Improving Problem­Solving Skills Through a Course In Guided Design

Gene D'Amour, Associate Professor of Philosophy

Charles E. Wales

West Virginia University

Engineering Education: February 1977

A horse confronted by the first automobile reared and snorted, but subsequent generations of horses live quietly with the auto; they simply accept the car as part of their environment.

Before 1862 higher education offered a unique environment where one professor and four or five students worked together intimately over a period of years. In the process the teacher transmitted the heritage of western civilization, including what was known about science, mathematics, social science, the humanities, religion, ethics, professional beliefs, attitudes, and decision­making. But President Lincoln changed all that when he signed the Land Grant Act that set assembly­line education into motion. Surely there were faculty who reared and snorted in 1862, but their progeny accept what exists today as if it were always so.

As land­grant education expanded and bloomed, one professor faced not five, but 30 and then 300 students. Each increment in student population cost dearly ­ the prolonged interchange became a monologue and the medieval heritage was compartmentalized into quantas of knowledge ­ interesting to be sure, but limited by the lack of scope, integration, and a failure to develop the judgment required to put what was learned to intelligent use. Given this educational development, it is not surprising that students, including those in engineering, came to question the point of all the "liberal arts" courses they had to take; the relevance was quite obscure. The Olmsted Report, published in 1968, identified this problem and challenged faculty to begin a search for something better.

The final major source of the problems described here appears to be in the directions in which the humanities and social sciences themselves are moving.

There appears to be a general shift in these fields away from liberal objectives, which focus on the student, toward disciplinary objectives which focus on subject matter. The acquisition of knowledge increasingly takes precedence over the values of immediate experience; the further development of the discipline takes precedence over the development of the individual. 1

Unfortunately, some efforts to meet this challenge proved to be simply a new mix of the same old quantas, delivered now within one course instead of several; there was nothing like a return to the pre­1862 education of the whole person.

As suggested by the Olmsted Report, a philosopher and an engineer at West Virginia University decided to try their hand at creating a liberal arts course that would attain new goals. They organized a team of faculty who were committed to the development of an interdisciplinary course that would help students learn how professionals in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences gather evidence and make decisions. But they also recognized the value of the advice given in the Olmsted Report:

Interaction between student and teacher should be consciously promoted. Where the principal objective is the development of skills or the transfer of a defined subject matter, good teaching can be done in large groups, using lectures and demonstrations. Once the emphasis shifts, however, to the teaching of people ­ to developmental objectives the relationship changes. Then teaching involves motivating, continuous feedback, discussion, individualized assignments, conferences, and projects. And these things require not "good" teaching but a different kind of teaching. 1

The team knew they could not return to the old pattern of one professor and five students ­ the economics of today's educational system would not allow that. But in spite of this constraint the group still wanted to provide integration, demonstrate relevance, and to help each student develop judgment and decision­making skills. They also wanted to make the student an active participant in the learning process. After considering a variety of possible solutions, the faculty team selected Guided Design, 2 a new approach to the teaching­learning process, as the technique most likely to allow them to achieve their goals. Thus, a course entitled The Nature of Evidence was born. Now in its fourth year, this course provides students from engineering, liberal arts, nursing, education, and so on, with an unusually valuable interdisciplinary liberal arts experience.

Those of you who are concerned with new directions in teaching and learning will want to know at least two things about this course: What it is about the subject matter that helps to solve the problem posed by the Olmsted Report, and what the Guided Design approach contributes to a solution. We plan to examine the course operation first.

Guided Design

The concept of Guided Design is based on the belief that teachers have something much more important to give their students than just information. That something is a model of how an intelligent human being makes a decision. For this reason, Guided Design is part system, part attitude. It reshapes the post­land grant approach to higher education by having students, who work in small groups, attack open­ended problems rather than masses of cold information. It is based on the conviction that the student who works through an ascending order of well designed problems, who is actively seeking solutions to problems rather than passively assimilating knowledge, will emerge not only better educated but far stronger intellectually.

A Guided Design course not only focuses on developing students' decision­making skills but also helps them learn specific concepts and principles. In class the students solve meaningful open­ended problems which require them to think logically, gather information, communicate ideas and use each of the steps in the decision­making process. The students are guided through the solution of each problem by a series of printed "Instruction­Feedback" pages (prepared in advance by the teacher), by their discussion with other students on their team, and by the teacher who acts as a consultant. The students do the thinking, make value judgments, and play the role of the professional decision­maker.

