How much time do you spend on a problem before seeking help?

  • #1
As many of you know, some problems in math or physics require a certain insight, or click of the light bulb, to finish. This is especially true for some of the more difficult proofs (which come to mind because of the Real Analysis class I am currently in).

Perhaps I'm not as innately proficient in mathematics as my easy calculus courses would have led me to believe, but sometimes that light bulb just doesn't turn on, and I inevitably need to seek help from other students, the TA, or the professor (or physics forums, for that matter, but I've yet to use this resource for homework help).

I must wonder, though, how much time it is appropriate to spend on a single problem before seeking help. Obviously, you can't hope to spend forever on that one problem: there's lots of other problems and lots of other stuff to read in lots of other classes! So you might go ahead and try some other problems, but that only postpones the inevitability of having to solve that one problem that you just can't get. So how long should one spend on a problem before looking for help?

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
i stick with it as long as i am enjoying it, or have some hope i may get it.

but indeed if nothing comes out for a long time, one may be more successful, even on that problem, by looking at something else, or at least some other approaches.

long periods of defeat are depressing.
  • #3
long periods of defeat are depressing.

That they are! And they can make me second guess my decision to major in math.
  • #4
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Gold Member
If you get stumped on a homework problem, I'd recommend going ahead and doing the other problems that seem easier, get your confidence back up that you CAN do the work for the class, and then return to the one that had you stumped. Sometimes a break from staring at it is all it takes to see the next step.

When I was a student, I'd take as long as I had to take to work on a problem. That is, I wouldn't let one problem keep me from getting all my other assignments done, but if I had everything else done, I'd keep going back to the one that had me stumped. If I hadn't figured it out by the time the recitation class met, then I'd ask to have it demonstrated (I rarely had classes where homework was actually graded). The exception was if I was not even understanding the concepts I had to use or most of the problems were giving me trouble, then I'd ask other students or TA's or professors to help explain what I had missed before going back to working on the assignment.
  • #5
Well, it really depends what is the problem your are trying to solve for. In other words, if it is one of your homework problems and you need to turn in your homework within 2 or 3 days, then obviously you cannot allow yourself to get too bogged down in that problem, because you need to move throug other stuff also, so after some tries, if you still get nowhere, you eventually need to ask for help or just for some hints, because most of the time just hints work completely fine. However, i personally, when i deal with problems other than hw, since i haven't had difficulties with homework so far, i trie to stick to them for as long as i think i can get them. It has happened to me to stick to one problem for more than two or three weeks, it is fun, you get to some point, but after that you realize that all you have done doesn't hold so you start all over again. But, if i see that i am really not getting anywhere then i ask my prof, but usually i just need to check my work, because most of the time i manage to pile sth up.
However, there are some really tough problems also that i have no idea at all where to start from. If this is the case, i sometimes try to review the theory or the tools that would be necessary to solve that problem, if i already don't know the appropriate methods, if this doesn't work either, then there is nothing wrong with asking for help.
  • #6
Usually if I get stuck on a problem I skip to the next one, then go back to it afterward. It gets extremely deflating spending an hour on a single problem, because after a while I start thinking if I'm ever going to finish the assignment or about all the other assignments I have to do.

I also make sure I at least look at the assigned questions early (even if I don't start them early) because it helps start the thinking process. It's also good to sleep on it if you're really stuck; sometimes the next day if you give the problem another shot the light bulb just turns on and the problem is done in less than 15 minutes. Afterward, I make sure I give a good attempt at the problem before the professor's scheduled office hours. I make sure I put in as much time as I can allot (given the schedule of classes) because I like figuring things out myself, and if I'm still stuck on a problem when office hours roll around I bring my work with me and ask for help.
  • #7
My skills at resolving such problems (not the type of math/science problem, but the problem of "I can't do this myself yet, now I need to seek help") were terrible as an undergrad, and barely tolerable as a graduate student. I still have a touch of "I should be able to do everything on my own, g d-it."

If I had it to do over again, I would swallow my pride after a reasonable amount of time, go ask the professor/TA, and keep asking and trying until I got it right. Life would have been much easier that way.
  • #8
When I lose hope and accept that I just don't understand some fundamental part, then I go seek help.

If I feel it's still within my power to solve the problem, I'm just missing something, I keep at it.

Those two sound really similar, because they are. There's a very fine line between "I give up." and "I don't know, but I'll keep trying."
  • #9
If I can't get anywhere on a problem within a hour, I just look at the solution. You only have so much time in a day.
  • #10
In all truthfulness, you problem solving skills can only improve if you give the problem at least a think through.

Obviously, if you are under time constraints, then the obvious solution would be to seek assistance after, say 15 minutes.

If it's like a proof or something, and I really want to solve it myself, I often spend like 1 hour on it...then I'll take a break and get back to it some other time. I've realized that sometimes, problems work themselves out in my mind, if I lay them to rest for a while.
  • #11
Glad you asked

Glad you asked. I have asked myself the same equestion many times. While I am not a genius by any stretch of the term, I don't consider myself diffficult to teach either. Let's face it, most problems do not take but a few minutes if you know the needed concepts. Often you are in need of that small amount of extra info that "turns the lights on". I know when I am missing one of those small peices, its frustrating as heck. Being just plain stubborn, I will use sometimes large amounts of time trying to figure it out on my own only to make the rest of that study session longer and deepen my frustration. If youve taken a legitimate stab at the problem and need a little help, if help is available, ask for it. I think the proper time is relative to how long it takes you to plug-in what you know, and honestly say to yourself, "am I comfortable with this". Could be 5 mins, could be 1 hr. Finding info and teaching yourself is great and admirable, but if you are working it and have people around you who are ready to help, take advantage of that. Why waste precious time. the outcome will be the same and you will have saved time. Someday someone will need your help. So be ready to give it.

I can only speak for myself that when i am in "the know", I am glad to help those out who really want to learn. while i am not a teacher, teaching others is one of the most satisfying things.
  • #12
lol, yeah i have same issue, i usually think about and not get ask a tutor. But i feel dumb when i don't get lol , and get mad for doing engineering , but after i get feel pretty silly because its easy problem then I am bak loving calculus heh
  • #13
In high school, I was spending weeks/one-two months on some problems (I couldn't seek much help because I din't want to and my most teachers really din't want to work on stuff that's wasn't in curriculum)
In computer science courses, you just need to spend time - teachers/prof wouldn't help you! (Spending 6-8 hours on a problem is usual in those courses)

Now, I am in university. So, I don't spend more than 30 minutes on any single problem in math/physics (But usually, I spend some hours solving assignment problems .. mostly finish them before other people).
I am using this for solving other problems! [Broken]

for each courses!
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  • #14
Sometimes I try and work for over an hour. Hour max I guess, otherwise you'll fall behind in other things.

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