What does this problem want me to do?


Solving problems in STEM courses often requires identifying the correct procedure for solving a problem. If, under the time pressure and stress of an exam, you jump right at a problem, you may choose the wrong procedure to solve it.


To train yourself to look before you leap, when working on problem sets, ask and answer the questions, “What does this problem want me to do? How will I give it what it wants?” for each problem.

Rashmi Kumar, Ed. D., STEM Specialist at the Weingarten Center, consistently teaches her undergraduate and medical students to ask these questions before they jump at the problem, so they are more likely to pair it with the right procedure:

What does this problem want me to do?


Define the goal of the problem

It might make the work a little more fun, and you will be faster and better at problem-procedure pairing on the midterm:

How will I give the problem what it wants?”

Identify the procedure that should be paired with the problem


Susana is about to solve a STEM problem. She asks herself,

What does this problem want me to do?

She answers,

Hmm, it wants me to calculate the torque at a perpendicular force.

Then she asks,

How will I give it what it wants?

And answers,

First I have to convert the units into the expected format. Next, I’ll need to identify the right equation. Then I’ll be ready solve the equation.

Simple and easy, right?

Practice it until it is an automatic habit and you will do it under pressure.

And for added fun, try saying “problem-procedure pairing” ten times fast!


By Staff Writer: Nicholas Santascoy, Learning Instructor


The Problem-Solving Sandwich



When you go to do your homework (reading & problem-set)…
  1. Start with a homework problem first, not the reading.
  2. Read only if you need to. Read only what you need.
  3. Then get back to the problem and solve it.
Read-Then-Solve: A Bad Idea

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Unfortunately, many students do their homework using the read-then-solve strategy—they read the entire assigned reading, then start on the problem set.  This may make for reading more than you need and likely zoning out while you’re reading. Read-then-solve is often wasteful and boring. You may ask, “But don’t I need to understand the concepts first?” I ask in reply, “Do you read-then-solve in real life?”

The Problem-Solving Sandwich – What You Do in Real Life

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In this “real world” scenario, suppose you are writing a report on a Word document, and run into trouble with the formatting. Say it is a problem with making bulleted lists in Word. You have a problem you intend to solve. Here are two strategies you can use. Which is best?

Strategy 1: Read-Then-Solve
  1. Read an entire chapter on formatting in Microsoft Word
  2. Attempt to solve the bulleting problem
Strategy 2: Use the Problem-Solving Sandwich
  1. Attempt to solve the problem with what you know. For example, you might right-click and see if any of the options make sense.
  2. If can’t figure it out, THEN search for a solution to your specific problem. For example, you might google “how to make bullets in word for mac 2011”
  3. As soon as you have what you think you need from whatever reading you find, get back to the Word doc and solve the problem.
It’s a sandwich—see?
Benefit 1: The Problem-Solving Sandwich is More Efficient

Let’s see how the problem-solving sandwich can save you time. Compare Kim and Susana, both in a class involving problem sets, in this toy example.

Kim uses the read-then-solve strategy:

On Monday, from 4-6pm, she completes the assigned reading. The next day she works on the problem set, also from 4-6pm. Thus, her schedule looks like this:

4:00 PM read SOLVE
  read SOLVE
4:30 PM read SOLVE
  read SOLVE
5:00 PM read SOLVE
  read SOLVE
5:30 PM read SOLVE
  read SOLVE

Remember, this is just a toy example! You will likely want to put in a 6-hour minimum; see previous blog post with that title.

Susana uses the problem-solving sandwich strategy:

She works the same days, but not the same amount of time.

  read SOLVE
4:30 PM SOLVE read
  read SOLVE
5:30 PM

As you can see, Susana stopped half an hour earlier than Kim on both days, saving herself an hour. Does this mean she has less mastery of the concepts? Will she do less well on the exam?

Who has greater command of the key ideas?

When I show this to students in my workshops, they generally think that Kim and Susana have equal control of the topic, that is,

But Susana had an hour more to have fun!

