Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How to develop the ability to solve problems and learn with it

We often have to solve problems and the approach depends on our knowledge about the subject. However, what if there is a method you can use to help you improve the ability to solve problems?

I was thinking about this because I notice the difficulty some students have when trying to solve problems during an exam. We all have some memory of what we heard in theoretical classes (or not), or what we worked in practical classes. But, if we do not study, it is difficult to access those memory pieces.

Recently, I listen to part of a cousera course “Learn how to learn”, which I endorse and helped me understand what might be happening. Solving a textbook or exam problem is much like solving a puzzle. You identify the pieces and put them together is the right position through meaning. In my experience, this happens.

I was trying to help a student understand the path he could follow to arrive at a solution for a problem. The blocking I felt in him was the inability to identify the pieces of the puzzle while trying to build it. It was like a person moving his fingers through the pieces, waiting for the miracle that by some mysterious force in the universe, eventually, they will fit by themselves and form the puzzle. It doesn’t work like that.

Our brain works in focus or diffuse modes. I’ll leave the diffuse mode for another post. Focus is the ability to take an initial thought and lead it to the right position where step-by-step it develops and forms a solution for our problem. Here you need memory chunks for an easier access to the pattern that helps you solve the problem.

I understood there are 3-steps to create these memory chunks.

Step 1. Identify the Pieces

Most people cannot extract an idea just by looking to the entire page. You need to read work-by-word and connect the dots through meaning. What data do you have? And the physical mechanism underlying that data? What are the conditions leading to that data? To do a puzzle, you need to spread and be able to look at all the pieces of the puzzle.

Step 2. Connect Pieces through Meaning

Remember those drawings children have fun with where you have numbered dots and you need to draw lines connecting the dots in sequential order to draw a dog? Meaning is the ability to write the numbers in those dots. Because once you do that, connecting them is easy. The challenge is to develop this ability.

Step 3. Repeat the Process to Create Memory Chunks

I think Consistent Practice is the way to meet the challenge of developing the ability to convey the meaning connecting the pieces. Consistency is better than frequency in developing the habit of practice. Finally, this practice leads you to create the memory chunks you need about the ways to solve problems.

QUESTION: Have you experienced any other approaches in learning how to solve problems?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

Leave a Reply