A Swell(er) Chat with My Students

I had a great conversation with my students about understanding when they really know their stuff…when they are ‘experts’ of the material.  After completing the following matching retrieval practice, we really dove into how they thought, how they considered all of the information and solved the problem of matching the appropriate name to the appropriate description.  

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Quite a straightforward review.  Nothing tricky…really just want the students to know what they know and what they don’t know.  This should drive their future studies on the subject. That’s not the focus of this post, though…if you want to know more about this, read here.

So, before we covered the correct answers, I specifically asked them to do something they’ve probably never done before; think about how you solved this problem.  Ten matching terms to definitions…how did you approach the matching?  

Did you simply read the name on the left, recall what that person did, and go find the answer on the right?

or vice versa

Did you look at the answers on the right, recall the person’s name, and find them on the left?

Or did you use some problem-solving strategy?  Maybe you needed to rely on coming back to a few of the names because you weren’t sure, so you wanted to eliminate the answers you knew were incorrect first.  Maybe you weren’t completely sure at all, so you went with the answer that ‘sounded’ the most correct.

If you relied on a general problem-solving strategy, you are probably a novice and not an expert of this knowledge.  Don’t get me wrong, narrowing down or eliminating wrong answers isn’t a bad thing…please do this if you need to.  But, don’t consider yourself an ‘expert’ if you have to do this.   

If you really had the domain-specific knowledge, if you really knew what Lewis Terman accomplished, you would simply read his name, recall that information, and search for it in the right column.  Done deal. That’s how an expert would approach this problem…at least on this information.

Think about multiple-choice questions.  For any particular question, can you read the stem, recall the answer, and just go find the answer?  Or do you need to rely on some problem-solving strategy? Do you narrow it down my deciding that alternatives A. and C. cannot be correct answer and then guess between B. and D.?  Do you continue on, hoping another question will give you information that will clue you in to the answer of previous material?

Again, if you were able to think forward through the problem, only reading the stem and going to find the answer, you are acting more like an expert of this material.  If you relied on a general problem-solving strategy, you are acting more like a novice of this material.  Notice that a general problem-solving strategy does not rely on subject-specific information.  It can be applied whether the material is psychology, medieval history, or math.  In contrast, the expert has the subject-specific knowledge necessary to solve the problem and doesn’t need the general problem-solving strategy.

While all of this may sound a bit obvious…it really isn’t for our students.  Upon having this conversation with my students this past week, none had considered how they solve a problem as an indication to them about their learning…helping them experience assessment for learning as opposed to assessment for a grade.  I would highly recommend you discuss this with your students.  It is part of a bigger conversation to be had about learning being a process and not an end game. It gets them a little closer to learning for the sake of learning…for the sake of having more knowledge because they just want to know stuff, to be informed, to be a lifelong learner of sorts.

To be brutally honest with you, this is the second time I’ve written this post.  The first was more technical; explicitly pulling out excerpts and discussing a wonderful journal article by Dr. John Sweller:

Sweller, John. “Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning.” Cognitive Science, vol. 12, no. 2, 1988, pp. 257–285., doi:10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4.

In this article, Dr. Sweller discusses means-end analysis as a general problem solving strategy that novices use and how experts use the domain-specific knowledge they have to solve a problem moving forward.  For a nerd like myself, the article is extremely interesting and a really good read.

However, I wanted the information to be more understandable.  So, I scrapped the technical version of the blog post and decided to rewrite.  The post seemed cold and it didn’t need to be. Instead I wrote about how I applied this research in my classroom to positively affect student learning.  Hopefully, by doing this, I made the research a little more accessible and brought it closer to the classroom teacher’s desktop.

How can you adapt this conversation for your classroom?

What other positives can be gleaned from a conversation with students about problem solving?


4 thoughts on “A Swell(er) Chat with My Students

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  1. This made me think about all those years I and my colleagues spent teaching “test strategies.” What we were really doing was training our students to think like novices.

    Great post.

  2. I’m not sure how well this translates across disciplines. While there are certain problems in my discipline (economics) that experts can solve immediately, there are lots more that require an expert problem solving approach. 1. Ascertain what information you’re given. 2. Recall or develop an applicable model or approach. 3. Implement the approach. 4. Check your answers–i.e., does it pass basic “sense” tests? e.g., are the units correct? is the effect of price on quantity demanded negative? Do the magnitudes make sense?

    I think the last thing we want to do is convince students that experts always have an easy time answering problems or that they don’t use problem solving approaches.

    And the fact is that many strategies we teach novices are perfectly appropriate for novices! Expertise is hard to acquire.

  3. Nice work, as usual, though Doug McKee might have a point. In programming, some bugs are obvious (for an expert) when just looking at the code. Some students think I have Mystical Powers; no, I’m just old. Other bugs are hard to find, even for an expert. General problem solving methods help with those.

    I get the point of the article, and it makes sense. Still, automatic-implies-expert does not mean that nonautomatic-implies-novice.

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