Study Strategies: The Problem-Solving Sandwich
When you go to do your homework (reading & problem-set)…
- Start with a homework problem first, not the reading.
- Read only if you need to. Read only what you need.
- Then get back to the problem and solve it.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM-SOLVING SANDWICH?
Read-Then-Solve: A Bad Idea
Unfortunately, many students do their homework using the read-then-solve strategy—they read the entire assigned reading, then start on the problem set. This may make for reading more than you need and likely zoning out while you’re reading. Read-then-solve is often wasteful and boring. You may ask, “But don’t I need to understand the concepts first?” I ask in reply, “Do you read-then-solve in real life?”
The Problem-Solving Sandwich – What You Do in Real Life
In this “real world” scenario, suppose you are writing a report on a Word document, and run into trouble with the formatting. Say it is a problem with making bulleted lists in Word. You have a problem you intend to solve. Here are two strategies you can use. Which is best?
Strategy 1: Read-Then-Solve
- Read an entire chapter on formatting in Microsoft Word
- Attempt to solve the bulleting problem
Strategy 2: Use the Problem-Solving Sandwich
- Attempt to solve the problem with what you know. For example, you might right-click and see if any of the options make sense.
- If can’t figure it out, THEN search for a solution to your specific problem. For example, you might google “how to make bullets in word for mac 2011”
- As soon as you have what you think you need from whatever reading you find, get back to the Word doc and solve the problem.
It’s a sandwich—see?
Staff Writer: Nicholas Santascoy, Learning Instructor
6 Hours for Solving Problem Sets
Take-Away: For better grades and more intellectual growth, consider spending at least 6 hours across a week cracking your brain on your p-sets before the TA explains it all at recitation.
The 6-Hour Minimum
- Unfortunately, many students give up too soon on their problem sets before getting the answers at recitation.
- By putting in sufficient hours trying to solve problems, you will be engaged in active learning of the concepts the professor has identified as key to the course.
- For most students, 1-2 hours a week of this kind of active learning won’t cut it. Even 4-5 probably won’t.
- 6 hours is a minimum that is also likely to fit with the other demands on your time.
So try 6 hours a week, in 60-90 minute chunks.
- For example:
|Relax!||11-12:30 PM:||7-9:30 PM:||7-9:30 PM:||7-9:30 PM:||10-11:00 AM:|
Why a Minimum of 6 Hours?
- Some learning instructors recommend at least 6 hours a week to their students because, for many students, this represents an increase in time that substantially improves conceptual grasp of key course ideas.
- The idea of improving your learning by spending more time on problems is consistent with a robust literature on expertise.1 The superiority of some performers over others is a predictable result of more hours on deliberate practice.1 This is true in athletic, musical, and intellectual pursuits. 1
- Deliberate practice is working hard on difficult skills that are central to your area of mastery. 1
- What fits the definition of deliberate practice better—working problems, or listening to answers?
What’s the point of working for 6 hours on problems I’m not solving?
- The point is that you are still learning when working on the problem, even when you are not solving it!2
But the TA will explain it clearly. Why not wait?
- No doubt difficult concepts make more sense as or after they are explained. However, the instructor’s question will not be, “Do you understand these ideas as they are explained?”
- The question will be, “When I give you a new and more complex problem than you’ve seen so far, can you solve it? Under time pressure?”
- Can you confidently answer, “yes!”?
- If you want to be more confident that you can answer “yes” to that question, try putting in six hours across a week on your p-sets before recitation. See if the conceptual learning you attain gives you reason for greater confidence.
But what if I don’t have 6 hours?
- Then spend as many hours as you can before seeking help. And maybe consult with a Learning Instructor to explore your use of time.
- Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363.
- Richland, L. E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L. S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15(3), 243–257. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0016496
by Nicholas Santascoy, Learning Specialist