Causing Cognition

Part 1 of Causing Cognition Series

Do you like solving problems?

As a reader of the Weekly Date with Kate (if you’re not reading WDK, sign up in the upper right corner!), you are most likely a person who will answer yes. But, you’ve answered without knowing how I define problem. Take the following for example.

Isosceles Triangle Proof
Isosceles Triangle Proof

How do you feel about solving that problem?

It’s a risky proposition to put up a relatively complicated problem as I would really rather have you keep reading than click away…. Did you find yourself bored with the problem listed?

I did.

It’s a hard problem to work in your head and leads to too many dead-ends unless you have the requisite knowledge to solve the problem. Even if you have the requisite knowledge, your interest in solving that problem is determined by how quickly you can solve it. I tuned out after a minute because I couldn’t remember the method for writing a geometry proof. I have the basic conceptual knowledge but not the necessary specialized knowledge of writing formal proofs. 10th grade Geometry was too long ago. I know that the two triangles are equal, but I couldn’t prove it in the strictest sense, and writing proofs does not interest me.

We like to be challenged, but not too much. Let me rephrase that, we enjoy challenges, but our brains prefer automatic answers, not thinking.

Now how about this problem?

Find the Area of the Triangle:

Find the Area of the Triangle
Find the Area of the Triangle

This problem has a moderate level of difficulty and gives you the opportunity for success within a reasonable amount of time. You feel a challenge and a win. You see that you can solve it without turning to reference books. It turns out this is an important concept in cognitive psychology. Our brains prefer a win.

Sure, we all like winning, but . .

It’s not just about the win. You get the positive feedback because you have had a challenge and you have conquered. What if I handed you this Sudoku challenge:

(number 1-9 in each row and each column so that there are no repeats in a row, column or 3×3 grid)


Whether you took 15 seconds or 15 minutes, you were able to solve it. But did you feel satisfied when you finished?

When a problem is too easy or it is obvious that someone else has done most of the work for you, your brain disregards the win. In essence, you’ve just been handed the answer and that doesn’t lead to keeping your interest. Your unconscious mind does not give you credit for the win. You start to dislike problems like this and ultimately develop a negative perception of both the person presenting the problem and the problem type itself.

Consciously we call it condescension.

So how do you actually lead students/colleagues to learn? What tactics can you employ if causing learning is part of your strategy?

Part 2 next week . . .

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