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Some Tips for Getting Started

Writing as Problem Solving

Problems with a single correct answer (problems in multiplication for example) have methods that ensure solution of that problem. Either you know the method or you don't. If you don't know the method, you can learn it. However, problem solving
situations may not be as simple as learning the times tables. Complex problem solving involves the ability to get beyond simple memorization of axioms, dates, formulas, names, etc. Although knowledge of the facts is fundamental, the student needs to learn how to acquire and interpret that knowledge. The writing that students do in their college courses presupposes their ability to think critically in order to solve a complex problem and then to express their findings, their "solutions" if you will, in terms that are understandable to others. The first step in such problem solving is to define the problem. In defining the problem, students can use a number of strategies that will lead them to a statement of their aim or purpose in writing. Such a definition also takes into account the audience for which the final product is intended.

Some Useful Strategies for Arriving at a Sense of Purpose

  • Brainstorming: For five minutes write down anything that comes to mind about the topic. What do you already know about the topic? What avenues might you explore? These initial jottings do not have to be organized; they are merely
    your first step in the process.
  • Lists: When making lists, focus you attention on key words or concepts. The initial list will most likely be random. Try to see relationships. Don't get fixated at a low level of questions,, that is, don't remain focused on questions that can be
    answered with yes/no or questions that involve easily resolved issues which are not open to debate or question.
  • Aristotle's Topics: See your subject as X and begin asking questions about it. Pose some of these questions: What does X mean? How can X be divided? What contradictions exist in X? How is X like something else? Different?
  • Tagmemics: See your topic as a particle, a wave, or a field. If you view the topic as a particle, you see it as a static entity. You are interested only in X. If you look at the topic as a wave, you view it as part of a process or continuum.
    How does X fit into the continuum. How does X fit in with what went before and after? How does X compare with what went before and after? If you view the topic as a field, you view it as a system of relationships. You view X in a
    context, as part of a network.
  • Burke's Pentad: Kenneth Burke looked at topic development in dramatic terms. In Burke's plan, the writer views the topic from five different perspectives. In Burke's system, the writer must view the topic from the perspective of action, actor/agent, scene, means (or agency), purpose. Action allows you to look at what happens. The actor/agent perspective focuses on who was involved. Questions relating to the actor/agent go beyond what was done to the planning, etc. behind the deed. Questions of scene lead to a focus on the time and place of the deed. Questions about means or agency would look at complex issues and relationships involved in the situation. Questions about purpose would lead to statements regarding motivation and goals

Keeping a Journal

A journal, unlike your class notes, goes beyond the simple act of recording what transpires in the classroom. The journal allows you to record dialogues with yourself regarding the meaning of the experience. In a journal, the writer can accomplish what T.S. Eliot expresses in The Dry Salvages. "We had the experience but missed the meaning,/And approach to the meaning restores the experience/In a different form." In a journal, the student writes, not to fulfill an exercise, but to learn. "Learning about a subject means more than memorizing axioms, dates, and formulas. You also need to develop general intellectual skills that will allow you to understand the discipline in its entirety, that is to approach it intelligently, knowing what questions to ask, where to discover the answers to those questions, and, finally, how to develop and organize your own ideas about the subject.  A body of knowledge about the material is fundamental, but a student of any subject should also learn how to acquire and
interpret additional knowledge. . . .

. . ., writing is one of the most important intellectual activities that you do in college, for writing is not simply a method of communicating what you know about a subject; it is an extremely useful tool for assisting you in a variety of tasks, from observation to argument. From making simple lists to analyzing and synthesizing complex data, intellectual functions, especially the more complex ones, 'seem to develop most fully only with the support system of verbal language--particularly, it seems, written language.' The most useful writing in this kind of writing is what we call "private" writing, that is, writing you do for yourself." (Elaine P. Maimon, et al. Writing in the Arts and Sciences)

Reasons for Keeping a Journal

  • To gain self-knowledge--to assist you in formulating the thoughts and half-formed ideas you have in your unconscious 
  • To develop the habit of writing. Writers learn to write by writing. Keeping a journal helps allay some of the fears of the "blank page." Keeping a journal encourages self-expression and helps the writer to develop his/her talent.
  • To give form to confusion of everyday life.
  • To help in perceiving and observing more critically and sensitively.

Subject Matter

  • Impressions: Take note of what you experience. Be concrete, using as much detail as necessary to accurately record what you feel.
  • The current situation: Summarize an event or experience that has taken place in class. Record your attitude or point of view regarding the experience in detail.
  • Revisionism: Choose an awkward or unpleasant moment and rewrite the experience so that the situation turns out more to your satisfaction.
  • The path not taken: Imagine a situation that turned out badly (perhaps because of reluctance to risk something important). What might have happened if, at the critical moment, you made the risky decision?
  • Controversy: Argue a position open to debate or dispute; take the unpopular side; try to find an unusual angle to support. (Remember, arguments are based on well chosen evidence; don't simply make pronouncements which are
    justified by emotional response ("knee jerk reaction")
  • Reminder: The journal is not a diary of your daily activities. Use the journal to record thoughts and impressions, to remember the past, to plan for the future. Approach the writing of the journal as an journey into the unknown. In the words of T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding: "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." In keeping a journal you discover new things about
    yourself you may not have considered or realized before. Take Eliot's advice and "Fare foreward, travellers! Not escaping from the past/Into different lives, or into any future;/You are not the same people who left that station/Or who
    will arrive at any terminus." 

For more detailed information, see Dr. Harmatiuk. 

Call the number listed below or send an e-mail message:

Sandra J. Harmatiuk
First Year of Studies
227 Coleman-Morse Center
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN 46556 (574) 631-6578

E-mail: Sandra.J.Harmatiuk.1@nd.edu

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219 Coleman-Morse Center --- Notre Dame, IN 46556-4617
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