Problem Solving

Steps in problem solving

  • Problem interpretation involves defining a problem and assigning it to a category. For example, defining the problem of how to pay for a college education would involve arriving at what the total costs will be including tuition, books, lab fees, housing, transportation, and so forth, in order to have a clear idea of the exact dimensions of the problem.

  • Evaluation of solutions, the process of deciding on a strategy to solve a problem, may be accomplished by

  • trial and error: guessing or randomly trying an approach

  • information retrieval: retrieval of pertinent information from long‐term memory; for example, recalling what a friend told you about her success in combining student loans and money earned from a part‐time job to pay her expenses

  • algorithms: the methodical development of a step‐by‐step method to solve a problem; for example, creating a spreadsheet detailing plans for income‐producing activities and projected expenses for each year of college

  • heuristics: rules of thumb to deal with a problem, sometimes based on information easily available in memory. For example, you might believe that since you've often heard that college funds are always available to students if they're willing to search them out, such funds will necessarily be available to you. You may, however, be inaccurate in your judgment if the information you've recalled is inaccurate.

A well‐known heuristic tactic is called means/ends analysis. The process requires the identification of discrepancies that exist between a current situation and the achievement of a goal and then making changes that will reduce the differences. Another tactic is the formation of subgoals, the development of intermediate steps necessary to solve a problem. In some cases, it helps to work backward from the solution. This heuristic procedure requires consideration of the goal, conceptualization of steps necessary to solve the problem, and then accomplishing the steps nearest the goal first. For example, in planning for college, the student first chooses the college, then determines what the costs will be, then selects a job or prepares for getting a job that will allow that amount to be earned or first determines what the college's entrance requirements are and then plans for all of those to be met, and so forth.

Obstacles to solving problems

  • Although arousal (motivation) is necessary for problem solving, high arousal is detrimental to the process. Relaxation techniques can help to reduce such arousal and increase problem‐solving efficiency.

  • A mental set, a predisposition to approach problems in a certain fashion, can be helpful or harmful, depending on the set. For example, the set to do all homework before watching evening TV may be more likely to result in academic achievement than the reverse set of TV/study.

  • Functional fixedness is the tendency to view an object or an activity in only one way—for example, seeing mathematics as a subject to be feared rather than as one that simply requires the learning of rules to solve problems and that is necessary to career development.

Aids in solving problems

  • To establish expertise is to establish the knowledge necessary to solve a problem—for example, by reading the chapter in the psychology text before attempting to answer the questions at the end of it.

  • Insight is the sudden perception of the relationship between the components of a problem—for example, suddenly thinking of the word that fits the spaces in a crossword puzzle.