Investigating the Impact of Non-Routine Problem Solving on Creativity, Engagement and Intuition of STEM Tertiary Students

Funding year: 
2 years
Auckland University of Technology
Post school sector
Project start date: 
January 2018
Project end date: 
March 2020
Principal investigator(s): 
Assoc. Professor. Sergiy Klymchuk (AUT) and Emeritus Professor Mike Thomas (University of Auckland)
Research team members: 
Associate Professor Jason Stephens, Dr Julia Novak, Dr Tanya Evans, University of Auckland
Research partners: 
Professor Sergei Gulyaev, Dr Jordan Alexander, Dr William Liu, Dr Priscilla Murphy, AUT; Dr Andrew Zaliwski, Whitireia New Zealand.


Project description

In recent years, some universities in Australia, Europe and the USA, have introduced formal academic courses or seminars for their first-year Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) students based on a Puzzle-Based Learning (PzBL) pedagogical strategy, with some making them compulsory. The primary aim of our project was the evaluation of a strategic and innovative pedagogical intervention based on PzBL in undergraduate STEM courses. In particular, it investigated the effects of this pedagogy on student engagement and its influence on their intuition and creativity.

Research questions

The project sought to answer the following research questions:

  • Does the integration of non-routine problem solving in lectures affect participants’ engagement in lectures, and/or their ability to inhibit intuitive thinking and exhibit creative thinking?
  • Are any observed effects moderated by individual differences such as demographic characteristics or prior ability?
  • How do students react to the integration of non-routine problem solving in their lectures?

Why is this research important?

In 2012, the New Zealand government identified as a priority the need to address the undersupply of students studying STEM subjects for delivering its Business Growth Agenda ( Low engagement and retention rates in STEM subjects contribute to the shortage of STEM graduates, producing a negative impact on the New Zealand economy. The PzBL pedagogical strategy has the potential to increase the students retention rate in STEM subjects by improving their engagement. Another aspect is the role of creativity in students future careers. Whilst creativity has an intrinsic value and is generally considered to be important, its greatest effect arguably is on students employability as it is a workplace requirement nowadays.

Key findings


  • Students’ behavioural engagement was significantly greater during the intervention. The evidence showed that students found the non-routine problem solving more engaging than the lecture itself, with fewer instances of off-task behaviour observed.
  • The group with C grades in prerequisite courses reported the highest engagement in non-routine problem solving


  • Students mostly indicated higher levels of self-efficacy in solving non-routine problems. They saw themselves as capable of solving non-routine problems, and enjoyed doing so, indicating a positive emotional disposition.


  • Even though students saw the importance of inhibiting intuitive thinking, it did not change significantly over time. This may have been due to the short timescale of the intervention and a strong resistance of the (primary) intuition to change.

Group Differences

  • Grades in prerequisite courses did not significantly influence over time student self-efficacy in, emotional disposition toward, or perceived value of, non-routine problem solving. However, students with prior B and C band grades reported an increase in self-efficacy and intrinsic interest.
  • The results suggest that the intervention may have been more effective for males than females.

Student Perceptions about Learning

  • The vast majority of the students agreed that solving non-routine problems was useful for their learning and could enhance their creative and innovative thinking abilities. They talked about the need to “think outside the box” and think holistically rather than be focused on a single approach.
  • Perceptions of the utility value of non-routine problem solving improved at the end of the semester for all students.
  • The students strongly agreed solving non-routine problems in their courses would be beneficial to their future learning, as well as their careers and other areas of life.


  • There were no significant changes in students’ creativity (originality, fluency and elaboration traits of the divergent thinking) over the intervention. This may have been due to the short intervention.

Our partners

The partners in this project represent a rich array of disciplines and institutions as well as expertise and experience. Our partnership also includes: Professor Glenda Anthony, Professor of Mathematics Education, Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Mathematics Education, Massey University; Professor Merrilyn Goos, Professor of STEM Education and Director of the National Centre for STEM Education, University of Limerick, Ireland; Professor Barbara Jaworski, Professor of Mathematics Education, Loughborough University, UK; and Fields Medalist Sir Vaughan Jones KNZM FRS FRSNZ FAA, Stevenson Distinguished Professor of mathematics, Vanderbilt University, USA and Distinguished Alumni Professor, University of Auckland.