In most cases, the students in a Guided Design class study and learn the same amount of subject matter as in a traditional course, but there is a difference. In this class each open­ended problem establishes a need for a unit of subject matter, which each student is expected to learn independently outside of class. This approach helps the student understand that facts, concepts, principles, and values are part of the background information required for the decision­making process. This organization establishes a pattern that will serve the student after graduation where continued independent learning is a prerequisite for success. In this interdisciplinary Nature of Evidence course the student is expected to gather needed information from the self­study materials provided with the book, from the library, or through experimental work.

In a Guided Design class the prime roles of the teacher are those of guide, prompter, manager and consultant. During class the teacher moves from group to group, listening, asking leading questions and encouraging students to participate in the decision­making. Thus, as in a pre­1862 class, the students are active, they learn from the decision­making model developed by the professor (presented in the instruction­feedback material), they get personal attention both from fellow students, who help them learn, and from their teacher, who once again can interact, if only part of the time, with a group of four to six students.

The Nature of Evidence

A major new concept that grew out of the Olmsted Report was the idea of the "applied liberal arts." The Nature of Evidence is just that ­ it asks students to apply what they learn to solve a series of realistic problems.

Before the students begin work on each project they are told that it is not necessary for their group to agree exactly with each other, with the printed instructions, or with the feedback. The projects do not present dogma (under the guise of open­mindedness), but rather­ a series of questions which they are to grapple with in group discussion. The point of the group discussion is not to arrive at the "right" answer, but simply to get them to think about the question. To provide guidance, the views of a professional regarding each question they are discussing are provided in the printed feedback. They learn that the feedback is not intended to be a way of giving them the "real" answer to the question, but rather the professional's sincere and thoughtful opinion. There is no guarantee that the answer is correct; in fact, the group's answer may be better. However, in general the students find that the professional's answer is both reasonably logical and quite similar to theirs. The importance of this work lies in the ideas that are being presented and not in the particular answer given to a question.

As the title implies, a major focus of this "applied" course is to help students understand how professionals in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences gather evidence and make decisions. Twelve faculty from these disciplines developed projects for the course (three from humanities: philosophy, English and drama; four from social science: anthropology, political science, psychology, and history; four from natural science: physics, chemistry, geology and biology). In a one­semester course, only four of these projects are used, so a variety of options exist.

The course begins with a one week introductory project exploring both the decision­making process and the logic of the Guided Design approach. The first problem, based on the highway sign "Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface," introduces the students to the decision­making process. Then the students are asked to participate in the "Design of an Educational Experience, " which helps them understand the logic of the Guided Design process itself. 3 During the next three weeks the students grapple with the philosophy project, which establishes the basis for the course; it models the work of an analytic philosopher who demonstrates how a professional might define the word "scientist." The result of the students' effort is a statement of the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a scientist, that is, the essential goals, methods, achievements and attitudes of the scientist.

When their Guided Design work is completed, the students learn why The Nature of Evidence is also a course in applied philosophy; they are now asked to work through a set of "evidence questions" which use concepts in logic and philosophy of science to bring out the similarities and differences between the evidential methods they have seen. Thus, at the end of the philosophy project the students are asked to compare the strategy of the philosopher with that of the scientist. This exploration helps them learn that although a similar pattern of decision­making is used by both professionals, the goal and evidential methods of the philosopher are quite different from the lawful explanations, predictions, and experimental work of the scientist. This section of each project, which integrates the work of the course, is presented in the form of a series of "questions" and "responses" similar to the "instruction­feedback" pattern used in Guided Design. The difference in style reflects the fact that most of these evidence questions are not open­ended, but have one right answer.

The goal of the chemistry project, which might be the next one presented in the course, is to introduce students to some basic concepts from introductory or general chemistry and to model the way in which a chemist might use the scientific method to approach the task of explaining the operation of a toy called a "drink­happy bird." The evidential technique of a physical scientist is emphasized throughout the project. The "evidence questions" that follow reinforce the ideas presented in the project: the goal of chemistry (lawful­deductive explanation involving a theory), the method of chemistry (the experimental method), some of the achievements of chemistry, and how a critical attitude enters into the experimental method. This is done by having the students apply to the chemistry project the concepts in logic and the philosophy of science that they previously learned. 4

These projects might be followed by one from anthropology, where the professional models the use of social science information­gathering techniques including interviews and a pilot project. In this case the anthropologist is asked to overcome cultural beliefs that limit the protein consumption of African villagers and produce serious malnutrition.

