Study Strategies: The Problem-Solving Sandwich
When you go to do your homework (reading & problem-set)…
- Start with a homework problem first, not the reading.
- Read only if you need to. Read only what you need.
- Then get back to the problem and solve it.
PART 1: WHAT IS THE PROBLEM-SOLVING SANDWICH?
Read-Then-Solve: A Bad Idea
Unfortunately, many students do their homework using the read-then-solve strategy—they read the entire assigned reading, then start on the problem set. This may make for reading more than you need and likely zoning out while you’re reading. Read-then-solve is often wasteful and boring. You may ask, “But don’t I need to understand the concepts first?” I ask in reply, “Do you read-then-solve in real life?”
The Problem-Solving Sandwich – What You Do in Real Life
In this “real world” scenario, suppose you are writing a report on a Word document, and run into trouble with the formatting. Say it is a problem with making bulleted lists in Word. You have a problem you intend to solve. Here are two strategies you can use. Which is best?
Strategy 1: Read-Then-Solve
- Read an entire chapter on formatting in Microsoft Word
- Attempt to solve the bulleting problem
Strategy 2: Use the Problem-Solving Sandwich
- Attempt to solve the problem with what you know. For example, you might right-click and see if any of the options make sense.
- If can’t figure it out, THEN search for a solution to your specific problem. For example, you might google “how to make bullets in word for mac 2011”
- As soon as you have what you think you need from whatever reading you find, get back to the Word doc and solve the problem.
It’s a sandwich—see?
PART 2: WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?
Benefit 1: The Problem-Solving Sandwich is More Efficient
Let’s see how the problem-solving sandwich can save you time. Compare Kim and Susana, both in a class involving problem sets, in this toy example.
Kim uses the read-then-solve strategy:
On Monday, from 4-6pm, she completes the assigned reading. The next day she works on the problem set, also from 4-6pm. Thus, her schedule looks like this:
Remember, this is just a toy example! You will likely want to put in a 6-hour minimum; see previous blog post with that title.
Susana uses the problem-solving sandwich strategy:
She works the same days, but not the same amount of time.
As you can see, Susana stopped half an hour earlier than Kim on both days, saving herself an hour. Does this mean she has less mastery of the concepts? Will she do less well on the exam?
Who has greater command of the key ideas?
- SUSANA > KIM
- SUSANA < KIM
- SUSANA = KIM
When I show this to students in my workshops, they generally think that Kim and Susana have equal control of the topic, that is,
- SUSANA = KIM
But Susana had an hour more to have fun!
Why could she learn as much in less time? First, she only read when she couldn’t solve the problem on her own so she cut straight to the stuff relevant to her specific question with a strong motivation to get the info and get out—her brain was on the hunt.
Benefit 2: The Problem-Solving Sandwich is More Engaging
What do I mean by your brain being “on the hunt”? When you read-as-needed only, your goal is to find a specific answer to a critical question—you’re giving your brain a question mark: “?” J
But when you read-then-solve, your goal is to “get through the chapter.” You’re giving your brain a period: “.” L
Which is more fun? Ready to Try It? So if you have been using the read-then-solve strategy, try out the problem-solving sandwich strategy. If you have any ?s about how to do it, feel free to come chat with a learning instructor—we’re happy to help!
To your better learning!
Staff Writer: Nicholas Santascoy, Learning Instructor