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Using Riddles and Interactive Computer Games to Teach Problem-Solving Skills

John H. Doolittle
California State University, Sacramento
Reprinted from: TEACHING OF PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 22, No. 1, February, 1995,

Cognitive flexibility, which is defined as the ability to generate several categories of possible solutions is identified as the most critical aspect of creativity training. Word tables, interactive computer games, and riddles are used to develop cognitive flexibility. Preliminary results from analyses with quasi-experimental designs provide promising evidence that these methods are effective in enhancing creative and other forms of critical thought in college students.

Ruggiero (1984) took the approach, popular among psychologists, of characterizing the problem-solving process as having two complementary phases: production and judgment. In the production phase, which he associated with creative thinking, potential solutions to the problem are generated. In the judgment phase, which he associated with critical thinking, the ideas generated are evaluated. This approach seems to elevate the importance of teaching students how to generate ideas to a level approaching the importance of being able to evaluate ideas. However, a closer examination of the evaluation process shows that it, too, frequently calls on the problem solver to think creatively (J. H. Doolittle, 1992b). For example, if one is evaluating the assertion, "He must be the killer; he's holding the murder weapon!," part of what one needs to do is to generate ways in which someone could be holding a murder weapon and not be the killer. This process includes generating various scenarios or models (Johnson-Laird, 1983), which may or may not involve images, and then judging their plausibility (Kaufmann, 1980).

The purpose of this article is to suggest exercises and activities to help students become better idea generators using riddles and computer games as the context in which problem solving occurs.

Flexibility and Metacognition

Flexibility, which is the process of generating a variety of types of potential solutions, may be more important to good problem solving than fluency, which is the process of generating more potential solutions regardless of type. For students to become more flexible as solutions generators, they need to be made aware of the types of solutions that they are generating. This process, one aspect of self-monitoring or metacognition, is at the heart of successful problem solving and can be improved in the important area of verbal associations by having students construct word tables.

In constructing word tables, students brainstorm as many associations as they can think of to a word such as fish. The generation of associations should take approximately 2 min. Next, have them categorize the associations they generated. Each student will produce a word table with categories, such as kinds of fish (guppy, trout, etc.), parts of a fish (fin, gills, etc.), things you take fishing, and so on. An interesting phenomenon then occurs: Students not only begin to add new associations, such as salmon and scales, to the table but also begin to add new categories, such as places where fish live. J. H. Doolittle and Bourg (1991) showed that brief training with generating associations to one word was followed by increased production on an unrelated, follow-up word. More recently, I assigned 10 word tables as a supplemental homework exercise for those of my students who scored in the lowest 20% of the class on a verbal-association measure. On a later and more difficult verbal-association quiz, 80% (12 of 15) of these remedial students passed the test as compared with 53% (32 of 60) of the other students, who were not required to produce word tables. It may be that any activity that causes problem solvers to pause, retrieve relevant information from memory, and examine their production is beneficial.

Flexibility and Mental Models

The notion of thinking as the construction and manipulation of mental models (Johnson-Laird, 1983) suggests another realm for flexibility training. Riddles, puns, jokes, and other word-association games help students shift mental models. The primary skill learned in these exercises is a willingness to let go of an unsuccessful solution or model. It provides a way to circumvent the common problem of functional fixedness in which problem solvers are not able to go beyond the usual functions of an object. Jokes and riddles work because the listener develops a likely model or interpretation, which then proves to be incorrect. For example, in the joke, "Question: How do porcupines make love? Answer: Very carefully!," the question leads to a distant and clinical mental model of the mechanics of mating, which the answer switches to a porcupine's perspective of the dangers of being close. The popularity of jokes, puns, and riddles suggest that people enjoy the surprise of shifting mental models in certain situations. This built-in source of motivation can be tapped by the instructor to make the learning of thinking skills fun.

The enjoyment of riddles, as opposed to jokes and puns, calls on the listener to at least attempt to shift the model. In the riddle, "What's black and white and read all over?" (answer: a newspaper), which works better as a spoken riddle, the solver is fooled by the words black and white to misinterpret read as red. Psycholinguists call these garden path sentences because the reader is misled "down the garden path" by key words in the sentence that suggest another meaning than the one that is intended. To use riddles as a teaching tool, I decided to generate riddles in a sequence from easy to difficult so that solvers would have a reasonable chance of solving each riddle while building their skill level (J. H. Doolittle, 1991). An example of a college-level riddle is as follows:

"What you did to the letter,
Before it was sent;
You memorized the poem,
Not knowing what it meant." (wrote/rote)

Riddles like this from the Dr. DooRiddles series or other riddles can be selected for appropriate difficulty level and read aloud to the class or presented on an overhead transparency. In these exercises, students must be cautioned against blurting out answers so that others will have a period of quiet in which to generate models and possible word tables. Popular parlor games, such as 20 Questions and Charades, foster model flexibility as well. Because these group can inhibit the production of some students, computer riddle exercises have been developed (J. H. Doolittle & T. A. Doolittle, 1992a, 1992b) to allow individuals to solve riddles without social judgment and without getting completely stuck.