The last project in a one­semester course might be that from English, where the students examine a purportedly pornographic and irreligious poem to determine if the writer based the work on fact or fiction, if the poet produced a good narrative poem, and if the poem was worth writing. In each case, the project is followed by additional "evidence questions" that compare and contrast the work of the new professional with the others that have been studied.

By the end of this course the students should know such things as how the goals of chemistry, anthropology, and literary criticism differ; what role predictions play in science; how the hypotheses of science and social science differ; what special difficulties social scientists confront in testing their hypotheses; and how philosophy, literary criticism and drama are similar in their methods of hypothesis testing. All in all, they will be able to compare and contrast the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities insofar as their goals, methods, achievements and attitudes are concerned. Thereafter, whether they take a course in physics, psychology, drama, etc., they should be able to adapt to the techniques of solving problems in that area more rapidly and critically.

The teacher of a Guided Design, Nature of Evidence course can emphasize whatever pattern he or she wishes. The original course was developed to serve a multi­disciplinary, general education program, and so was designed to present at least one project from each of three areas: the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. However, since individual projects are available, it is possible to focus heavily on any one of these areas with a more limited look at the other two areas. For example, by choosing only the science projects and emphasizing the evidence questions, the course could serve as an introduction to the philosophy of science. By choosing only the physical science projects, it could serve as an introduction to the physical sciences, and so too with the social sciences. By preparing some additional projects on technology, a teacher could also create an exciting course on engineering and society.

To provide the guidance suggested by modern educational theory, each project used in this course is preceded by a study guide that gives a general introduction to the field of the project, a brief overview of the project, a list of the types of things the student's grade will be based on, the objectives of the project (behaviorally stated, in outline form), and the viewing and reading assignments that the student will have to do as the project proceeds. In most projects, a good deal of the required reading material is included at the end of the study guide. Then, a "parallel project" and homework problems (which the instructor may wish to assign) are presented. The homework problems reinforce concepts presented in the project and are carefully matched to the objectives given in the study guide. The "parallel project" assignment provides one or more problems that give the students a chance to use what they learned in class to solve a similar problem on their own outside of class.


The Olmsted Report was primarily concerned with liberal learning for the engineer, but it offered good advice to those concerned with new directions in teaching and learning.

. . . formulate your objectives, consider the student, design programs (with both objectives and students in mind), make full use of the climate, and improve communication between faculties. 1

The Nature of Evidence course described in this article was designed on just such a basis. A prime objective of this design was to provide students with an interdisciplinary, "applied" focus on the way in which professionals in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities gather evidence and make decisions as they solve problems. Through work in applied philosophy, the students also compare and contrast the strategy of each professional they study. This focus provides the students with an integrated examination of diverse disciplines.

The Nature of Evidence is also unique because it is based on a new teaching­learning approach called Guided Design, which allows faculty to achieve old but important educational goals. Through close interaction with other students and their teacher, students learn that even though engineers have developed computers and other devices that technologically extend their innate capacity to make decisions, the process still involves judgment, values, and trial and error work. They learn that part of the problem is the complex nature of the decision­making process; it depends on data that is always limited in some way, on the rational use of the process steps, on the personality characteristics of the participants and on interpersonal relationships such as cooperation, competition, manipulation, and domination. Our experience with this course indicates that the likelihood of successful and effective decision­making in either engineering or in liberal arts can be increased significantly by helping students learn the steps in this process and providing supervised practice with some technique such as Guided Design.


  1. Olmsted, Sterling P., "Liberal Learning for the Engineer," Engineering Education, vol. 59, no. 4, Dec. 1968.
  2. A series of eight articles on Guided Design was published in Engineering Education between February and May, 1972, vol. 62, nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8.
  3. Wales, C.E., R.A. Stager, Guided Design, available from C.E. Wales, West Virginia University, 1976.
  4. Goldberg, F. and G. D'Amour, "Integrating Physics and the Philosophy of Science Through Guided Design," American Journal of Physics, vol. 44, no. 9, Sept., 1976.

Gene D'Amour is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Director of the West Virginia University teacher intern program. His special interests are in logic, the philosophy of science, and instructional development. He has published numerous articles, is coauthor of The Nature of Evidence, and has been an instructional consultant to many universities and to business.

Charles Wales, professor of engineering and education and director of freshman engineering at WVU, helped develop both a systems approach to course design and a new concept in course operation called guided design. A published book which models this new approach is Guided Engineering Design. A second book, Educational Systems Designs (co­authored with Dr. R. A. Stager), was written to help other faculty learn how to apply a systems approach to education. This work has been recognized by a variety of teaching awards including the ASEE George Westinghouse Award.