Why could she learn as much in less time? First, she only read when she couldn’t solve the problem on her own so she cut straight to the stuff relevant to her specific question with a strong motivation to get the info and get out—her brain was on the hunt.

Benefit 2: The Problem-Solving Sandwich is More Engaging

What do I mean by your brain being “on the hunt”? When you read-as-needed only, your goal is to find a specific answer to a critical question—you’re giving your brain a question mark: “?” J

But when you read-then-solve, your goal is to “get through the chapter.” You’re giving your brain a period: “.” L

Which is more fun? Ready to Try It? So if you have been using the read-then-solve strategy, try out the problem-solving sandwich strategy. If you have any ?s about how to do it, feel free to come chat with a learning instructor—we’re happy to help!

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 To your better learning!

Staff Writer: Nicholas Santascoy, Learning Instructor


Exam Analysis

Often, students spend all their time studying and preparing for exams before they take a test. Did you know though that some of the most important studying and preparation comes after you take exams?

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One of the best ways to prepare for future exams and to ensure that you understand course material is to analyze your exam after you take it! This ensures that you are thinking critically about your learning and preparing the best way possible for your next exam.

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When you receive your test back from your instructor, first examine the questions you answered correctly.

Think about:

  • How did you study for this information?
  • Why did you get this question right?
  • What can you learn from it?

Use this information to help you prepare for your next exam. Identify what strategies worked for you when you were preparing for this test, and be sure to use them again.

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Next, look at the questions you answered incorrectly.

            Identify why you answered incorrectly:

  • Was it a content mistake? Meaning:
    • You never saw the information.
    • You didn’t study the information.
    • You studied the information but learned it incorrectly.
    • You studied the information but could not recall.
      • From these content areas, see if you can identify if your mistakes were coming from the same section.
      • Do you need to go back and review a chapter section?
      • Would it be helpful for you to review this with the professor, a TA, or a tutor?
  • Was your error in the application of the material? Meaning:
    • You studied and recalled the basic information but could not apply it to higher order thinking problems.
  • Did your error have to do with how you approached the tests? Meaning:
    • Did you misread or misinterpret a test question?
    • Were you too impulsive or overconfident on certain tests questions?
    • Was it test fatigue?
    • Was your pacing off for the test? Were you running out of time?

Use this information to help you adjust your studying for the next exam.

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Make an appointment with a learning instructor at the Weingarten Learning Resources Center for more help on how to make the most of your exam analysis. Here is a link on our exam analysis appointment protocol. We are happy to help you think more critically about your class, about what you learned, and about how to prepare for your next exam!

Blog adapted from resources prepared by Dr. Ryan Miller, Executive Director of the WLRC.

By: Kelcey Grogan, Learning Instructor

Reflections on DATA

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As a society, we put great value on DATA. As students, academics, scholars, researchers, practitioners and inquirers, we are often in the pursuit of, if not, immersed in DATA. Each Discipline, from Medical and the Health Sciences, to Engineering, Computer Science and Business, Sociology and Social Policy, to Education and many others, we seek to identify, collect, connect and correlate, analyze, triangulate and interpret data in meaningful and impactful ways.

All the while, we adhere to the highest standards of integrity, validity and reliability. Institutionally, we evaluate and scrutinize our methodological processes through rigorous review processes, internal review boards, internal and external audits and certifications, etc.

Whether or not our practices are directly or indirectly related to data generation, processes, manipulation and/or management, our lives are increasingly enveloped in DATA, and currently, BIG DATA, mediated by technological advances.

