Problem Solving: Mental Sets

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The last problem that I had to try to figure out was for introductory Biology class. We were constructing evolutionary trees for a lab assignment, using multiple traits for 8 different flowers. The concept was simple- to draw a tree that showed the newly derived traits stemming from older ones- but to me, the problem seemed nearly undoable.
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Unfortunately, I quickly fell victim to a recently talked about obstacle in effective problem solving: metal set. Mental sets are defined as "becoming stuck in specific strategies, inhibiting the ability to generate alternatives." I was so consumed with using the same traits in the beginning stems that I was unable to look outside the box to try alternatives. I kept getting stuck with categorizing and labels that I quickly became frustrated and confused.
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Besides help from my boyfriend, I found that the best way to crawl out of this fix was to use an algorithm. As a, "step-by-step procedure used to solve problems," an algorithmic approach helped me to slow down, analyze more critically and lay out each trait to each flower and systematically clear out the situation. It was time consuming, but it eventually paid off, which I recommend for anyone before they become overly frustrated as I was.
One thing I am still wondering is, even though it takes more time, why would students still rather use heuristics rather than algorithms to solve a problem when algorithms almost always produce a correct result?
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5 Comments

To answer your question, I think we still fall victum to mental sets because thats what we do, we fall victum to them time and time again. We think that since it worked for something one time, why not again? It would be a lot easier to solve problems in algorithms, but I feel that often times people forget that its even an opition to slow down and approach a problem with a little extra work that will speed the process up in the long way anyways!

Yes, I agree. Mental sets tend to occur at the worst times, especially when it's a simple problem, yet you cannot remember how exactly to do it. It's never a bad thing to go back to the basics and using step-by-step algorithms in order to solve a problem, because that's how you achieve the best results. I think heuristics are mainly used because it's a quick and easy way of producing the same answer rather than going through every single steps. Many people would rather use a 2-3 step method rather than 8-10 steps, but as time goes on, you start to forget how to do the step-by-step method, which should never happen because you should always know how to do the basics.

The simplest solution is what people often look for. When using heuristics or algorithms I believe people look to the heuristic as the simplest solution to a problem so that is what they use when they approach it. Algorithms are indeed a better way to approach many problems, however, people often choose to take the simplest (easiest) method over the more complex (longer) methods such as algorithms.

"Looking outside the box" is something that i feel like fades from the transition from tween to teen, i feel like as a younger child i had all the creativity and freshness when approaching a problem, but its interesting to look back on how my schooling has in fact to some degree inhibited my ability to apply new tactics to a particular problem or set of problems. Its a kind of two steps forward one step back kind of thing, and i hope college will provide all of us with the ability to be able to recognize our mental sets and alter them to better assist us. Great post.

I think to answer this I find that when you are set in one way of doing something and it has always been that way its hard to change. I found that some problems that I do are so hard to solve because I cannot see things in another light and I struggle to grasp the concepts.

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This page contains a single entry by sherm331 published on March 25, 2012 2:38 PM.

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