Five Steps to Do When When You’re Stuck

Trouble shooting is an important skill for anyone, not just students. Relying on an answer key or your friends every time you’re stuck will ultimately leave you powerless in an exam.

More importantly though, this has been known to lower confidence and increase frustration levels. In the long run, an ability to troubleshoot translates into greater habits that reflect a lack of grit and perseverance – easily giving up, despairing when you can’t ‘get it’ and building a sense of learned helplessness.

Rather than instantly giving up or feeling emotions of doom, below is a five step process you can take before you give up and go straight to the answer key or teacher for help.

1. Document Your Process

Once you have spent a substantial amount of time on a question and have finally found yourself ‘stuck’, the first thing is always stop and figure out what you have been doing. Ever had that experience when you go up to your teacher, try to explain something and then find yourself explaining everything and answering the question? This shows the power of articulation.

Documenting your process simply means listing down everything you have tried to do – what methods you have tried or what ideas you have explored. List down each step, or mind map and breakdown each idea properly on a new piece of paper. Identify where exactly you are stuck, what exactly you have done so far and how you have done it.

IMG_4646If you are stuck because you don’t understand a certain topic, list down everything you know until you reach a point where you start getting stuck. From here, you can generate a list of questions. Don’t stop at “I don’t know what’s going on” but actively find out why you do not understand something. Take your lecture notes and list down the questions going through your mind when you read that sentence or phrase that you have found that sparks that sense of being stuck.

2. Limit the Time You Spend on that Task

From there, continue on the task at hand. But don’t just keep going on and on: limit yourself to a certain amount of time with that particular task or question, such as twenty minutes.

During that time intensely work on that problem as if it were a new question. Take a fresh piece of paper and do not let your old workings disturb or distract you. Having those old working encourages your brain to go back and think only in that way. Having a fresh sheet of paper will encourage other (hopefully new) ideas to come in. This is another reason why documenting your process is important – you don’t have to worry about losing your previous work that might be useful later on.

Try to answer those questions that you have listed down (if any!) as you go along. Online resources are available to go through topics such as CrashCourse, Khan Academy and our best friend…Google.

3. Take A Break

If these two steps fail, take a break! While this might sound counterintuitive, your brain needs it. After spending a lot of time on a particular question, the prefrontal cortex ,which is used for deep, focused rational thinking, gets tired. Just like any other muscle in our body, it needs rest!

In the book, ‘A Mind for Numbers’, Dr Oakley classifies modes of thinking into ‘focused thinking’ and ‘diffused thinking’. When you are deeply focused on only one particular thing, you are using ‘focused thinking’ and making use of that prefrontal cortex that stores familiar information and connections.

However, when approaching the unfamiliar, Dr Oakley suggests to also engage in ‘diffused thinking’ – that is, to engage with other parts of your brain that work to create new connections. This is done by gathering data from everywhere (and anywhere!) So while you might think your brain is taking a break and not actively thinking about the question or task at hand, your brain is still subconsciously processing it in other ways.

4. Do Other Questions or Explore Other Ideas

In the same vein, before going back to that question you were stuck on, try to explore other ideas or questions. By doing so, you are letting your brain create those links and connections in your brain that you previously might not have established.

Similarly, if you don’t understand a certain topic, then let it simmer for a while, capture everything you do know and try revising another topic, another subject and come back to it later.

5. Seek Help

If all this fails and you’re still stuck, then, finally, now, consult a teacher or friend. But make sure you document what you have done one last time before meeting him/her, and explain to them your thought process. This allows them to break it down for you, and will show you what exact changes you have to make when you approach, think or write.

Articulating the process to yourself and getting an articulated answer back can show you how to think about an idea the next time. If you have an answer key, try to articulate each step of the answer key to yourself first before copying it down. Similarly, try recalling all the information of a topic or idea before noting down an answer. Recalling and rephrasing ensures that you are actively processing and summarising the information you are given and making it your own.

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With these detailed steps to how to ‘unstuck’ yourself, practice and study deliberately. Being stuck and getting out of it is a sign of growth and learning. Nothing is better than finally getting that math answer or writing down that paragraph after working your way through!

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