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While there is substantive information, including literature, instruction, training and professional communities that serve the missions of quantitative and qualitative methods of research inquiry, it is worth reflecting and engaging with some enduring and universal questions about humanizing and democratizing research:

What is the [Symbolic or Material] VALUE of [Researcher/Practitioner] Data?
Who does Research ultimately Benefit?
  • Whose interests does it serve?
  • What purpose(s) does it fulfill, for whom and why?
  • What are the restrictive parameters (e.g. temporal or contextual, etc.) particular to the affordances and limitations of the collected data that would curtail or caution the generalizability or universality of the research findings?
  • What other outcomes or consequences can be anticipated or identified/acknowledged beyond/outside the scope of the research question/study?
  • What are the cross-disciplinary implications of the study (e.g. social, economic, political, religious, etc.)
What are some of the issues of Access in Site and Participant Selection?
  • Whose stories/agendas are studied/told, why, and how? Which stories/agendas are foregrounded, and which are subjugated? Whose stories/agendas are omitted?
  • Which participants does research seek to reach by elicitation, and why? Is there an avenue/process for participants/communities to reach research opportunities? Is there reciprocity and multilateralness, or is research unilateral?
  • Can participants self-select into or except out of research without direct or indirect consequences? What are the local implications of designing indeterminacy into the site and/or participant selection process – at the local and macro levels?
  • How are power disparities conceptualized, balanced or mitigated? How is power directly or indirectly coded or recognized into the research process and findings report?

So, the next time you engage with your research project and reflect upon your conceptualizations, site and participant selection, data sources and rules of engagement, and interactional methods, consider the other side of RIGOR, tipping the balance towards humanization, democratizing engagement and ambivalence.

Only a very intentional, many times, alternative approach to scientific research, can balance by counteracting the historical scientification, neutralization, objectification and exotified subjectivity of individual, community and complex categorical lived realities that are far from neutral, but politically imposed.

For more information about intersecting RESEARCH with their SOCIAL CONTEXTS, consider the following literature:

  • Erickson and Gutierrez (2002). Culture, Rigor, and Science in Educational ResearchEducational Researcher. 31:8. 21-24.
  • Lather and Moss (2005). Introduction: Implications of Scientific Research in Education Report for Qualitative InquiryTeachers College Record. 107:1. 1-3.
  • Zembylas and Schutz, Eds. (2016) Methodological Advances in Research on Emotion and Education. Switzerland:Springer International Publishing.

By WLRC Staff Writer: Min Derry, Learning Instructor

Making It Stick!

What has Research about the Science of Successful Learning taught us about Making It Stick?


Brown, Roediger & McDaniel (2014) identified 6 Research-based Principles and Strategies for committing information to long-term memory and increasing the probability of retrieving it as applicable knowledge:

➔  (1) Rereading text and massed practice are ineffective
➔  (2) Active retrieval interrupts forgetting
➔  (3) Create a mental model for new knowledge that connects to larger context and prior knowledge

A conceptual approach to active information processing and retrieval helps interrupt forgetting and deepen your understanding. Conceptual Mapping helps you:

  1. Synthesize the big picture,
  2. Do a deep dive where you need to be more granular,
  3. Establish simple-complex relationships and hierarchies,
  4. Identify gaps, and
  5. Try a variety of Conceptual Mapping tools:
1. Concept Map Anywhere!

All you need is any blank “canvas”: scrap paper, notebook, white board, etc.

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2. Concept Map Online: Search for a Variety of Free and Subscription Software Apps


3. Try this Free Online Concept Mapping Tool by Google: Coggle


(Click icon above to watch introductory video)
➔  (4) Space out practice and interleave subjects

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There is a minimum of 3 levels of time management for the semester:

  1. Semester: Major Deadlines
  2. Week: Logistical
  3. Daily: Individual Tasks
Think strategically before, during and after coursework


  1. Office Hours: Professor and Teaching Assistant
  2. Sleep
  3. Meals and Snacks
  4. Breaks
  5. Self-Care Activities (e.g. exercise, therapy/counseling, health care, etc.)
  6. Extra-curricular, volunteer and social activities
➔  (5) Extract underlying principles that differentiate problem types to prepare for unfamiliar problems/situations
➔  (6) Try problems before being taught solution

As you prepare weekly problem sets for class, recitation or online submission, OR before you compare your sample prior exam answers, step back and take time to:

  • Evaluate and differentiate types of problem by concept categories.
Conceptual Problems
Algorithmic Problems

Make It Stick

By Staff Writer: Min Derry, WLRC Learning Instructor

6-Hours per Week for Solving Problem Sets

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For better grades and more intellectual growth, consider spending at least 6 hours across a week cracking your brain on your p-sets before the TA explains it all at recitation.

