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Encouraging Independent Problem Solving (Subliminally?)

Monday, April 5th, 2010

In line with Carol Dweck’s recent findings that excessive praise can actually undermine student motivation and achievement, I’ve been working on praising my students less in general.

I’m realizing that a lot of what was coming out of my mouth was praise. So now that I’m praising less, I’m also talking less overall. This has created some interesting new situations in my tutoring sessions.

Example: I was walking through an algebra word problem with a rising 9th grader, when she announced, “I think I know how to do this,” took the paper out of my hand (politely), and proceeded to confidently approach the problem in a way I’d never seen before.

I let her run with it and sat back and waited to see what would happen. When she started to get off-track, I jumped in and explained what had gone awry, and then we finished solving the problem together her way with my corrections/explanation.

After we finished solving the problem the way she had invented, I demonstrated the “math class” way of solving it. I told her that “her way” was totally valid, but I wanted her to know both ways in case her teachers only wanted to see the “math class way.” I asked her which way made more sense to her, and she said, the one she had made up herself.

I thought about this a lot after we had finished. Isn’t the whole point of learning math to become a confident problem-solver? As a Kaplan teacher, I was trained to model a fast, effective way of solving the problem, and then encourage students to recognize similar problems and solve them the exact same way.

I think that’s a great way to approach timed standardized tests, when you don’t have the luxury of experimenting. Yet without realizing it, I think I’ve unquestioningly incorporated that philosophy into my own tutoring style.

I’ve always thought that my “strength” as a tutor was my factual proficiency. But there have been times when, faced with an unfamiliar problem, I honestly wasn’t totally sure of exactly what to do. So I’d say, “Hm, let’s try this… let’s work backwards… does this match the way they did it in the example? How can we test our hypothesis?… That didn’t work, how about this other approach?…”

I only felt comfortable doing this in front of students with whom I had a mutual trust and camaraderie, and at the time, I would have preferred to have understood everything in advance. But what if that kind of tutoring, the let’s-try-this-and-see-if-it-works kind, was the most beneficial of all?

There is definitely a time and a place for jumping in and showing a student exactly what to do. I mean, what a relief, right? Algebra tears no more! But what about all those times, facing a homework assignment or even a confusing test problem, when it’s something no one has modeled for you yet? I’m starting to think that part of what I need to model is a willingness to experiment in the face of the unknown.

(Extra thanks to Maria Droujkova of the Natural Math blog for inspiring me to reflect on this topic.)

Related Posts:
Power of Praise (1)
Power of Praise (2)

I Cried Myself to Sleep Over My Math Homework

Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman

2 Comments on “Encouraging Independent Problem Solving (Subliminally?)”

  • Jasmine on May 6th 6:20 pm

    I also tutor math as my main form of employment and over the years have really started to find joy rather than fear when I don’t know how to do a problem. I can really model for students how to use their resources, and that I’m not just the “giver of information.” I really like what you say about limiting praise and trying to be quiet more often. I challenge myself to that too, and would love to hear more about your experience with this in a one-on-one setting.

    I just discovered your blog and LOVE reading things from another professional math tutor!

  • Rebecca Zook on May 10th 5:12 pm

    Jasmine, thanks so much for sharing your experience! It’s really cool to hear from another professional math tutor.

    I love what you have to say about finding joy rather than fear when you don’t know how to do a problem, as well as modeling how to use resources and being quiet! 🙂

    I’ve written a little bit more about this in this post, if you haven’t already seen it before: And I have some more posts in the pipeline on this topic that I’ll be posting over the next few weeks.

    Do you have a blog? I’d love to read it! I hope to see you around and I look forward to hearing more about your experiences!

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