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A question about the merits of problem solving checklists

July 25, 2011

One of the books on my “I really want to read it but I feel like I’ve already read it” list is Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. A few years back, I read and loved Gawande’s second book, Better, and like Jason Buell, found it to be more insightful than almost any book I’ve read on education.

Gawande’s second book on Checklists is filled with stories of how hospitals have saved thousands of lives simply by creating standard “do-confirm” checklists to accounting for all sponges after a surgery (to ensure that sponges aren’t accidentally left in a patient) or for following all the hand-washing and sterilization procedures for inserting a central line, which often exposes patients to needless and deadly infections.

This idea got me thinking, what if I created a checklist for my students to use during problem solving. My original thought was that as the year went on, I’d add to this list. It might look something like this:
Confirm that you did each of the following for this problem:

  • Wrote each number to an appropriate precision
  • Put a unit with every number you wrote
  • Labeled your axes in a graph

Then I realized this was way too me-directed. What if we, as a class, came up with the items on the checklist together, and students used the checklists as they worked through assessments? I was rather pleased with this idea and thought about implementing it, when Matt Greenwolfe gave me some very good pushback that I’ll try to summarize below.

Students want to reduce problem solving to a checklist—an algorithm that they can just crank through to get an answer. For beginning students, giving into this temptation by giving them a checklist, or a formula sheet, is one of the worst things we can do, since it really robs them of the experience of figuring out what to do when they don’t know what to do, often prevents them from seeing creative new solutions to the problem and leads them down the mechanistic problem solving. The reason checklists work well for hospitals and the situations Gawande describes is that they are implemented by experts, who understand the procedure quite well, and only create the checklist to go back and reinforce the mechanistic details. Doing this too early for students really send the message that the important thing is the mechanistic details, not the actual thinking involved in problem solving.

So this pretty much pushed me off of the whole idea of checklists, unless we somehow created them together as a sort of review for the exam. But it did leave me wanting to know what others might think of this idea, so I’m sharing it here for further consideration.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2011 6:44 am

    Here’s the only checklist I think they need. Not really an algorithm, but super effective, if the kids have really been chunking their knowledge as we’ve been trying to get them to do (in models). And I suspect Matt wouldn’t disagree with this one (since I stole it from him), but I’ll let him comment and argue. 🙂

    Decide which models apply and WHY.
    Draw and ANNOTATE the diagrams that correspond to those models.
    Calculate anything you can calculate.

    • Matt Greenwolfe permalink
      July 25, 2011 7:22 pm

      As Kelly suspected, I completely agree here. I came up with this when students were initially overwhelmed with the goalless problems. I wanted to give them some help and direction without destroying the benefits of the goalless problems, which is the open-ended exploration that teaches students to value models and diagrams and graphs because they are truly necessary to complete the task. Much experimentation resulted in the above checklist.

  2. July 25, 2011 7:16 am

    Agreed with Matt and Kelly; how about a toolkit, rather than a checklist? It’s valuable to really know that you do indeed have a hammer, a screwdriver, and a pipe wrench, and looking at those tools can point you quickly to which one to use to take the hinges off of the door. How about an ongoing class-generated list of tools, like force diagrams, motion maps, motion graphs, etc.? It’s certainly along the lines of IDing the models, and really just jogs the memory right after that bit.

    • July 25, 2011 10:28 am

      I am thinking that the models are the tools, and the diagrams are an aspect of using the models (but not separate tools themselves). That is, I think BFPM is the hammer, while FBDs or system schemas are knowing to hold the handle and aim the flat part at a nail. What do you think?

      • July 25, 2011 4:01 pm

        No, diagrams are a general tool that can be applied to many different models (at least good diagramming techniques are). Think of diagramming as a power screwdriver, and particular models as the bits you put in the handle.

  3. jsb16 permalink
    July 25, 2011 9:51 am

    I like Kelly/Matt’s idea of a ‘checklist’, and jg’s idea of a toolkit. I also think that reviewing those lists or creating a ‘checklist’ of what a good solution looks like might be an excellent review before a test.

  4. chrisharrow permalink
    July 25, 2011 12:55 pm

    jg’s toolbox approach is how I think about this. It has been terribly difficult over my years of teaching to resist the incessant demands for formula sheets/checklists/”just tell me the steps”. I’ve been more successful over the last decade getting students to think creatively about problem solving, but it does feel like I’m always dragging a weight from some who just want a fast way out.

    As a math guy, my toolbox typically boils down to multiple representations. Math can be seen algebraically, numerically, graphically, and verbally. When my students are stuck, I encourage them to find a way to restate their problem in another form. If they are flummoxed by algebra, try a graphical or numeric approach, or try to find a different algebraic form. As Marvin Minsky said, “You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.”

    • July 26, 2011 12:09 am

      I like the advice of asking students to restate problems in another form. Multiple representations is a key feature of the modeling physics curriculum. Just like the rule of 4, we seek to describe physical phenomena graphically, diagramatically, algebraically, and verbally. And now, we’re working to add a fifth approach—computational modeling.

  5. July 25, 2011 8:10 pm

    I agree with jg’s idea of toolbox. When we give students problems, I want my students to truly formulate the solutions themselves. Like a carpenter has a toolbox of a hammer, screw drivers, bolts, etc, a physicist/mathematician has a tool box of mathematical tools that can use to model the problem or phenomenon. From here students can use their own creativity to design the solution or derivation, mathematical model, vector diagram/plot. I like to stress with my students that are more than one way to skin Schrodinger’s cat.

  6. Christoffer Holmstedt permalink
    August 1, 2011 3:34 am

    It’s a really interesting topic as I’m a student myself at Luleå University of Technology currently studying for my last physics exam(actually a re-exam) I’ve come to some conclusions about myself and why I ask for the checklist(s) as soon as a course has started.

    To begin with, before taking any course you may view the course syllabus like this one the important part is the “Contents” but that list of stuff often doesn’t mean anything unless you know about it beforehand, and why take the course in that case?

    So during the first lecture, in most of the courses, we are often given a checklist for what we should read and which excercises we should do, so we in the end of the course understand the “Contents” part in the course syllabus. This first checklist has removed all the need for me to glance through the book and find it on my own. I can honestly say that I never looked at the pages that wasn’t on the checklist. With the checklist doing excercises is more of a “do them as fast as you can and then go home” practice.

    After a week or two into this course we were given a 10 step checklist to go through after we had finished an excercise and told that we should use it everytime we do exercises. We should learn it and bring it to the exam in the end of the course. I used it for the first week and then forgot about it, it was to time consuming.

    There is of course a difference between university studies and ninth grade but after reading your post and the comments here I believe it’s mostly the same dilemmas.

    So, my conclusions. I do believe that all of these checklists are an obstacle if you really want to focus on the contents. I will try to throw away all checklists in the upcoming courses one in computer security and one in electric circuits and see if I can keep my focus on the content instead.

    The only time it might be worth it with a problem solving checklist is at the last page in a test/exam. Make sure you have done “this” in all your answers. A test is a test but it can also be a “aha-moment” if a student have forgot the same thing in all his/her answers.

    • August 1, 2011 11:58 pm

      I totally agree. And I’ve used the checklist on the last page of the exam idea before, but it might be better if I actually put boxes for the student to physically check.

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