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Extracting Signal From the Noise

It’s the key to getting through college (and life).

By Emily Weiss


(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

As if the real news from this presidential election were not disturbing enough, we now know that there was a propagation of incendiary stories on Facebook and Google intended to provoke a response from one segment of the electorate or another. In response (and after some public hand-wringing), Facebook recently announced some specific strategies to minimize the spread of fake news: filtering suspicious stories through established fact-checking organizations; flagging stories that, once read, are only rarely shared; and taking action to reduce the number of sites that pretend to be established publications.

That’s an important step, and a vital one, especially when it comes to college students (82 percent of Facebook users fall in the 18 to 29 age range, according to the Pew Research Center). A recent study from researchers at Stanford University found that college students are “easily duped” “when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels.” And there is evidence to suggest fake news actually affected vote totals (if not the outcome itself). How can we give our students the tools and confidence to navigate the deluge of available information? How do we teach them to think analytically, to think critically?

I am a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University. I teach the first course in the introductory chemistry sequence, Chem 101. The students who struggle in this class often explain their performance by an inability to “do the math” required. That claim can’t be strictly true — 90 percent of the math in the Chem 101 sequence is simple arithmetic. When a student says, “I can’t do the math,” what they mean is “I can’t solve word problems,” the types of questions that ask students to use known concepts or relationships to extract information or make a prediction from a short narrative. These problems are difficult because the narratives are not designed to lead straightforwardly to the right answer. They often contain more information than is needed, or present the information in a jumbled manner. Tackling this type of exercise is the biggest barrier for first-year college students to mastering introductory chemistry.

Most professions require these same analytical skills. A meteorologist has never encountered a weather system exactly like the one coming tomorrow, but he knows how to correlate wind speeds with atmospheric stability at near-freezing temperatures, and can therefore predict the chance of snow. A scientist at a pharmaceutical company works on medicines for new diseases each year, but she knows the basic principles that dictate molecular interactions, and can therefore begin to design a cure. Even outside of our professional lives, we are always solving problems. We use our past experiences and some quick calculations to determine how early we need to wake up to get to work by 8:30 a.m., and how much money we should put away each month to pay for our kid’s education.

All of these activities, and most college courses, require that students engage in the important task of learning and executing problem-solving skills in the context of unfamiliar concepts, ideas, and information. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, there is no high-school course or explicit curricular focus on “critical thinking” or “problem solving” or “quantitative analysis” or even “logic.” The sad twist of irony is that if high schools did not teach biology, chemistry, or physics, and instead only taught basic problem solving and quantitative analysis skills, students would, in many ways, be more prepared for their college-level science courses. That’s not to say we should eliminate science courses from the high school curriculum; we simply need a different pedagogy, one that places problem solving in the central framework and makes the specific facts of the science the details that inject context and interest to the problems.

Certainly, memorization of facts is a useful skill. It is necessary so that details do not get in the way of internalizing the larger picture. But no amount of memorization can prepare a student to analyze an unfamiliar problem with unfamiliar variables, whether that problem be an exam question in a chemistry class or reconciling several conflicting interpretations of a presidential candidate’s economic stance. The world’s biggest, most important problems are also its most complex. Let’s arm our future innovators, as early as possible in the educational process, with tools to deal with the unfamiliar, and thereby enable them to make new discoveries rather than just regurgitate known facts.

How? It is the responsibility of parents to challenge their children to solve problems at home (how should I distribute my chores throughout the week to spend the least time on them?), to make the news (however it is delivered) dinner-time discussion, and to demand an emphasis on inquiry and problem solving in our middle school and high school curricula — elements like those contained in the Next Generation Science Standards. Yes, there are large financial and organizational barriers to K-12 curriculum reform, especially in public schools with limited budgets, but it is worth the potentially decades of effort to implement these standards. They will allow our children to think critically about the credibility of others’ statements and solutions, and to forge their own path confidently, in college and beyond.