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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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