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An Investigation of Problem Solving Tasks in Different Graduate Disciplines

Enright, Mary K.; Norback, Judith Shaul
Publication Year:
Report Number:
GREB-92-04P, RR-96-23
ETS Research Report
Document Type:
Page Count:
Subject/Key Words:
Graduate Record Examinations Board Graduate Study Graduate Surveys Performance Assessment Problem Solving Rating Scales


One way to contextualize reasoning is to create assessment problems that embody critical features of the problems typical of a discipline. Problem characteristics are an important determinant of problem solving and reasoning processes. Critical problem characteristics are likely to vary among disciplines in relation to disciplinary differences in content, structure, and epistemology. However, no systematic or comprehensive description of problem categories and characteristics presently exists. A more abstract description of problems would contribute to the development of assessment problems that better match tasks performed in graduate school. It would also provide a basis for grouping disciplines in terms of critical problem characteristics so that assessment problems appropriate for broad areas rather than specific disciplines can be developed. The goal of this research was to develop a broad overview of problem solving tasks typically encountered in graduate education as well as a conceptual framework for classifying these tasks and their attributes. An overview of problem solving tasks was obtained through interviews with graduate students from six diverse disciplines and the collection of examples of problem solving tasks encountered in different contexts. A preliminary scheme for classifying these tasks was developed and provided a basis for rating scales to identify critical features of the tasks. Graduate faculty were interviewed about the appropriateness of the rating scales for characterizing problem solving tasks within their disciplines and about important student qualities. The implications of this study for developing new forms of assessment are discussed.

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