Heuristics In The Snow

I’m a big fan of heuristics. Heuristics are essentially checklists or other procedures that can efficiently guide one’s thinking when making decisions in environments of stress and uncertainty. The Apgar score is a heuristic that gets applied to many of us before we even know what heuristics are. When I fly, I use an “airport” heuristic to get me to the correct gate in time for my flight.

An important aspect of any heuristic is that it be evaluated regularly in terms of the outcomes it generates and modified if needed. For example, I will soon be digging my car out of wet snow with my hands. One item in my airport heuristic needs to be changed from “when driving my car to the airport for a departing flight, park in the long term lot” to “when driving my car to the airport for a departing flight in the winter, park in a garage.” My wife will remind me of this when she watches me try to clear away the snow.

This recent warning to college professors from a high school teacher made me realize that a huge portion of the students now entering college use a particular heuristic to navigate the testing environment of K-12. When these students hit college, they discover that the heuristic that they have relied upon for many years is no longer effective. They fail the first exam that is not composed entirely of multiple choice questions. Or they hear for the first time that their writing is actually quite bad. The students experience an emotional shock and blame their professors, who in turn blame K-12 educators.

An opportunity is being missed here. If we teach new college students to examine the deeper structure of the problem – not “why did I score three points below passing on this exam?” but “what is guiding my thinking about learning and what might need to be changed about it?” – there might be less interest in playing the blame game.

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