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When “Hints” Hinder Learning, Part 2 of 3

In part one of this series, I discussed problems with giving students “hints” that merely direct students to the “next step.” This second part explains another hint design that also hinders learning. And in the final part of this series, I’ll share how DreamBox uses a unique hint design that is truly tailored to individual students.

Flawed Hint Approach 2: “Information Overload”

While it’s true that students might often simply need more information when they get stuck, educators need to be very thoughtful about giving them not only the correct information, but also the correct amount of information. For example, if a student is trying to determine whether 15.379 is greater than or less than 15.38, I’ve seen programs that give students a hint that is merely a lengthy written explanation of a robotic procedure for comparing two decimal numbers:

Count the number of digits to the left of the decimal points. If one of the numbers has more digits to the left of the decimal point than the other, then that number is greater and you are finished. If the number of digits to the left of the decimal points is the same, then compare the largest place value of the two numbers. If they are different …

You get my point. Much like directing a struggling student to a textbook explanation or Wikipedia article, this hint supplies information overload. It’s difficult to read and even more difficult to make sense of the information and use it in any meaningful way. Also, it’s too abstract, too general, and not tailored to what the student needs to solve a particular problem. In reality, this hint design is often just a higher-level generalization of the “next step” hint design discussed in part one. While the “next step” approach at least shows students something specific to their problem at hand, the “information overload” method is a broad generalized explanation showing one approach to any problem of a particular type.

As with the first hint type that showed students the “next step,” following this “informational” explanation could also yield a correct answer. But its very design makes students believe that math is little more than a series of steps, procedures and rules to be followed. There is no independent thinking involved on the part of the student. Both of these hint types are rooted in the flawed notion that learning and transfer are best accomplished through transmission of information rather than by engaging in meaningful learning experiences that require critical thinking.

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Tim Hudson