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Use The Corson Technique When Asking Professors For Help

One of the things I’ve stressed on this blog for a long time is the idea of becoming a “Solution Finder.”

To me, this is someone who knows how and where to find answers to questions that aren’t immediately obvious and who is willing to do it.

In fact, I’ve gone as far as to say that I’d force students to take a class on it if I had the power to do so.

Solution Finders are not nearly as common as I would like them to be. When I worked ISU’s tech support phone lines as a freshman, I was stunned by the amount of people who couldn’t be bothered to google a problem before immediately picking up the phone and calling for help.

People in my classes were the same way. At the first sign of confusion, many students would immediately ask for help from the professor or someone sitting next to them.

It was as if they expected every single concept to “click” right away – and when one didn’t, they’d immediately go into panic mode.

This is the behavior of toddlers. It is not what a student who has made it into college should do.

A while back, I read an amazing blog post titled “First You Must Try, Then You Must Ask” by Matt Ringel.

In it, Matt talks about a concept that came up a lot in his work called the 15-Minute Rule:

“If you’re stuck on a problem, take a solid 15 minutes to bash your brain against it in whatever manner you see fit. However, if you still don’t have an answer after 15 minutes, you must ask someone for help.”

This rule is essential to learn in the workplace, as you risk annoying the hell out of your boss, coworkers, and anyone else near you if you don’t. You’re being paid to create value and find solutions, not to constantly take up the time of others.

Of course, there’s a balance here. If you really can’t solve a problem, then sitting there grinding away on it for too long just wastes your time and the money the company is paying you. Hence the “first try, then ask” mantra. Matt’s post lays out a great framework for applying this:

  1. When you get stuck, push yourself to solve the problem for 15 more minutes.
  2. During that 15 minutes, document everything you do, keeping in mind that someone else will need those details if they’re going to help you.
  3. After that time, if you’re still stuck, you must ask for help.

Matt sums up the benefit of this practice nicely:

“By explicitly taking enough time, everyone saves time.”

Now, while I would very much like for you to apply this rule to next job you’re hired for (it did wonders for me in my first true web development job), I want to stress something here:

This rule applies to your classes as well.

While you’re not being paid for the work you do in class (quite the opposite), the situation is quite similar to what you face in an intellectually challenging job:

  • You face hard problem sets that have to be completed, which have answers that are not immediately obvious
  • You, your peers, and your professor all have limited time

If you can use the Solution Finder mindset in your classes, you’ll develop a strong learning habit that’ll serve you well as you move forward in life. You’ll also save your professors’ time and make them like you more.

There’s a specific application of this mindset that I call the Corson Technique, which I read about in the 1984 edition of Walter Pauk’s How to Study in College (a fantastic book – though the value of the $125 price tag on the current edition is highly dubious).

Dale Corson was the 8th president of Cornell University – yep, the same university that produced the famous note-taking technique – and was also the dean of its College of Engineering.

In the book, Pauk recalls that Corson said students in engineering and science programs often have to work through a complex idea one sentence at a time in order to “crack” it.

If comprehension doesn’t come even at this granular level of study, it’s time to ask the professor for help. However, he says,

“Before you do, ask yourself this question: What is it that I don’t understand?

What he means is that you should never go to your professor, open the book and, with a “general sweep of the hand” say that you don’t understand what you’re reading.

Rather, when you go for help, you should be able to show the professor all that you do understand up to an exact point – and even show what you understand afterwards.

When you ask for help, pinpoint exactly what in the material you don’t understand. | Tweet This

By doing this, you show the professor that you’ve really wrestled with the problem. Doing this has several benefits:

  1. You save the professor’s time and help them understand the exact context of your problem
  2. The professor knows that you actually give a shit and will have a much better impression of you
  3. By really going to intellectual combat on the problem, you very well might solve it yourself before you need to ask

Score three for the Solution Finder mindset.

I can recall several specific examples of the third benefit in action; when I worked at ISU web development department, I would often run into tough programming problems that I didn’t understand.

To be quite honest, I wasn’t really qualified for that job – my boss had hired me based on my portfolio, but my knowledge of the specific programming languages and web frameworks the office used was almost zero when I started.

Knowing my coworkers had better things to do than teach me what I should have already known, I would always try to figure out exactly what I didn’t understand.

I’d often find that, the moment I called someone over for help, my brain would kick this practice into overdrive, and I’d spot the problem before they did. (And before you ask, no, it wasn’t always a missing semicolon. Only sometimes.)

So keep this technique in mind the next time you’re stuck on a homework problem or you’re reading a difficult textbook. It’s as Sherlock Holmes said to Watson,

“You see, but you do not observe.”

…you might have seen the problem and decided upon its difficulty intuitively, but have you really observed every detail? Have you figured out exactly what you do and don’t understand about it?

And yes, I threw that reference in there just so I could use a picture of Watson as the featured image 😛

Practicing this will make you a better learner and more popular with your professors – and you’ll find the skill even more useful down the line when companies start wanting to hire you.