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The 5 Minute Stop-and-Solve (learning to meet uncertainty with problem solving)

Parents often come to me in frustration reporting stories like these: 

My daughter had 4 hours carved out yesterday to work on her research paper. Towards the end of the night, when I checked in to see how it was going, I saw her working on something for another class. She told me that she’d tried to start, but when she realized that she wasn’t sure about one of the requirements, she simply gave up!” 

Or,

 “It’s not that my son doesn’t work hard! He spent hours and hours over the weekend working on a presentation he’s supposed to give in class. But yesterday he told me that he won’t have the presentation ready in time because he did his research all wrong and needs to start over!” 

Though the students described in these stories display opposite impulses, they are both ultimately derailed by uncertainty. The first student encounters uncertainty and stops, leaving her work undone. The second student encounters uncertainty and continues, full steam ahead, only to have to redo his work. 

We adults have had plenty of time to practice working with uncertainty, and, as a result, it’s easy for us to take certain skills for granted. We know when to make our best guess and move on, when to seek out additional help, how to pause, evaluate our work, admit we’ve gone astray and adjust our approach, etc. But all of these “moves” require higher order executive functioning skills that don’t fully develop for most people until their mid-twenties, so it’s not surprising that teenagers need a little extra support here. To provide this support, I have my students use a deceptively simple exercise. 


The 5 Minute Stop-and-Solve

  1. Spend 5 minutes working on something difficult 
  2. Stop and identify any problems. Be specific!
  3. Make a problem-solving plan 

When I first introduce this exercise to students, I often get a bit of an eye-roll: because the steps are so simple, it’s easy to underestimate their effectiveness. In fact, each step of the exercise is specifically designed to help students cultivate important skills. 

Step 1: Work for Five Minutes

When I say five minutes, I mean five minutes! I have students use a kitchen timer so they won’t have to rely on their phones (here’s a link to my favorite timer on Amazon). This time limit is highly effective for students on both ends of the spectrum: it keeps overly-cautious students from immediately abandoning a task where they might potentially make a mistake, and it keeps overly-confident students from charging ahead before they understand the basics. 

Step 2: Stop and Reflect

Learning to stop and reflect in the midst of action is a difficult skill that we can spend a lifetime cultivating. Here are some questions I give students to help them practice that pause:

  1. Does the general approach I’m using seem to be working? 
  2. How might I adjust my approach to make it better?
  3. If I continue at this pace, will I finish on time?
  4. Can I formulate my confusion into a specific question?
  5. What specific information or support do I need in order to proceed?

The last two questions are designed to push students beyond a general sense of confusion (which is basically useless) to a specific problem or question (which can be quite powerful). Indeed, a well stated problem is a problem half solved. 

Step 3: Make a Plan

Once students have isolated and articulated their confusion, they can begin to problem solve. Here are some questions that I give students to facilitate problem solving:

  1.  Is there anything I can do to answer the question myself, right now? (Sometimes a good guess is good enough.) 
  2. If not, make a specific plan: watch a Khan Academy video, text a friend, send an email to a teacher, or set a phone reminder to ask your teacher in person the following school day.  
  3. If I need to wait to get my question answered, is there anything else I can do in the meantime? (If you have a question about how to formulate your annotated bibliography, for example, that shouldn’t stop you from starting to outline your body paragraphs.)

Next Steps

From here, I encourage students to follow their own motivation. If they are ready to stop, that’s fine. They still get 100% credit for doing the exercise. Plus, once students establish that the exercise isn’t a way to trick themselves into grinding out three hours of homework, they are more likely to use it in the future.

More often than not, though, a few minutes of effective work time builds motivation, and students want to maintain their momentum. In that case, here’s how I instruct students to continue. 

  1. If you’ve answered all your own questions and are ready to keep going, set the timer for a longer interval (somewhere between 25 – 45 minutes).
  2. If you’re not sure whether you can work through your confusion or not (maybe you’ve made a good guess or a strategy adjustment and want to test it out), set the timer for another 5 minutes and then re-evaluate. 
  3. If  you really do need to wait for clarification before you can proceed and you’ve made your specific clarification plan, switch to a different task. 

A Real Example

It’s hard to imagine exactly how transformative these steps can be until you see them in action. Below, I’ve included a real account that a student gave me of her experience using the 5 Minute Stop-and-Solve on a math assignment:

I wasn’t planning to do my math homework because I felt like I was totally lost with the material so there wasn’t any point. Then I thought I’d try a round of the Stop-and-Solve, just so I could say I did something. After five minutes of working on the assignment, I realized that there were actually a lot of problems that I did know how to do. It was really just one problem type that I was confused about. I tried to figure out what specific information I would need to solve those problems. It was hard to pinpoint my confusion, but eventually I realized that I didn’t know how to handle equations where squaring both sides wasn’t enough to get rid of the square root. Just clarifying my question suddenly made the whole thing feel more manageable. So I made a plan: I would try to find a video on Youtube that answered my question. I felt like finding a video would be this really long annoying process, but then I saw my timer and thought, I’ll try for 3 minutes and I’ll stop if I can’t find something by then. After 3 minutes, I hadn’t found the right video, but I was starting to feel a bit more energized and motivated—maybe it was just nice to feel responsible, actually using the tools you’d give me—so I made a new plan. I texted a friend my question, and, pretty much right away, she texted me back that I just needed to isolate the leftover root and then square both sides of the equation a second time. Her explanation made sense to me and I was able to move forward. I realized that my feeling of being totally lost in math was the result of missing one tiny piece of information. I’d probably just spaced off for a few minutes during class! I’ll have to remember that next time I’m feeling too overwhelmed to tackle an assignment. 

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If you have any questions about what I’ve written here, would like to share your own thoughts, or are seeking help for your student or yourself, click the “Contact Me” button. I would love to hear from you. 

As always, I want to end by reminding you that the school years are tough even when you have the right information at your fingertips, and that’s okay. Challenge is how we learn and grow, and the smoothest path is not always the richest path. Once we’ve controlled the things we can control, sometimes we just have to trust that our students will be okay and so will we!