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.

Images: watson

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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  1. Thanks so much for this! I’m an academic coach for students (high school through grad school), and one challenge I see is getting students to reach out to professors in the first place! What I love about this post is it gives them something totally concrete to do BEFORE they go so they feel less intimidated about asking questions.(I will add, though, that I do urge some of my students to go talk to their professors EVEN IF they don’t know exactly what to ask. Of course, your way is better! But if it’s a choice between staying stuck by oneself and reaching out for help, I vote for the latter. Thoughts?) BTW: I read your posts every week and enjoy them a great deal!

    • Good point! It’s definitely better to reach out for help than to never say anything at all. A professor’s job is to help, so they definitely want to hear from students in need. However, I will say that, in 100% of all cases, you’re better off at least trying to pinpoint your problem than just reaching out for help without putting any effort in at first.

      Of course, it’s always a good idea to go and get to know your professors before you need help on something as well!

      Thanks for reading – glad you’re finding the site useful 🙂

      • Yes, yes! Agreed! Which is why I like how clearly you laid out exactly what to do. If you ever feel like doing a post about how to create relationships with professors in the first place (or if you already have one) let me know, and I’ll send it out to my crew.

        Another BTW: I’ve been following your blog for over a year now, and it was only after I started my own podcast that I discovered yours. Whenever I do a search for “college prep podcast” in iTunes, yours always pops up right before mine. I’ve been enjoying being educational/entrepreneurial colleagues with you from afar, so it’s nice to finally reach out to say ‘hi’.

      • Oh wait, are you the Gretchen that runs the College Prep Podcast? I love your show! I just listened to the episode on early admission, and I’ll be listening to all the others as well – you two are really putting out some great info, and I figured I should know it since I’m giving students advice all day. Let me know if you’d ever like to collaborate!

        And I’ll definitely note down that article idea 🙂

    • I think it depends, but you’re right that quitting after 15 minutes with certain things is too soon. However, for specific, nitty-gritty things (How do I implement this function of an API? How to should I consolidate this weird transaction on the boss’ bank statement?) Matt’s 15 minute time period is a good rule of thumb.

      That said, I think you can give a problem more time when you’re learning on your own and not potentially wasting the money someone would be paying you.

  2. I just stumbled upon your blog and am loving it! This is so well written, great post!

  3. This is a great post. I have sat next to people before in class who do the same thing, never bothering to think about the problem before asking about it. In the age of Google, taking time to think about a problem on your own also keeps you thinking for yourself, not just jumping to the internet to “think” for you. I go straight to Google more than I’d like to admit. I think this also ties in to the concept of rapid skill acquisition (I’m reading Josh Kaufman’s “The First 20 Hours” right now. Have you read it?) in that it helps you make connections for yourself, not according to a prescribed system. Thanks so much for the superb post.

    • I still need to read that book! I read “The Personal MBA” – well, most of it – when I was a sophomore. Great book.

      I’ve been trying to get into the practice of thinking through things more thoroughly before Googling for answers, but even using Google is better than bugging someone for an answer to a question you could answer for yourself much more quickly.

  4. Love this principle Thomas!
    I use a similar technique when I run into coding issues on a project. As you know being a former developer, most often there are several ways to accomplish a goal in coding.

    When I experience a tough situation I can’t immediately solve, I pull out a piece of paper and draw a (quick, not beautiful) sketch of the problem, e.g. a diagram, a process, etc. Then I think about ways I know to achieve that goal or similar situations I have solved in the past.

    If that doesn’t work, I google for forums on the topic. Knowing exactly what problem I’m facing is crucial, just like you said.

    Keep up the great work!

    • I love the bit about sketching out the problem on paper. I’ve done this too with programming problems; I’ll also sometimes open a new document and write out pseudocode for what I want to do. Seeing the process conceptualized can really help you find the actual spot in the code that you’re written wrong.

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