Developing Problem Solving Skills

I often have computer science students in my class that are unable to make any progress on a programming assignment.  These students often feel powerless and helpless in their efforts to make any progress on solving whatever problem stands in their way.  In exploring the Digital Age Learning Environments standard (3) of the ISTE Standard for Coaches, I realized that these experiences give me a fantastic leadership opportunity to support student empowerment and success.  Specifically, I can use these experiences to help students develop their problem solving skills and become self-directed learners.

Masks showing helpless and secure/safe masks
From – Polarity Persona Opposites Drama Masks Duality

First, educators need to realize that we may have a role in how a student got into this situation.  In his article Avoiding Learned Helplessness, Miller describes one possible cause.

We all have students who just want to get everything right. We all have students who constantly seek the attention of the teacher: “Did I get this right?” “Is this what you want?” While it’s good to affirm students in their learning, many times we want them to be creative with their learning. We want them to own their learning and create assessment products where they can show us what they know in new and inventive ways. Because of this, there isn’t one right answer, yet our students are often trained to think that there can be only one. (Miller, 2015)

The idea that there can only be one answer is often something that students believe is true in STEM courses such as computer science and math.  Even when we give students a ‘solution’ to an assignment, we are indirectly suggesting that this is one answer to the problem.  Our role as educators is to help students help themselves.  This often requires students do some introspection and become self-directed leaners, as Miller later describes.

Similarly, we want students to be reflective, to ask themselves, “How do I know if I’m on the right track?” or “What could I do next?” Instead of coming immediately to the teacher, we want students to experiment on their own. Many of us wonder why students constantly do the opposite instead. I’ve got news for you: It’s partly our fault. We, as educators, are often responsible for learned helplessness, and we have a responsibility to change it. How can we empower our students to be self-directed learners? (Miller, 2015)

Educators are not the only ones at fault here.  One of the ways my school provides assistance to students that are having trouble with assignments is with tutor sessions staffed with former students.  I made the point of attending these tutor sessions in the past few quarters.  I did this because when I asked some students why they solved a problem a certain way, I would get the disturbing response of ‘… that’s how the tutor told us to do it’.  This got me to thinking of Miller’s question in the quote above about how to make students self-directed learners.  The role of the tutor and educator is not to give answers, but to guide students on how best to solve a problem.  A great technique to do this is to use questions similar to what Miller proposes.

    • What else could you try?
    • Have you experimented with another idea/approach?
    • Why do you think the program is not working correctly?

These questions caused me to reflect on one my recent learning experiences. Many of the lessons in my classes require setup time before class time.  This involves configuring Integrated Development Environments (IDE) like Visual Studio, Android Studio, MySQL, and others for a particular class exercise or assignment.  I share all of my class rooms with other instructors, so the classroom is not available during the week. In the past, I’ve come in on the weekends to set things up for a particular IDE.  However, this is not foolproof, as other instructors either change the machine configuration or install different versions of an IDE during the week that do not work with my class exercise and/or assignment.  Diagnosing and fixing these situations would often chew up a significant amount of class time.

I used questions like the ones above to explore how to solve this problem.  At first, I approached my Information Technology (IT) department for the ability to remote desktop into the instructor’s machine.  I noticed that all of the software to do remote desktop was installed on the instructor’s machine.  However, the IT department informed me that this was only for maintenance purposes, and that faculty are not given permission to remote desktop into a classroom machine.

I then tried to experiment with another approach.  I always prepare for a lesson by using a home machine.  I realized that I could remote desktop into this home machine from the class room machine, giving me a backup if I ran into any issues.  When I next ran into a mis-configured machine, I did a remote desktop into my home machine, and was able to proceed with the lesson with little to no interruption.

Remote desktop login prompt
From – How to use remote desktop on windows 10

The great part of this is that the students in my classroom saw when I ran into the problem (it was displayed on the screen), and then saw my problem solving skills to come up with a solution.  This was a great opportunity to lead my students by example.  Now, when students approach me about a particular problem, they often expect me to respond with a set of questions, rather than giving them a solution.  As these same students will go on to be the tutors of the future, I am giving future tutors the tools they need to better help students become self-directed learners.

Although we can take steps as individual educators to avoid learned helplessness, we need to reexamine the systems of schooling, from curriculum to assessment and instruction, to allow for empowerment rather than always getting the right answer. (Miller, 2015)


3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Wow, Nat – when you mentioned that your students are getting used to you asking questions rather than providing them with a solution and that this results in them internalizing this method and applying it when they become tutors is really powerful. Imagine if this started at the age I teach, 2nd grade! Becoming self-directed learners through this process frees students up to be more creative when they encounter a challenge versus thinking there is only one ‘right’ way. So cool that you are modeling this and in a genuine way!

  2. Nat,
    I am so glad to hear that your students are expecting you to respond with a set of questions, rather than giving them a solution, which is a significant step of change for your students. You did so good to be a facilitator and a mentor to influent students to be self-direct rather than relying on the teacher’s guidance. Thank you for the sharing.

  3. Nat,
    It is crazy that in this day and age that students are still expecting one right answer when problem solving. In real life especially I see so many people get caught up on if the way they solved a problem was the “right” way. It is extremely important to teach students that there can be multiple solutions to problems and not just one “right” way to solve a problem. I like the idea of prompting students with open-ended questions to try to scaffold their thinking to more creative problem solving. I am excited to try this more in my classroom in the year to come! Thanks for sharing!!

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