Monday, April 4, 2011

Einstellung effects while teaching search to students

The einstellung effect is the mind set you have while solving a problem, and is a wonderfully Teutonic word that basically means "a person's predisposition to solve a given problem in a specific manner even though there are better or more appropriate methods of solving the problem." 

In other words, it's what happens when you try to keep solving a problem in a particular way, even though there are probably better ways to do so.  You get stuck in a particular approach.

I taught an advanced search methods class last week, and in that class we saw this repeatedly.  We'd teach the class a particular search technique (say, how to use a reverse dictionary for lookup), and then people would keep using that technique, even though it wasn't appropriate for the task they were working on at the time.

It's a bit of the "if the only tool you have is a hammer..." effect (but it's said in German, so it sounds more impressive, more psychological). 

Since our class was the 3rd class in the search instruction series at RAFT (in San Jose) it was the "Advanced" class.  And you'd think after 6 hours of instruction that everyone would start to get the sense that not all techniques work equally well in all cases.  But einstellung is a natural response to learning something new.  If I show you a spiffy new search technique, the obvious thing to do is to try it out on different problems. 

So it's still a bit of a struggle in the classes to get the students to NOT apply techniques without knowing when they're appropriate.  I TRY to tell them the range of applicability, but I'm starting to believe that just telling isn't enough.  That you have to let them try the technique on a problem for which is doesn't work, letting them get the hands-on experience to learn when a method is appropriate. 

This is all a bit counter-intuitive--prior knowledge is supposed to HELP you with solving a problem (in our case, figuring out how to do a search), not limit you.  But that's the einstellung effect for you. 

Our teaching has to take this into account, particularly for teaching search, when you probably don't have a huge amount of time to practice and get over the exciting new thing you just learned. 

My suggestion:  When you show your class a method, show them a case in which is does NOT work.  Those negative examples are also valuable for learning. 

Keep teaching! 

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