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Enhance Metacognition and Problem-Solving by Talking Out Loud to Yourself

The MC at the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan’s reunion din­ner encour­aged audi­ence mem­bers to reveal the most sig­nif­i­cant take-away from their under­grad­u­ate nurs­ing edu­ca­tion. The great­est ben­e­fit was quickly clear to me — problem-solving think­ing. Mem­ory pro­duced a mind video: a short, dark-haired, nurs­ing instruc­tor lec­tur­ing a small group of first year stu­dents in an empty patient room. “Don’t mem­o­rize the steps of ster­ile tech­nique. Use a problem-solving think­ing process.” She described the sequen­tial, cycli­cal process: define the prob­lem, gather infor­ma­tion, develop a solu­tion strat­egy, allo­cate resources, mon­i­tor progress, and eval­u­ate the solution.

Pre­dictably, the per­cep­tion, appli­ca­tion, and even tax­on­omy of problem-solving has changed in the last sev­eral decades. Then, it might have been called the Socratic or sci­en­tific method of think­ing. Now, problem-solving stands under the metacog­ni­tion canopy joined by close, but not quite syn­ony­mous sib­lings such as crit­i­cal think­ing, design think­ing, lat­eral think­ing, and cre­ative think­ing. Metacog­ni­tion, which means most sim­ply, think­ing about think­ing, was described and defined in the sev­en­ties by John Flavell, a devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist at Stan­ford. The enthu­si­asm cre­ated by his the­ory con­tributed to a revi­tal­iza­tion of problem-solving research.

From ori­gins in the field of psy­chol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy, the study of problem-solving slid into the ball­park of edu­ca­tional psy­chol­ogy and later became of inter­est to cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science. Problem-solving bloomed anew with a cool, trendy iden­tity. A vari­ety of recent research stud­ies fields pro­duced facts and find­ings that we can use today: some funny, oth­ers thought pro­vok­ing, and all interesting.

Talk­ing Aloud Part­ner Problem-Solving (TAPPS) is a teaching/learning strat­egy that evolved in the late eight­ies and nineties. The basic idea is sim­ple. Pair two peo­ple, one the des­ig­nated prob­lem solver and one the mon­i­tor, and pro­vide prob­lems for them to solve. The monitor’s job is to lis­ten, but not con­tribute any advice about the prob­lem and its solu­tion. She can alert the prob­lem solver to his own think­ing pat­tern by say­ing for exam­ple, “I heard you men­tion a poten­tial obsta­cle to solv­ing the prob­lem ear­lier, but then I didn’t hear more about that.” But she can’t add, “I see a cou­ple of other obsta­cles that you didn’t talk about.” Mon­i­tor­ing com­ments are exclu­sively about the des­ig­nated prob­lem solver’s talk­ing aloud process. Gen­er­ally, increased speed and effi­ciency of problem-solving resulted when the pairs group was com­pared with a con­trol group.

In recent research on TAPPS, reported in the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas pub­li­ca­tion Research Foun­da­tions, Spring 2011, the author noted that the increased speed and effec­tive­ness of part­ner problem-solving has lit­tle to do with the mon­i­tor and much to do with the prob­lem solver’s own behav­ior; think­ing aloud or TA. The con­stant ver­bal­iza­tion of their thoughts out loud encour­aged the prob­lem solvers to con­tin­u­ously cor­rect faulty steps in logic. The causal mech­a­nism of suc­cess was the problem-solver’s metacognition.

Another study on talk­ing aloud reported in the jour­nal Aging, Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy, and Cog­ni­tion car­ries the intrigu­ing title, “How to Gain Eleven IQ Points in Ten Min­utes: Think­ing Aloud Improves Raven’s Matri­ces Per­for­mance in Older Adults.” At the end of the arti­cle, fol­low­ing the usual iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of study lim­i­ta­tions, the authors stated, “Nonethe­less, these stud­ies pro­vide some evi­dence that indi­vid­u­als with lower fluid abil­ity (e.g., chil­dren and older adults) may ben­e­fit most from con­cur­rent verbalization.”

H-m-m-m. Inter­est­ing. We might need to have renewed respect for peo­ple we notice talk­ing to them­selves. Instead of assum­ing they’re off the wall, we’ll more gen­er­ously ascribe good problem-solving skills to them. And for us? Let’s give talk­ing out loud problem-solving a shot — per­haps alone, at home in a locked bath­room for the first attempt.

My advice? Start out with a sim­ple prob­lem that fits ratio­nal prob­lem solv­ing rather than a prob­lem bet­ter suited for the intu­itive style of think­ing. E.g. “What orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture will work best for my book in progress?” rather than “What’s a catchy title for my book on prob­lem solv­ing think­ing?” I’ll acknowl­edge I haven’t been highly suc­cess­ful with the TA approach that I’m describ­ing and I’m quite sure my IQ hasn’t increased yet, but I’m hav­ing fun prac­tic­ing. Let me know what you find out think­ing aloud, alone, at home.

Judith C. Tin­gley Ph.D. is a for­mer psy­chi­atric nurse, psy­chol­o­gist, author of 4 pub­lished books, and free-lance writer, cur­rently work­ing on a book on how to break the neg­a­tive self-talk habit. You can fol­low her via Twit­ter @drtingley

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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