Cultivating problem-solving abilities

Cultivating problem solving and decision-making abilities

A physics teacher uses a series of problems called overload to challenge students to calculate and design the wiring system for a new house. How many outlets and circuits are needed, and how can these be set up to minimize blowing the circuit breaker? How does the teacher guide students to solve the problem?

Do you engage students in learning that involves solving problems or making deci­sions? Are students challenged  to organize their knowledge into systematic strategies? Do students need to learn how to find and define problems, how to generate solutions, and how to evaluate and choose among solutions? Does your learning require students to deal with issues they need to make choices about, weigh the values of different options, and predict outcomes as probabilities? These are learning outcomes well served by learning with mental models.

Intended Learning Outcomes
What students learn
Way of Learning
Origins and theory
Common Methods
What the teacher provides
Cultivating problem solving and decision-making abilities
Mental strategies for finding solutions and making choices
Learning with mental models
Gestalt psychology, problem solving, and decision theory
Case studies

Teachers who want to use learning with mental models effectively do the following:

  • Realize that the best way to learn problem solving is by solving problems, and the best way to learn decision making is by making decisions.
  • Convince students that problem-solving and decision-making techniques can be learned.
  • Find or develop appropriate, relevant materials for students to practice with (problems, case studies, lab activities, and projects).
  • Identify the steps or stages involved in solving a problem.
  • Make sure students have the appropriate background knowledge to be able to solve the problem.
  • Share useful theories on problem solving and decision making, and help students select the right mental model for the problem.
  • Model the effective use of mental models to students.
  • Help students sort relevant from irrelevant information.
  • Draw on computer technologies to find and display information.
  • Keep the focus on the process and steps rather than the final solution or decision.
  • Revisit common pitfalls if things are not going as planned.
  • Use formative as well as summative assessment measures to help students demonstrate their thinking processes and use of mental models.

How do you use this way of learning?

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