Worsley, M. and Blikstein, P. (2014). The Impact of Principle-Based
Reasoning on Hands-on, Project-Based Learning. In Proceedings of the 2014
International Conference of the Learning Sciences.
Prior research suggests that experts and novices employ markedly different approaches to engineering design tasks. For example, novice designers commonly use trial and error, which researchers liken to backward-reasoning. Experts use forward-reasoning, which allows them to accurately predict the impact of certain decisions. In this paper, we present a complementary conceptualization for how experience affects design approaches. We liken backward-reasoning to example-based reasoning, and forward-reasoning to principle-based reasoning. In study 1 (N=13) students complete an engineering design activity. A qualitative analysis shows clear instances of example- and principle-based reasoning strategies. Study 2 (N=20) compares the efficacy of the two approaches by using a between-subject design. We find that principle-based reasoning improves the quality of designs (p < 0.01) and learning of important engineering principles (p < 0.001). This suggests that hands-on learning environments may benefit from encouraging students to employ principle-based reasoning.