Empowerment: Is it Worth Solving A Problem?


My PIDP 3250 classmate, Dan, made a great post in the discussion forum about motivation, where he referenced a TED Talk by Scott Geller about the psychology of self-motivation. Geller (2013) talks about the four pillars for self-motivation and three questions to determine if we are feeling empowered. The four pillars for connecting with learners are competency, consequences, choice, and community. The three questions with regard to empowerment are related to if we can achieve something, will the method we derived work, and is the method worth it. The focus of this journal entry is the third question of empowerment.


While studying computational mathematics, the three questions of empowerment always came into play. I always felt that I could achieve the solution to a problem and it was typically easy to come up with a method to solve it. The major hurdle was if my proposed method was worth it. I recall having to solve a specific partial differential equation, where I spent a few days deriving a method to solve it. To my surprise, my method would have taken weeks to compute. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that the result of my method was correct because of potential errors in my coding. This resulted in a lack of motivation for myself to continue with this type of work. I see this characteristic in my students as well. When learning formulas in Excel, they are reluctant to spend half an hour deriving a formula to solve a problem when they are unsure if their solution will be correct. This unwillingness to try can result in a study technique I don’t encourage, namely, studying the answer to solve the problem. By learning in this manner, students are missing out on the crucial steps in the problem-solving process when working from the problem to the solution. 


I have come to the realization that my students and I have a similar lack of motivation when it comes to problem solving. There are two types of problems that can be solved: incremental and insight. Incremental problems can be solved through brute force and may be time consuming. On the other hand, insight problems require critical thinking to solve. A study by Wieth and Burns (2000) conducted with 292 university students, discovered that there are correlations between motivation and incremental problem solving, but not with insight problem solving. The motivation factor that was discovered in this correlation was interest. I recall getting very bored and frustrated with my computational mathematics work which was very incremental in nature. I can definitely see how the resulting lack of interest in my work led to a decrease in motivation. However, my students encounter insight problems, as their Excel work is related to business problems that do not have straightforward approaches. Although I have found a connection between motivation and problem solving for myself, I have not found one for my students.


Coming back to the empowerment question, is the method worth it, I have been measuring worth in units of time. Perhaps this is not the right approach when judging the worth of solving an insight problem. A later study by Wieth and Burns (2006) found that incentives can improve motivation for insight problem solving. What is bizarre is that the incentives were not monetary or material. The incentive was that the students could stop doing the problem at any time. This actually makes a lot of sense. Consider a time when you have been stuck on a problem for hours and simply did not know how to progress any further. You may have put it aside and worked on a different problem and then came back to it later with a fresh mind. Perhaps instead of assigning my students one problem in class to solve, I could assign them several. Alternatively, if a student or group of students cannot progress on a problem, I could give them an alternative one and ask them to return to their original problem later. This would increase their motivation when it comes to insight problem solving in my class.


Geller, S. (2013, Dec 11). The Psychology of Self-Motivation: Scott Geller [Video file]. Retrieved from


Wieth, M., & Burns, B. (2000). Motivation in insight versus incremental problem solving. Twenty Second Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. Philadelphia.

Wieth, M., & Burns, B. (2006). Incentives improve performance on both incremental and insight problem solving. Quarterly Journal Of Experimental Psychology, 59(8), 1378-1394.


About simoncrothers

I am an Australian who moved to British Columbia, Canada with my family in 1998. After completing my undergraduate degree in mathematics and computing science at Simon Fraser University, I moved back to Australia for several years. During this time I completed a Masters in Computational Mathematics and began my teaching career in mathematics at the University of New South Wales. In 2010, I moved back to Canada and taught computer science at Douglas College for three years. I am currently regular faculty in the Computer Business Systems department at KPU. I have also taught some courses in the Business and Quantitative Methods department at KPU. In my spare time I like to spend time with my wife Jami, who I met in Australia, our three year old daughter Lillian, and our newly born son Aiden. I also like to indulge in the occasional video game and I am involved in various self-employed web development projects.
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