Open Ended Questions

Open Ended Questions

I’ve been wanting to post on the topic of Open Ended Questions for some time but haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts properly. One of the things that I think defines a person as an engineer is the ability to put forth potential solutions to open ended questions which may have several answers. I am particularly discussing questions where there is not one ideal solution but rather a series of tradeoffs and the person answering the question must justify their choices.

One of the things I tried to do in the classes I taught this past year was to keep some questions open ended to see how students would formulate their answers. In some cases, this was successful but in others, not so much. The other thing that struck me as strange is there wasn’t always a connection between a student’s standing and their ability to answer open ended questions. My feeling was that this is what made the top students in engineering, well, engineers.

I think back to my undergraduate university and open ended questions appeared in at least one class every semester. Often, we’d have a project to work on with a goal but no idea of what path to take. That is, in my eyes, pretty typical of an undergraduate engineering curriculum. When I did my masters, some of the questions in class were much more broadly defined and they sometimes didn’t even have a specific goal. These were of the “come up with a design for the best widget…” but you had to guess at what “best” meant. I tried to stay clear of that in my classes, at least giving a specific goal or a fixed constraint (i.e. What is the highest natural frequency you can get while minimizing this?). During my PhD, it was all open ended because that’s what you do in research.

I get the sense that engineers aren’t taught that way not. I know I’m only working with a small dataset so the numbers might be skewed. However, some of the responses to my open ended questions made me think the student hadn’t been asked a question where they had to critically think before. And this was the case for both undergrad and graduate students. If that’s the case, then we need to reexamine how our engineering curriculum to see how we can train future engineers to pose answers to open ended questions in the real world.

How much of an engineering curriculum should be focused on open ended problems versus calculated answers? Did answering open ended questions in college have a big impact on your education and training as an engineer?

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This an interesting topic because I like the idea. My issues comes when you put it in exams. I have always had trouble on exams and almost always bump up against the time limit that professors have set. If an open ended question were to be on the test it would cause issues. However, in the case you mentioned about group projects I really like the concept. I actually feel like if we had that type of thing count for more I would do better in my coursework, and would be a better indicator of whether or not you can be a good engineer.

Great students do not necessarily make great engineers. Great students can memorize what they need to do well on tests, but engineers need to think about how’s and whys and realize that the real world is not solved with textbook examples.

When training future engineers I agree with most curriculums that begin by confining learning to proven facts and formulas. But before graduating (at any level, including Associate Degree) students need to be challenged with open-ended problems. That’s what they will face in the real world, so they need to learn to apply concepts (not just look for a textbook answer). Facts and formulas are great tools, but we must also teach how to use those tools.

Student standing vs. ability to apply tools proves that our grading systems often fail to predict future success, although we’d like it to. During my sophomore year I was fortunate to have two professors prove it to us. Sophomore year is when many engineering students become discouraged, and these professors wanted to keep the true talent in school. So they collaborated on a design project that was only moderately constrained – we were given some parameters and some performance expectations but were allowed to devise almost any solution. They created teams via grade averages, so some teams had all A students while others had all struggling students. At first we students assumed that the A teams would perform best while the struggling students were doomed. But when we had to demonstrate our solutions, the two best performing teams were the ones made of struggling students. I was on one of those struggling teams while my roommate was on an A team. I tried to help him with his team’s design when it wouldn’t work, but kept running up against an apparent lack of application ability. Since then his career started much better than mine did, but over the years he’s actually had less success. When I taught I tried to emphasize application and problem-solving over fact and formula memorization. Engineering is not about being able to spit out facts and figures – it’s about knowing how to use all of your available tools to create acceptable and on-time solutions.

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