Try this Method to Discover Solutions to Any Problem

The following article was written by Bruce Razban, who this semester is teaching Finance and Computers in Business courses in the Bachelor of Business Administration program at usv.

I have found it is useful to engage students in the process of discovery while they are together in class. The method I like to use features the students – with the instructor as a coach and facilitator – learning in real time by “discovering” facts, figures, relationships, and logic regarding the subject of the study. In a way, this turns any lesson into a series of well-designed experiments run by students. It has been my experience that when students learn by discovering, their learning is almost always deeper than rotely memorizing or following prescribed materials.

To make it work, the instructor must allow time for mistakes and be able to adapt and facilitate learning from them when they occur. The instructor is challenged to help students break down problems into successive steps that can be linked together to arrive at the final solution to the problem. By doing so, the instructor demonstrates the critical thinking skills students must put into play on their own.

My epiphany in this regard happened when I was teaching Microsoft Excel to my MBA students at Keller Graduate School of Management. I was surprised to see how eagerly they took to solving virtually any math problem with the spreadsheets they had at their fingertips. Since then, I’ve developed step-by-step procedures that help students figure things out on their own.

Here is the magic method that improves teaching and learning through discovery experiences:

  • Before presenting a challenge, the instructor asks the students to focus on the problem and think of the first step to be taken.
  • By facilitating the ensuing group discussion, the instructor encourages all students in the class to come up with their best-educated guesses that might lead to formulating a workable hypothesis.
  • Students are encouraged to explore the internet and other at-hand resources to find and present facts and figures that accept, refute or refine a given hypothesis candidate.
  • This research process should yield a workable hypothesis in which 80% of students in the class participated 80% of the time taken.
  • Together, the students then figure out the steps that lead them to test the hypothesis and develop an approach to solving the problem from a fresh perspective.

So, what if the students cannot remember how to do a similar calculation ten years later? I have found the answer is that experimenting and using facts and figures this way guides students to find the right steps on how to solve not only that problem but any other problems on any subject.

By taking this approach in my classes, I have also found that students gain self-confidence in the process of reinventing and discovering on their own. One of my colleagues pointed out that this is like teaching students how to swim by actually doing the swimming even if at first this is done in the shallow end of the pool. As basics are mastered, the students will then venture to the deeper end of the pool. I take pride in seeing students taking the lead as they learn how to learn this way!

In general, the “old” way of teaching focused on the instructor conducting information to students using PowerPoint or some other transmission method.  Students would write down the key points and examples, then learn the subject based on those points. However, these days with the advent of global information services like YouTube and Google, learning and teaching can be far more effective with deeper learning, less demanding teaching, and far better retention. This method of discovery, real-time, and fact-based learning and teaching has produced excellent results.

The merits of this practical approach to solving problems become even more evident after students graduate. Increasingly, students need to practice lifelong learning since there is a serious need for employees who are comfortable updating themselves and refreshing their skill sets frequently. Creating a learning culture, of drawing out the perspectives of others to form the basis of developing solutions to problems, enables students to become more adaptable and versatile. From my more than a decade of university and college teaching and three decades of industrial experience, I can assure you that similar best practices can be relatively easily applied.

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