Study sheds light on student problem solving


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.

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

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

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

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

"We want veterinarians to become good at problem solving, and weas instructors want to become better educators. Studying education is away to do that."

Study layout

For nearly two months, Hardin used a series of questionnaires, knowledge-basedexaminations and practice and clinical scenarios to gather data. While verbalizingtheir thoughts on cases presented, students determined whether to continuetaking the patient history, physical examination, laboratory and diagnosticprocedures or treatment. They were informed that the scenario should beresolved in the sequence they thought would best solve the case. For eachstep, the investigator would then provide the corresponding answer. Progressivedisclosure was continued until a student verbally indicated he or she feltthe scenario was complete, the study says.

Data assessment

Each question on the knowledge-based examination was scored right orwrong, the study says. The think-aloud transcripts of the scenarios wereevaluated by a problem-solving taxonomic code developed by Hardin and usedto classify each of the statements made by students into one of six stagesof 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-solvingmethod used.

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


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

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

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