Thursday, November 4, 2010

Problem solving

There has been a lot of talk on the Comp-Studies mailing list about including problem solving questions in the Computer Applications Technology Gr 12 national exam papers.
I believe a problem solving question is one which has features which the learners have been taught, but presented in a different way which requires thinking ‘out of the box’.
With that in mind I have been looking at the Study Opportunities papers as I have been using old papers for revision. Currently I am going over the Excel sections of old papers with my Gr 10s and 11s.
In the 2006 Gr 10 Pug paper, question 1, the learners had to sort the names in order according to surname. They needed to do a copy and paste of surnames into a new column for surnames. They could have copied and sorted each record individually but that would have taken ages. None of my Gr 10s or 11s managed to do on their own quickly.
In the 2008 Gr 10 Snakes/Crocodile paper , question 4, there was such a lovely problem solving question which none of my Gr 11s managed to do on their own. They did not realise that the value was text.
In the 2009 Gr 10 Computer Assistance paper, question 3.1, you have to find and copy the details of those doing the Web2 tools course to a word document. The learners should have done a sort, to find those people and then copied the block of records. None of my Gr 10s managed without my help.
I am doing revision now to get the learners’ minds thinking flexibly and ready for the exams. I am most distressed at how they cannot think ‘out of the box’ and solve problems. The learners know the skills but have difficulty applying them. I am not sure how common this problem is.

I am glad that the Study Opportunity papers have those problem solving features. Maybe they need more however I have only checked a small portion of the papers.


BGR said...

Hi Pam. I think your observations are spot on. I think we need to be realistic though. We can't expect learners to get to grade 10 and suddenly they're critical thinkers with amazing analytical skills. It's hard to be thinking out of the box when you've never seen the edge of it. These are crucial skills that have not been developed on the way up. I'm just cautious about assessing in ways that have not been developed especially when it counts and has an impact on their futures ie: Matric.

Marius Pretorius said...

Thank you for being so honest. You have put your finger on the problem. I think that the problem of learners not able to 'think for themselves' is probably widespread. I am glad to know that I am not the only one experiencing it.

The first step towards the solution is to recognise the problem. I have realised that I will need to change my approach to teaching CAT drastically.

The technical skills need to be taught but then also how and when those skills will be used and not just "apply that function here". Decisions need to be made by learners as to when a particular approach will be better.

E.g. You teach a learner to create a table and to manipulate it but ask them to present information in a table format and they are stumped. They have to decide what the column and row heading should be. They have to decide which cells should be merged, whether it is better to centre align, what borders to use etc.

Their lack of problem solving ability is clearly shown when they have to do the PAT. In that way the PAT is forcing teachers, including myself, not to ignore this issue.

Lohann said...

In short: can an examination paper indicate a learner's ability to solve a computer related "problem". Answer: No

My issue with the term "Problem Solving" is that the proper assessment of it is next to impossible since it has so many connotations. As Pam said rightly, how do you teach it when it is not clearly defined.

Furthermore another issue is evident when you realise that the OUTCOME of a problem solving exercise can have many results, since solving problems "out of the box" is going to give you a range of solutions from a range of learners. Solving mathematical problems is easy, there is always a correct answer. Solving issues that reflect the learner's capability to operate successfully in the work environment using computer skills will not always have a right or wrong answer, just more efficient or not.

Who then judges this efficiency? Is the fact that a learner has completed a question paper in the time set an indication of their ability to solve these "problems" efficiently? There surely must be many other factors that impact this.

In my opinion, the assessment of problem solving falls within the realm of projects and once again reflects the criteria of the assessor and cannot be standardised.

Tim Attwell said...

Thanks Pam for sharing this with us, and to BGR and Marius for their additional insight.
Lohann I feel strongly that you have missed the boat and are looking for excuses. None of the questions are of such a nature as to require "radical" skills.
Go to and see that the entire education community is being asked to realise that a lack of training in critical thinking in the classroom is a huge problem worldwide.
Teachers need to learn how to ask questions in a way that fosters critical thinking from a younger age. And yes it is hard to change the way we do things, but that is no excuse for not realising it needs to be changed and making a start.

Lohann said...

I fail to see where I am looking for excuses. I am merely stating that problem solving is something we as educators need to remove out of the formal testing environment and place into a rigorous every day practical application. Too many educators simply "teach" to cover content needed for examination and do very little to prepare learners for real world computing issues in the work place. I believe this must be rectified and that trying to find ways to "test" problem solving skills in the ICT sphere in formal exams is a waste of time. Instead more should be done to allow learners to show their aptitude within projects. Web 2.0 tools allow learners a wider audience for such projects, more teachers should be encouraged to let learners use this to show off their talents.

Of course, as I have stated, assessing these projects are very difficult for subject advisors etc.

Tim Attwell said...

Sorry Lohann, while I follow your argument, I disagree with it.
As long as the exam question is stated in such a way that there is a generally accepted method for solving that kind of problem, generically, then I see no problem. Specially if the steps to solving the problem are in the curriculum.
That's like saying that the essay questions in history are unfair. They learn about Churhill and they learn about Mussolini, then they get asked to describe the way Mussolini would have fought a particular war if he was leader in place of Churchill.
While I agree that the PAT is a golden opportunity for learners to show off their creativity and problem solving skills, the exam is merely testing their understanding of the environment. This is hardly critical thinking in it's real form. The problem is most learners who battle with the exams have simply not spent enough time in front of a computer, exploring the programs' various functions in sufficient depth.

Love the debate ...

Anonymous said...

Too many teachers do training instead of teaching

BGR said...

Am also enjoying the debate. To anonymous - please give some practical examples to differ teaching from training (in the computer environment) :)

Dr Pam Miller said...

Thank you to everybody for comments.
I am doing revision at the moment and my learners seem to have forgotten work taught. I just hope that going over old papers is going to help for when they do their exams. It seems that their remembering ability has also been compromised.

Anonymous said...

Marius Pretorius touches on it.

Focus on the mechanical skills, drilling, e.g. as long as they can insert a bullet whenever an instruction requires that - almost whithout thinking. If only training takes place, they will never be able to troubleshoot, solve problems.

Ensuring that the underlying concepts are also understood, e.g. when/why do you use a bullet? Is there another way of achieving the same objective? How different is that? Does it matter? Say I want to change it later, will it be easy? What are the underlying concepts of "bulleting", e.g. indenting, tabbing, spacing?
These kind of understandings will ensure that they will be able to troubleshoot, transfer skills (and knowledge) to new situations and solve problems.
Training and Teaching are both required but with the required balance.

Only giving them exercises to insert bullets or follow formatting instructions - training
They also need exercises where they are required to think and as Marius put it, decide.

Our ultimate objective should never be to only answer a matric paper but also to produce troubleshooters, problem solvers, computational thinkers, i.e. people that would be able to help themselves and make things work.

Teaching requires hard work, perserverance. Training only needs supervision.