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Why Teach with Documented Problem Solving

Documented problem solving is a teaching and learning technique that requires students to write down the steps they follow when answering a question or solving a problem. According to Angelo and Cross ". . . students benefit by gaining more awareness of and control over their problem-solving routines." (1993: p. 222) Hess reports that, "The results of the documented problem solving will give the teacher a view of the students' thinking processes . . . The teacher can use the results to diagnose students' flaws in problem solving and analysis." (1994: p. 4)

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Documented Problem Solving Provides a Window into Student Thought Processes

Unlike typical multiple choice, true/false, and short-answer solutions, documented problem solving requires students to think about how they approach a problem as they write down the solution steps. It's the student's reflection on the thought process as they write and the instructor's ability to essentially VIEW the thought process that makes documented problem solving so valuable (Hobson, 2008). Insight into the learning process is beneficial since it allows students and instructors to address learning gaps.

Documented problem solving establishes a dialog with individual students about their learning. This is especially helpful:

  • When students are too shy or lack the self confidence to ask questions during class.
  • When students think they understand the material and thus neglect to ask questions in class.
  • In classes with a large number of students, which prohibits each student from asking questions during class.
  • Since it measures student understanding on a more frequent basis than exams alone.

Other teaching approaches that are similar to documented problem solving include:
  • Think Alouds - A technique similar to documented problem solving that requires students to state out loud what they are thinking as they attempt to solve a problem. The think aloud approach has been used extensively in developmental college math, reading and writing (Carnegie Foundation, 2007). Documented problem solving takes the think aloud concept one step further by asking students to write down the steps they use to solve a problem. In fact, some students may talk out loud as they write down their solution process.
  • Brain Dump - The documented problem solving ". . . strategy is more complex than the brain dump strategy because it attempts to get at deeper issues related to student learning and content/process mastery." (Hobson, 2008: p. 5)

Documented Problem Solving is Closely Aligned with Learning Science Findings

Documented problem solving is closely tied to prominent learning science findings included in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000). The Executive Summary states "Science now offers new conceptions of the learning process and the development of competent performance. Recent research provides a deep understanding of complex reasoning and performance on problem-solving tasks and how skill and understanding in key subjects are acquired" (p. xi).

In the process of writing the documented problem solution, students encounter the following:

  • Metacognition
    • Metacognition refers to "... the ability to monitor one's current level of understanding and decide when it is not adequate." (Bransford, et al. , p. 35)
    • "By prompting students to make each step manifest and explicit, this CAT (classroom assessment technique) promotes the development of discipline-specific metacognitive skills – in this case, awareness of and control over problem-solving processes." (Angelo and Cross , 1993: p. 225)
    • In the process of writing a documented problem solution, students who lack understanding will not be able to complete the process. Thus, documented problem solving, in essence, forces students to recognize what they don't know and assists with metacognition.
  • Expert-novice learning
    • According to (Bransford, et al. , p. 19) "... experts have acquired knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems."
    • In order to complete the documented problem solving assignment, students need to be able to sort through the information available to them and then write a cohesive, step-by-step process that leads to the appropriate outcome. Clearly some "expert like" qualities are necessary in order to accomplish this task.
  • Transfer of learning
    • Transfer is defined as "... the ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts." (Bransford, et al. , p. 39)
    • "Metacognitive approaches to instruction have been shown to increase the degree to which students will transfer to new situations without the need for explicit prompting." (Bransford, et al. , p. 55)
    • In addition to supporting metacognition, the documented problem solving approach prompts students to transfer prior knowledge to the given problem or question as they write their solution process.

Evidence on Why Documented Problem Solving Works

Anecdotal Evidence - Documented problem solving has been used for several semesters in a Principles of Economics course. It has also been used in other disciplines and the anecdotal evidence reflects the success of the technique.

Empirical Evidence - The success of documented problem solving in the context of a Principles of Economic course is analyzed.