Strategies for guiding students through the problem solving process
When students approach an instructor, graduate assistant in instruction, or undergraduate teaching assistant for help with problem-solving, providing them with effective feedback can help to clarify expectations for learning, promote understanding, and teach students how to troubleshoot in the future (Nicol & MacFarlane-Dick, 2006). This resource describes several key practices that will help you provide feedback on problem solving in one-on-one or small group settings, such as in office hours.
Support Conceptual Learning and Transfer
Use approaches that will help students not just solve this problem, but gain a deeper understanding of the concept that they can apply in future problems.
- Avoid immediately providing students with an answer, the next step in the problem, or pointing out exactly where they went wrong. Instead, the best place to start is by asking questions and listening to the student to help you and them to better identify the source of their difficulty.
- Start from where the student is at. There is often more than one way to solve a problem; it is important that you pay attention to and utilize the work the student has done so far rather than just showing them how you would solve the problem from start to finish.
- Encourage students to talk through their thought process as they solve a problem. This both contributes to student learning and gives you insight into what they do and do not understand so far.
- It can be helpful to model problem solving strategies for a student by working through a problem while explaining your steps. However, this on its own is not enough. It is important that you also have the student work through a problem themself.
Here are some questions you can use to guide students, from University of Michigan’s CRLT:
- What are some possible ways you might go about solving this problem?
- Tell me what you know about the concept.
- How might you break the problem into small steps?
- Can you explain how you got from step one to step two?
- What are you thinking right now?
- I don’t understand your reasoning behind that step. Will you please explain?
- What do you think your next step is?
Listen to the Student
An important part of working one-on-one with a student is actively listening to them.
- Listen and then rephrase a student’s response back to them to make sure that you understand. Also ask clarifying questions as needed. Example: “You said you aren’t sure which equation to use in this step, is that right?”
- Don’t make assumptions about which parts of a problem will be easy or difficult based on your own experiences. Ask questions and focus on what the student says.
- Pay attention to students’ emotional responses and don’t dismiss or ignore these. Be aware that sometimes things you say in an effort to reassure someone can feel like a dismissal. If you say, “Lots of students find this hard, you shouldn’t worry about it,” students can feel like their emotional experience isn’t being validated. Instead, say something like, “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated with this problem set. Would you like to take a look at some of the questions together?”
- Learn to recognize warning signs that a student might be experiencing more general psychological distress and be aware of how to talk with students about mental health support on campus. See the page Supporting Students in Distress.
Promote Growth Mindset and Belonging
When you are working with a student, ensure that you are sending the message that even if they struggle at first, they can learn the material.
- Avoid negative comments such as, “You should really remember this from lecture.” While you might feel frustrated, comments like this are not productive for student learning. If you think a student needs to be preparing or studying in a different way, point this out in a constructive way. For example, “When you aren’t sure which equation to use for a problem like this, I suggest your first step is to review the problems from class.”
- Recognize that everyone has different backgrounds and experiences that they bring into the learning environment. Avoid making assumptions when students come to you for help, for instance, about what behaviors or grades indicate a lack of effort.
- Help normalize struggle as a common part of academics that can be overcome. For example, you can mention strategies or resources that have helped other students who were experiencing a similar difficulty.
- Avoid sending signals to a student that you don’t believe they can master the material. For example, don’t say, “It’s okay if you don’t quite understand that one.” Although you might be trying to comfort the student, this can send the message that you don’t think they can do it.
- If a student is struggling in a course, don’t overwhelm them with a long list of things they need to do differently. Instead, work with the student to identify specific areas where they are struggling, and 2-3 new strategies they can use to improve in those areas.
- Talk about how you have grown your knowledge and skills over time through practice. If comfortable to you and relevant to the student, consider sharing about a time when you struggled, failed, or made mistakes in an academic or work context, and how you moved through that challenge.
Set Clear Expectations
Clear communication from the beginning helps both you and students have a positive experience, decreasing the frustrations that come from a mismatch in expectations.
- Talk to students about when and how they will receive feedback in your class, as well as who they can talk to if they have questions.
- Let students know what type of feedback you will and won’t provide and your rationale for this. Be sure to frame this in terms of how it benefits student learning. For example, you might not want to give students a direct answer or tell them exactly what step to do next, for the reasons discussed above. Students might find this frustrating and feel like you aren’t helping them. To address that, you can acknowledge that it might feel frustrating at times, but explain that your approach will actually help them when solving future problems (e.g., on exams or larger projects).
Acitelli, L., Black, B., & Axelson, E. (n.d.) Learning and Teaching During Office Hours. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/gsis/p4_5
Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.
Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., … & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 804-824.