Can you think like an expert? Of course, and you most likely do this already in some ways. In the 1970’s when computers were being developed (and actually before the internet), some studies looked at human memory and problem solving approaches. The most coveted information was on how “experts” in various fields approached problems and how their vast stores of knowledge were organized in their memories. What did they find?
These studies found that the knowledge of experts was highly organized. There were many categories and subcategories to what they knew, so they could recognize patterns and scenarios which dictated how they interpreted new information and situations. Also, their knowledge was hierarchical in nature, which helped fill in the subcategories and their related details.
Problem solving, a more dynamic and fluid process when compared to memory, was used in a specific way by the experts studied. What these studies found was that experts spent most of their time on problem representation. That is, they first conceptualized the problem in the most accurate terms possible, and you can see this in modern day experts. For example, if you had pain in your leg and went to your doctor, he or she would work to understand whether the problem was due to structure versus function. Do you have a broken leg? Or, do you have a blood flow issue? Being able to effectively conceptualize the real issue will then dictate the solution. The advantage of this? It reduces the basic trial-and-error type of problem solving that consists of randomly trying solutions and hoping that they are effective.
Two general types of problems that are cited in research are ill-defined problems and well-defined problems. A well-defined problem has concrete parameters and the answer is certain, such as in a jigsaw puzzle: The answer is there for sure, and there is only one real answer. Ill-defined problems, like most real-life issues, have many possible answers or scenarios, and the factors can often be very large or vague. An effective problem solving strategy, often used by experts, is to transform a broad ill-defined scenario in to one that is well-defined, or in to well-defined parts. In this way, a vague and larger problem can be broken down in to solvable parts, and the overall problem can be worked to its end in steps or stages.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.