Want to get more out of that next article you read that describes how to solve a problem? My advisor in graduate school gave me a great tip on how to do it.

Start reading the article normally, but stop right before the author describes how they solved the problem. You should have an idea about the problem and some of the important issues involved. Set the paper aside and spend about 10 minutes creating your own solution to the problem. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should solve the problem as you understand it. Once you have your solution ready, finish reading the article and compare your solution to the author’s. What can you learn from this comparison?

First, you could learn that your solution has significant problems and is inferior to the author’s. This is the most likely outcome as the author has spent much more time working on the problem than you. However, you have a much better understanding of why the author’s solution works, why yours doesn’t, and the gaps in your understanding that lead to that difference. Excellent!

Second, you could learn that your solution is roughly comparable to the author’s. This means that you have a good grasp of the problem and the necessary skills to solve it. You also now know another way of solving this type of problem. You could write an article of your own explaining your alternative approach. Excellent!

Lastly, you could learn that your solution is superior to the author’s. While this is highly unlikely, it is possible. You have unique insights on the problem and how to solve it. You can write an article of your own that explains how your solution improves on the author’s. Excellent!

Whatever the result, you have learned something that you would have missed by passively reading the article. You probably have a better understanding of the problem and different ways to solve it.