Professors guide their classes through complex sequences, rules, and steps in the problem-solving process. Students then solve the problems along with them. They leave class feeling confident that they can solve similar problems on their own. But then they struggle outside of the classroom context and without their professors’ assistance. Their confidence erodes. Feelings of incompetence take over. Student success takes a nosedive.

This document accomplishes two things: explains how this method tricks students into believing they are prepared and provides a roadmap for how professors can help students build problem-solving skills and true confidence.

The Problem: Traditional Methods Hinder Student Success

Like many academic challenges, the problem is two-fold: educators’ and students’ labor must complement each other. But this is rarely the case.

Professors enjoy working through problems in class, and students expect to spend most of the class time working through problems. These mutual interests are particularly true in math-based courses, such as those in the STEM fields. Leading the class through complex problems gives professors opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and problem-solving skills. Meanwhile, participating or simply watching professors navigate problems makes students feel as if they’ve worked the problems themselves.

Working through problems in class can be deceptive to both students and educators because the mental labor invested in the work is misunderstood. Students concentrate on what professors say and what they write on the boards or screens. This is the information they capture in their notes, and it is subsequently the information they use to solve future problems. This type of visible labor is useful, but it has its limits. Students are oblivious to the invisible labor that powers their professors’ problem-solving abilities.

As professors solve problems, they draw upon deep conceptual knowledge of core disciplinary concepts. They use this knowledge to guide their work before and throughout the problem-solving experience. Yet educators are unaware of the essential role that their conceptual knowledge plays during class. Professors are using two types of labor: explicit and implicit. The explicit labor is the verbal and written information they dispense to students. Implicit labor is when professors draw upon formulas, rules, or sequences as lenses to navigate problems.

Students focus on capturing the explicit labor, so they leave class with lots of formula knowledge. They expect the problem-solving process to go smoothly later as they simply plug in formulas they’ve written in their notes. They don’t realize that before they can work through the problems, they must also draw upon conceptual knowledge. Trying to solve problems with only external information is like trying to drive a car without an engine. It’s the unseen labor that makes the visible labor work.

The Solution: Define, Distinguish and Divide the Labor

Research suggests that students who have the same cognitive abilities may have different metacognitive abilities underlying their thinking. This means that students with stronger metacognitive skills can extract the unspoken conceptual knowledge from the class. They then automatically combine it with the explicit knowledge dispensed during class. This synthesis of conceptual knowledge and specific formulaic knowledge facilitates deeper learning and higher performance. Their peers may only get the explicit knowledge, however, and thus have powerless learning and lower performance.

Download the complete “ Building STEM Students Academic Work Competence ” to learn more about student success.


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