Data-driven problem solving and students' critical thinking in a problem-based learning environment
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This case study employed a data-driven problem solving system entitled ActionOrganizer as an instrument to investigate two research questions that focus on students' changing thinking processes. Twenty-two Chinese college students were required to solve a problem based on a given scenario. Through using ActionOrganizer, participants completed three weekly assignments, in which they could incorporate their thinking skills. The theoretical foundations were constructed by the theories of metacognition, critical thinking, problem-based learning (PBL), and data-driven systems. Since ActionOrganizer embodied the principles of PBL, instructional technology principles, and the characteristics of data formation, ActionOrganizer had the potential to help students record, organize, and manage their changing thinking. This study defines the indicators of critical thinking to be inquiry, analysis, inference, and decision-making as a group of inquiry skills, and uses this definition to establish codes to explore participants' thinking patterns when they responded to each ActionOrganizer stage. Kuhn's inquiry model and Barrows' PBL model were the major models that supported the interpretation of the findings in this study. This study collected data from a survey (the AOPS), an optional questionnaire (OQ), three group interviews, and twenty-two students' ActionOrganizer assignments. For Question #1—attitudinal perceptions—this study analyzed the data from the AOPS, OQ, and interviews. For Question #2—how the system influenced students' critical thinking skills—this study used data from the interviews and students' assignments through a miniature case study (Question #2A), then calculated the frequencies of critical thinking skills and identified patterns emerging from the frequencies (Question #2B). The major findings for Question #1 were that ActionOrganizer's features allowed participants to freely reflect on their thinking and to organize thinking. The findings for Question #2A suggest that through repeated practices in this PBL environment, participants were able to apply different levels of metacognition and generate new knowledge. The findings for Question #2B show that for the assimilate stage, participants used inquiry, analysis, and inference; for the analysis stage, they applied analysis, inference, and decision-making; and for the action plans stage, they used decision-making with less inference and less analysis.