By Malika Handa and Roselee Ledesma
Okay so you made it to college! You will be starting in the fall, but now you have AP tests, final exams, high school graduation, and perhaps a summer job that awaits since you are saving for your future (or should be…). Well, congratulations you are going to college! Yes, starting college is a very big deal! I was definitely encouraged to dream big, so naturally I had to plan big and for that I had to think big . . . big, big, big! What if we use small steps to achieve big plans? “Small” and practical steps can be more manageable for you.
When thinking about problem-solving it is important to recognize that there is a difference in the way experts and novices solve problems. Novices are people who are inexperienced in a field of study, just like college students who are starting to build their expertise. If you consider yourself a novice, this is for you!
Let’s face it, settling into college includes a lot! It involves making friends, diving into extra co-curricular activities, starting to take college classes, oh and let’s not forget the rush of exams! All of these activities can drain your energy and take up a good chunk of your time. Before the circus of college life begins, let me share some steps for better problem-solving based on how experts solve problems. This blog post hopes to help incoming freshman solve academic problems more like an expert would. I know I won’t make you experts in a field, only you can do that with years (and I mean years of study), but this blog post can get you going as you start your first semester/quarter of college! So get some coffee and get cozy!
Experts in a given field have a lot of knowledge and their problem-solving processes are different than that of novices. Here is a step-by-step guide to ‘Expert-ology’: A Novice’s Guide to Problem-Solving.
- Gain as much information as you can.
To be an expert one must acquire a considerable amount of knowledge (1). So we can start by making our textbooks our new friend. But knowledge is not limited and neither is your memory capacity. In addition to relying on your textbooks for knowledge, also check out academic videos, posters and journals to help you start your transformation into an expert. Don’t forget about the professors teaching your classes, yeah those Ph.D.’s. They are also valuable resources for you to learn more about a given subject. This additional support will help you soak up some ‘extra’ knowledge.
- Try to notice ‘meaningful’ information.
Experts know the “major key alert” and can recognize the essential information provided in a problem. They can do this because they use their previously attained knowledge to categorize information in front of them and make connections between information provided and information already attained (2). In other words, when you have more knowledge, you are more likely to identify the relevant and irrelevant information. Then make use of the relevant information to find the solution.
- Don’t limit your studying to an exam.
Studying for a test? Try studying for the sake of knowledge. As a college student, you will definitely have to study for exams. Usually many stop there because who actually reviews material from past exams, especially if you are not being tested on it? Well this is the opportunity one should take to purposefully evaluate and think about how their exam problems were written, what information was provided, and how you could have used the given information to solve the problem correctly.
These are steps that incoming college students can take as they begin their journey to expert-ology.
The following is a bonus tip for better problem-solving:
A procedure to try is the think-aloud protocol. This is when you say your thoughts out loud while solving a problem (3). You may be thinking, who talks to themselves to process situations? Or maybe you totally get it and talk to yourself all the time! I know I do. Regardless of your familiarity with the think-aloud protocol, you can use it to your advantage. You may want to start by thinking out loud while doing a homework problem in the privacy of your room or in a loud coffee shop. Start by vocalizing your thoughts as you work through a problem. Don’t describe what you are doing, but instead verbalize your thoughts as they occur (3).
The think-aloud protocol has been used to describe how information is structured during a problem-solving task (4). Using this procedure helps us better connect past knowledge and the “meaningful information” provided in the present problem. Many times, novices cannot articulate their thought processes. For example, when asked what they are thinking, many say, “I’m not thinking about anything” (5). However, the think-aloud procedure can help new college students form the habit of thinking out aloud to better solve problems.
(1) Priest, A. G., & Lindsay, R. O. (1992). New light on novice—expert differences in physics problem solving. British Journal of Psychology, 83(3), 389-405.
(2) Schraagen, J. M. (1993). How experts solve a novel problem in experimental design. Cognitive Science, 17(2), 285-309.
(3) Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol Analysis. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.
(4) Fonteyn, M. E., Kuipers, B., & Grobe, S. J. (1993). A description of think aloud method and protocol analysis. Qualitative Health Research, 3(4), 430-441.
(5) Kaplan, C. A., & Simon, H. A. (1990). In search of insight. Cognitive Psychology, 22(3), 374-419.