Teaching Problem Solving Skills To Novice Learners

problem solving

By Anne Guetschow

I have heard at least one CBU professor ask about ways to teach problem-solving skills to novice learners. Because of this wonderful question, I am sharing several guidelines I think will start to provide some answers.

These guidelines are practical tactics to improve student learning that have arisen out of research on Cognitive Load Theory.

 “Cognitive load theory has its modern origins in experiments conducted by Dr. John Sweller at the University of South Wales, Australia, in the early 1980’s. Today, cognitive load theory has grown into one of the most widely recognized sets of proven principles governing learning and instruction in the training profession” (Clark, Nguyen, & Sweller, p. 1-2).

If you have not heard of Cognitive Load Theory before and your instructional practice includes teaching problem-solving skills to novice learners, it might be time to sharpen your saw. This article is a good place to start doing that.

“Many training professionals will recall the recommendation to shape their instruction around the ‘magical number of 7 plus or minus 2’ in order to avoid overloading their learners. Cognitive load theory is the 21st Century update to that maxim. Cognitive load theory is a comprehensive and proven instructional theory that illustrates ways to reduce unproductive forms of cognitive load and at the same time maximize productive sources of cognitive load that lead to efficient learning environments” (Clark, Nguyen, & Sweller, p.xvi).

Click here to watch a brief (4:19) video that describes Cognitive Load Theory.

I have also curated a white paper entitled “Tactics to Improve Student Learning” developed for CBU professors wishing to learn new ways to help students learn more efficiently. You can download the entire white paper here: Tactics to Improve Student Learning

But if you want to just drill down to the most relevant aspect of this white paper to problem-solving tactics, there is one particular chapter from the white paper you may want to read.

The chapter, “Does Practice Make Perfect?” presents four research-based guidelines for improving students’ problem-solving abilities that take less time than the traditional method of immersing students immediately into doing practice problems. For novice learners who need to devote working memory capacity to building new schemas, working many practice problems slows learning by overloading working memory.

Guidelines 17 – 20 provide proven alternatives that may just lead to dramatic improvements in students’ problem-solving abilities.

Click here to read the Does Practice Make Perfect Chapter


Clark, R., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load (Pfeiffer essential resources for training and HR professionals). San Francisco, Calif.: Pfeiffer.

Anne Guetschow is an Instructional Designer & Trainer for OLET

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>