Teaching Quantitative Problem-Solving Skills Lies in the Solution

Editor’s Note: One of the themes that emerged from our recent Faculty Focus reader survey was a request for more articles specifically related to teaching in the STEM disciplines. In response, we are pleased to present an article written by true leaders in STEM education and the authors of Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2016). As its name suggests, the book focuses on the practical application of research-based strategies for designing and teaching STEM courses. It has been called “hands-down the best instruction manual for professors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that you can find.” [Barbara Oakley, PhD]
If you teach a course that involves solving quantitative problems, you’ve almost certainly had this experience. You work through a problem in a lecture and ask the students if they have any questions. They don’t. Then you assign a similar problem for homework and collect the solutions, most of which give the impression that the students never saw anything like that problem in their lives. You conclude the students must be incompetent.
A few of them may be in over their heads, but cognitive science suggests that something else is probably going on for the others. Most of the uncountable bits of information perceived by our sense organs are filtered out without our ever being consciously aware of them. The relatively few bits that make it past that filter go to working memory, where we do our conscious processing.
Working memory …