Problem solving skills in chemistry

In general, ACCURACY needs to increase rather than speed. Any technical literature is concentrated, and any form of “speed reading” is a waste of time on informationally dense material. Instead, devices to increase comprehension are necessary, such as mental models, finger counting, lip movement, figure drawing, or reading aloud to another person.

Intelligence may be defined as the ability to do abstract reasoning. Weaker students jumble abstract reasoning from lack of ability to grasp the entire problem at “one shot”. The next step for a weaker student is to give up for lack of a way to even get started. The best students support abstraction with concrete ideas. It is not the ability of the better student to fully grasp the complete abstraction that sets them apart, BUT THE ABILITY TO ORGANIZE A PROBLEM SO THAT NO PART OF IT IS TOO DIFFICULT. The idea behind the abstraction becomes more apparent as the idea is used. Another way to put that is that the better student does not usually have more efficient mental “hardware” but better “software”.

One tool for the development of better methods of problem solving is to take a short standard intelligence test and later analyze the results. The number of correct answers is not the most important data, but the analysis of how to “concrete” each question and how to spot potential errors on a case-by-case basis can help students see some ways to improve their personal analytical reasoning ability.

The use of a standardized test will give an ability to see a broad general group of problems that are each “informationally neutral”, that is, having no need for a body of background information other than the very rudimentary, such as the number system, the alphabet, and the ability to define words. Indeed, on any IQ test some questions require just word definition knowledge. In coursework, though, a body of knowledge is needed to interpret the questions. In chemistry some of this material may have to be known by rote in order to most efficiently perform on tests. Some examples of material that should be know by rote are the symbols of elements, polyatomic ions, some valences, measurements and the conversion factors among them, dimensions and the symbols for them, and some common names for materials. There are several ways to learn rote material, to include flashcards, pair quizzing, mnemonic devices, and reading aloud. Class time is poorly spent on rote material, but it is the teacher's responsibility to point out which material is a candidate for rote learning. There is, unfortunately, no way to “pour” this information into a student. That basic maturity of recognizing something that must be done and DOING it is necessary as a prerequisite.

We say that the math is difficult for the students, but they can do the arithmetic very well on the calculators they have. The real stumbling blocks are difficulties organizing the problem and a lack of background rote information. The problem-solving technique needs to be practiced first with trivial problems and then with increasingly difficult problems. “Practice makes perfect” seems to be true; the best way to learn what can go wrong in a problem is to make the mistake yourself, find the mistake, and learn from your mistake. Again, from the initial observations, any problem that can not be thought out completely in the head needs an overall ‘roadmap’ toward a solution and an orderly implementation of the pathway in which each step is demonstrable. For some good ideas on solving problems that are not the “formal” type of chemistry homework problem, see Polya's book, “How to Solve It.” For chemistry problems involving a formula, one pathway is the W5P method to be introduced later. For most conversion problems (many of the chemistry problems), the Dimensional Analysis system, also to be introduced later, is a splendid framework. The point is that with a good framework in which to think of the problem, a complicated problem is merely a series of simple problems.