Visualization and Imagination

A process similar to the use of jokes and riddles to encourage cognitive flexibility occurfs when we read or listen to a story. Symbols and sounds are converted into visual images, models, and scenarios that we continuously transform and examine in order to comprehend the text. Because readers and listeners have to construct their own mental models, these experiences have been shown to be beneficial to the development of students' imaginations when compared to comprehension based on film presentations (Greenfield & Beagles-Roos, 1988). Presumably, television and other visual media provide images and models so that the production of mental models and creative imagination on the mart of the recipient are less necessary. In interactive-fictions experiences, sukch as those available as computer software, one is a participant in rather than a recipient of the story. Although participants make maps and other notations as they move about an imaginary world, it is their mental representation of that world that allows them to speculate about the possibilities of a given scene. For example, in the all-text computer program, "Cursed Castle" (J. H. Doolittle, 1992a), the student must see the dirt floor of the dungeon as a potential hiding place in addition to its more usual use.

Students solving interactive-fiction problems on a computer generate a variety of solutions, but they become frustrated on finding that not one of their solutions leads to progress toward the goal. This frustration can quickly build into discouragement and a sense of failure and must be countered by either the sequencing of task difficulty or the judicious application of hints. For example, in "Hangtown" (J. H. Doolittle, 1989b), students must frighten off a vicious dog barring the entrance to the miner's shack by threatening the dog with the carcass of a huge rattlesnake. Because most students do not think of this right away, the software monitors each student's progress and introduces a hint after a judicious amount of floundering has occurred. In this case, the next time the student is in the vicinity of the dead reattlesnake, the student is informed that a coyote has strolled by, seen the dead snake, and run off in terror. If this hint does not work, the student is later given a more direct hint. To determine when and where hints are necessary, the software can record which obstacles are the hardest to overcome and where students seem to get stuck. The instructor can then retrieve this information and improve the flow of the program.

Empirical Evidence for the Effectiveness of Using Riddles and Computer
Games for Training Students to be Problem Solvers

During the past 8 years, I have gathered preliminary data using a quasi-experimental design. The comparison group was several sections of my introductory psychology classes at California State University, Sacramento. Two experimental groups received practice with the riddles and computer games described earlier -- students in my freshman-level critical-thinking course and students enrolled in the Summer Academic Study Program (SASP) at the University of California School of Medicine, Davis. Several dependent measures were used: Cornell Critical Thinking Test (Level X; Ennis & Millman, 1985), the Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test (Ennis & Weir, 1985), the Remote Associates Test of creativity (Mednick & Mednick, 1967), the Creative Reasoning Test (J. H. Doolittle, 1989a), the Unusual Uses Test of creativity (Guilford, Merrifield, & Wilson, 1958), the Purdue Non-language Test of intelligence (Tiftin, Gruber, & Inaba, 1957), and the Coopersmith Inventory of self-esteem (Coopersmith, 1981). Although the introductory psychology students did not show gains on these measures beyond chance expectation, students in the critical-thinking courses and the SASP students showed statistically significant gains on all of these measures (most at a p<.01). Many of these differential gains have been replicated in five or more different semesters.

Independent analyses conducted by the Dean's Office at the University of California Medical School, Davis, have indicated an improvement for SASP students in grade point average, undergraduate dropout rates, and medical school admission and retention rates.

Although these results are highly encouraging, they must be viewed as preliminary because of the quasi-experimental design used, the fact that there were some year-to-year changes in the type of test used to assess critical thinking, and the fact that these analyses do not indicate the relative benefits of the various educational experiences of these students.


The pricipal barriers to a society of better problem solvers may simply be that too few teachers are attempting to teach students the skills of creativity. As teachers plunge into these waters, it may be useful if they follow these few precepts: (a) make cognitive flexibility the top priority; (b) if flexibility is not forthcoming, focus on metacognition; (c) provide tasks that are rich in imagery; and (d) closely monitor the frustration level of students so that the tasks will be fun.


Coopersmith, S. (1981). Coopersmith Inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psycholgists Press.
Doolittle, J.H. (1989a). The Creative Reasoning Test. Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Press & Software.
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