Carnegie Mellon University

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Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Students have learned to rely on cues rather than...

Students have learned to rely on cues (from the teacher, textbook, or other parts of instruction) rather than learning themselves how to identify the appropriate approach.

Students often get practice in situations where they are directed (explicitly or implicitly) as to the appropriate procedure, approach, or perspective to apply (e.g., problems at the end of a chapter, questions at the end of a reading, or application of a procedure they just learned). This may lead instructors to falsely assume that students have also gained the metacognitive skill of identifying the appropriate procedure, approach, or perspective on their own. However, this is only one part of the larger problem-solving process that is often overlooked, and yet it requires modeling and practice.


Provide practice in the skill of selection.

Model and discuss your “expert” approach.

Provide practice in the skill of selection.

Give students practice at the skill of choosing an appropriate approach after they have learned several different concepts, theories, etc. For example, in a statistics class, students learning to analyze data need to learn not only how to apply the various statistical techniques but also how to decide which technique is appropriate when and why. Giving students an assignment where, for each situation, they need to identify the appropriate statistical procedure and explain why that procedure is appropriate has several benefits. It gives students practice at this important skill of selection, offers an opportunity for them to get feedback on their selections, and allows them to focus not on problem solution but on problem planning (i.e., identifying the best approach).

Model and discuss your “expert” approach.

Explain directly to students the different kinds of knowledge that one uses in solving problems, writing papers, designing a product, and performing. This can be accomplished by modeling the knowledge you use in approaching these tasks (e.g., talking aloud as you complete a task in front of students or annotating examples with the planning steps and strategies you would use). These explicit explanations help students become more aware of the different types of knowledge they need to acquire and use, i.e.,  knowing the fact, concept, or theory at issue, knowing how to apply it, knowing when to apply it, and knowing why it is appropriate in the particular situation. Be sure to involve students in this process by asking them questions throughout (e.g., How would you begin? What step would you take next? What features are important?). Also, be sure to provide students with opportunities to practice the skills of identifying important features and planning their approach because learning only occurs for the processes that students are exercising. (See GlaserChi1988.pdf.)

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