
chart 3 can be summarized as seen in Fig. 9.
The result in this figure positively corresponds with the viewpoints of
Lave (1988) and McCormick (1997). After the design stage, most
students could develop their own PSP and highlighted the evaluation and
revision cycling path rather than just follow a linear process. The students
gained an inventive and flexible approach that could better adapt to
different situations that they faced. In addition to the seven steps of PSP,
most students represented in-depth understanding of each steps via added
substeps and illustrations. These substeps included (1) performing
simulated experiments and analyses to select the most viable solution,
(2) analyzing the success or failure of the solution to implement
Problem definition/analysis
Data collection
Generate possible solutions
Solution 1

Solution 2

Solution 3

Solution 4

Solution N

Analysis and selection of the optimal


solution using simulation
Success

All fail

Applying the solution to real


problems
Improve the
solutions

Success

Fail

Evaluate the results


(Record the key reasons for the success)

Figure 9. Summary of students PSP flow chart

Revise the solution


or generate new
solutions

ENHANCING PS THROUGH CONTEXT-BASED LEARNING

adjustments, (3) improving successful solutions, and (4) and attempting to


identify the key to success. As Mioduser & Kipperman (2002)
emphasized that the evaluation-modification loop was the key process
of PSP. In the majority of students PSP chart 3, we could find more
detailed description via substeps and connecting arrows. This showed that
the three-stage context-based problem-solving learning activity could
effectively assist novice students when constructing a practical PSP
reflective of an expert.
Teaching and learning of problem-solving always is an important issue
in technology education. We need to lead students to construct agilely
problem-solving skills for the real-world contexts. According to previous
discussion, we present two implications for future studies. First, asking
students to draw their own PSP chart is a different method to assess
students concept of PSP, which can present some detailed thought of
students understanding of PSP. However, how to assess and analyze
these charts become an interesting and challenging issue. Second,
according to the results of this study, the film stage did not show a
significant relationship to students problem-solving performance. However, we cannot solve this problem without prior knowledge and thus
caused us to ask several questions. When should we provide conceptual
knowledge to students during their problem-solving process? What
knowledge should we give to them, and how? To promote the
connection between conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge is
always an important study, and the simulation stage can become a useful
bridge between them.
Limitations of the Study
Although the present study has yielded findings of pedagogical
importance, the design of this study was not without flaws. The first
limitation concerns the research design. This study was exploratory and
lacked a control group, thus limiting the generalization of the results. The
second limitation is rooted in the assessment method. Since most of the
data were coded and analyzed from qualitative data, the results may
reflect in part the way in which the data were collected and analyzed.

CONCLUSION
As stated by Martinez (1998), if no mistakes are made, then almost
certainly no problem solving is taking place. Students should learn to

KUANG-CHAO YU ET AL.

overcome the failures in real life problems, rather than solving wellstructured problems or pass school tests. Overall, our findings indicate that
the three-stage context-based problem-solving learning activity can effectively
assist students to gradually construct a complete and comprehensive PSP.
Therefore, the conclusions of the study have highlighted a few points that should
be considered for future instruction. First, using science detective films as a
medium to implement context-based learning not only helps students to develop
basic science knowledge but also provides a scenario for students to inspect and
learn PSP from the perspective of a detective. Using films can prove a context
framework for simulation and project design, thereby increasing students
immersion in learning activities. Second, through context simulation training,
students can develop a deeper understanding of problem definition and solution
analysis, which facilitates more effective assessments of failed solutions during
the design stage. Finally, through practical experience of project design, the
students come to understand that problem solving may not be successful the first
time. Instead, problem solving involves a process of repeated evaluations and
improvements. When a successful solution is finally established, students also
learn to evaluate the solution to identify the reason and methods that contributed
to its success. This study asserts that students understanding of the steps and
function of the PSP through context-based learning experience will help them to
solve problems correctly when encountering complex, difficult, and badly
structured problems in the future.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This research was founded by the Ministry of Science and Technology of the
Republic of China under Contract numbers NSC98-2511-S003-042-MY3.
We are extremely grateful to all the students and teachers who participated in
this study.

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Department of Technology Application and Human Resource Development
National TaiwanNormal University
162, Heping East Road Section 1, Taipei, Taiwan
E-mail: linkuenyi@ntnu.edu.tw