Contact details

Sergiy Klymchuk
Associate Professor of Mathematics and Director of STEM Tertiary Education Centre (STEM-TEC) SECMS, AUT, Private Bag 92006, Auckland 1142
Phone: 09-921 9999 ext 8431

Six team members (from the left): Dr William Liu, Professor Mike Thomas, Dr Tanya Evans, Associate Professor Sergiy Klymchuk, Dr Priscilla Murphy, Associate Professor Jason Stephens.


Evans, T., Klymchuk, S. & Thomas, M. (2018). Puzzle-based learning in university mathematics: students’ perspectives. In Bergqvist, E., Österholm, M., Granberg, C., & Sumpter, L. (Eds.) Proceedings of the 42nd Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME-42) Vol. 5 (p.46). Umeå, Sweden: PME.

Murphy, P., Evans, T., Klymchuk, S., Novak, J., Stephens, J., Thomas, M. (2020). University STEM students’ perceptions of creativity in non-routine problem-solving. Australian and New Zealand Industrial and Applied Mathematics Journal (ANZIAM Journal), 61 (EMAC2019), C152-C165.

Evans, T., Klymchuk, S., Novak, J., Murphy, P., Stephens, J. M. & Thomas, M. (2020). The impact of non-routine problems on engagement of undergraduate STEM students (Poster Session). The American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting. San Francisco, USA:

Evans, T., Thomas, M., Klymchuk, S. (2020). Examining STEM employability prospects through the lens of self-efficacy. Higher Education Research and Development (accepted for publication on 3rd August).

Evans, T., Klymchuk, S., Novak, J., Murphy, P., Stephens, J. M. & Thomas, M. (2020). Engagement of undergraduate STEM students: The influence of non-routine problems. Higher Education Research and Development (accepted for publication on 4th September).

Conference Presentations

Unlocking creativity through Puzzle-Based Learning in STEM subjects. Presented by Sergiy Klymchuk at the Computer Science for High Schools Conference (CS4HS), Auckland - Invited talk, 21 November 2018,

Community of Practice: Embedding Creative Problem Solving into Tertiary Teaching and Learning. Presented by Tanya Evans at the Conference Tertiary Education Research New Zealand, Wellington, 28 November 2018,  

Evaluating the impact of the Puzzle-Based Learning pedagogical strategy in tertiary STEM subjects. Presented by Sergiy Klymchuk and Tanya Evans at the First Year Science Educators’ Colloquium. Auckland – Keynote address, 3 December, 2018,

Unlocking Creativity through Puzzle-Based Learning in STEM Subjects. Six repeated presentations by Sergiy Klymchuk at the 30th Rotary National Science & Technology Forum held in Auckland, 12– 26 January 2019.

Developing Employability Attributes and Capabilities: Regular Use of Non-Routine Problem Solving in STEM Instruction. Presented by Tanya Evans at the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Conference (HERDSA), Auckland, 3 July 2019.

Developing Employability Capabilities and Attributes: Regular Use of Non-Routine Problem Solving in Mathematics Instruction. Presented by Tanya Evans at the New Zealand Mathematics and Statistics Education Research Symposium, Wellington, 30 September 2019.

University STEM students’ perceptions of creativity in non-routine problem-solving. Presented by Priscilla Murphy at the International Engineering Mathematics and Application Conference (EMAC-2019), Canberra, Australia, 27 November 2019,

The Impact of Non-Routine Mathematics Problems on Creativity of Undergraduate STEM Students. Presented by Sergiy Klymchuk at the Teachers Calculus Day Conference of the Auckland Mathematical Association, Auckland, 28 November 2019,  

Improving Student Engagement - Policy and Practice. Presented by Julia Novak at the New Zealand Mathematical Society Colloquium, Palmerston North, 5 December 2019,