Geometry Mathematics Cube Body Hexahedron

The 6-Hour Minimum
  • Unfortunately, many students give up to soon on their problem sets before getting the answers at recitation.
  • By putting in sufficient hours trying to solve problems, you will be engaged in active learning of the concepts the professor has identified as key to the course.
  • For most students, 1-2 hours a week of this kind of active learning won’t cut it. Even 4-5 probably won’t.
  • 6 hours is a minimum that is also likely to fit with the other demands on your time.
So try 6 hours a week, in 60-90 minute chunks.
  • For example:
Saturday Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Relax! 11-12:30PM: 7-9:30PM: 7-9:30PM: 7-9:30PM: 10-11:00AM:
Problem-solving Problem-Solving Problem-Solving Problem-Solving Recitation
Why a Minimum of 6 Hours?
  • Some learning instructors recommend at least 6 hours a week to their students because, for many students, this represents an increase in time that substantially improves conceptual grasp of key course ideas.
  • The idea of improving your learning by spending more time on problems is consistent with a robust literature on expertise.1 The superiority of some performers over others is a predictable result of more hours on deliberate practice.1 This is true in athletic, musical, and intellectual pursuits. 1
  • Deliberate practice is working hard on difficult skills that are central to your area of mastery. 1
  • What fits the definition of deliberate practice better—working problems, or listening to answers?
What’s the point of working for 6 hours on problems I’m not solving?
  • The point is that you are still learning when working on the problem, even when you are not solving it!2
Person problem-solving
But the TA will explain it clearly. Why not wait?
  • No doubt difficult concepts make more sense as or after they are explained. However, the instructor’s question will not be, “Do you understand these ideas as they are explained?”
  • The question will be, “When I give you a new and more complex problem than you’ve seen so far, can you solve it? Under time pressure?”
  • Can you confidently answer, “yes!”?
  • If you want to be more confident that you can answer “yes” to that question, try putting in six hours across a week on your p-sets before recitation. See if the conceptual learning you attain gives you reason for greater confidence.
But what if I don’t have 6 hours?
  • Then spend as many hours as you can before seeking help.  And maybe consult with a Learning Instructor to explore your use of time.

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  1. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363.
  2. Richland, L. E., Kornell, N., & Kao, L. S. (2009). The pretesting effect: Do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 15(3), 243–257. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0016496

By WLRC Staff Writer: Nicholas Santascoy, Learning Instructor

The Story of the [Research] Question

As writer and scholar, have you ever felt “stuck” conceptualizing and fleshing out your thesis and related research question?

At any point in the writing process and academic calendar, but especially relevant during the semester-end stretch when final papers are due, it is not unusual to find oneself reflecting on interrogating the premises of, and perhaps, even feeling “stuck” in how to further develop the research question(s).

One way to intentionally and mindfully deliberate on the research question and unleash the conceptual flow of writing is to PAUSE and REFLECT on the “story” of the [research] question itself. This can be done by writing a brief reflective memo, which may or may not be integrated into the paper itself, but will probably prove to be quite cathartic, anchoring, and clarifying.
Taking license to be free and unrestrained, write as if journaling to yourself, and reflect on any one or combination of the following prompts relative to your thesis and/or research question(s):
  • What is the (background) “story” of (behind) this [research] question?
  • What has been the developmental trajectory of the research question?
  • How did I become interested in this question?
  • Why is this question significant to me?
  • What do I find most compelling about my question?
  • In what ways do I connect with this question? What are my points-of-reference in probing into, responding to, or contextualizing this research question – in my own life, practice, field, and/or in the world?

For more help or strategies to get started, come into Weingarten to work a learning instructor and get tailored feedback with individual consultations. Or feel free to join our Dissertation Bootcamp working group series for support in undergraduate and graduate research!


Staff writer: Min Derry