Over the past decade, I have been using 4 approaches to problem-solving to give an overview of problem-solving techniques in my workshops and classes. In this article, I illustrate these 4 modes of problem-solving by applying them to the problem of “reducing student anxiety”. I did this exercise in my class last month at IIT Bombay while teaching a course on the management of innovation. Many of the ideas have come from students as we did the exercise together.
Student anxiety is a broad topic and we realized we could break it down into different sub-topics such as exam anxiety, anxiety due to parental pressures, anxiety due to peer pressure, placement anxiety, etc. This is an example of systems-centric thinking where we try to break down a complex problem into sub-problems and try to solve each separately. Of course, the sub-problems may be interlinked, and solving one sub-problem may exacerbate another one. Despite this possibility, we decided to focus on the sub-problem of exam anxiety.
1. System-centric approach:
We looked at some of the Systematic Inventive Thinking techniques
a. Subtraction: Can we subtract the exam from the course?
b. Division: Make attendance 100% weightage and exam 0% (Reduce weightage of exam and increase somewhere else)
c. Multiplication: Give an option of multiple attempts to refine your score in the exam
d. Task unification: 1. Keep self-assessment 2. Keep peer-assessment 3. Let every student set and answer her own exam
e. Attribute dependency: Exam is offered at multiple difficulty levels. Student gets to choose the difficulty level of the exam
f. Reversal: Instead of the teacher setting exam for the students, students set exam for the teacher
2. Solution-centric approach:
a. Using metaphors: Can writing an exam be as stress-free as chatting with friends in a café? Can exam writing be a group exercise?
b. Using internal bright spots: A personalized app that keeps track of student’s stress level perhaps through biomarkers such as HRV (Heart Rate Variability) available on smartwatches. And when it senses that anxiety is rising, gives suggestions for activities based the past data that reduce his anxiety. Suggestions could be: have chocolate, go talk to a friend, read a book, listen to music, take a walk, etc.
3. Problem-centric approach: Through this mode, one goes into the root cause of the problem of “exam anxiety”. Why does it arise? What is the “virus” and what could be the “vaccine”? Is the fear of failure the root cause? Is this an evolutionarily deep-rooted tendency? If so, can it be dampened when it remains high? What does neuroscience say? Is there an anti-anxiety pill without any side effects?
4. Sensing-centric approach: In this mode, one begins by saying, “I don’t know why students are anxious about exams”. Can I listen to and observe students as they prepare for and respond to exam pressure? Can I listen to and observe teachers and parents as to how they respond to exams? Is it possible for students, teachers, and parents to become aware of their own anxiety?Hope this gives some idea of how the 4 modes of problem-solving may be applied to a given situation.