Improve Problem Solving Skills

The ability to solve problems applies to more than just mathematics homework. Analytical thinking and problem-solving skills are a part of many jobs, ranging from accounting and computer programming to detective work and even creative occupations like art, acting, and writing. While individual problems vary, there are certain general approaches to problem-solving like the one first proposed by mathematician George Polya in 1945.[1] Following his four principles – Understanding the Problem, Devising a Plan, Carrying out the Plan, and Looking Back – you can improve your problem-solving and tackle any issue systematically.


Understanding the Problem

  1. Define the problem clearly. This is an outwardly simple but vital step. If you don’t properly understand the problem, your solutions may be ineffective or fail entirely. To define the problem you will have to ask questions and look at different angles. For example, is there one problem or actually several? Can you restate the problem in your own words? By spending time with the problem you will better understand it and be equipped to generate solutions.[2]
    • Try to formulate questions. Say that as a student you have very little money and want to find an effective solution. What is at issue? Is it one of income – are you not making enough money? Is it one of over-spending? Or perhaps you have run into unexpected expenses or your financial situation has changed?
  2. Define your objective. State your aim as another means to reach the nature of the problem. What is it that you want to achieve? What is it that you want to discover? Keep in mind that you will have to account for the problem’s knowns and unknowns and figure out where to find data that will help you reach your goal.[3]
    • Say that your problem is still money. What is your goal? Perhaps you never have enough to go out on the weekend and have fun at the movies or a club. You decide that your goal is to have more spending cash. Good! With a clear goal, you have better defined the problem.
  3. Gather information systematically. Along with defining your problem and goal, you should gather as many facts as you can about the problem in order to get a clear picture of it. Collect data, ask people or experts connected to the problem, look for resources online, in print, or elsewhere. Once you have data, organize it. Try to do this by rewording, condensing, or summarize it. Perhaps you could even map it out in a chart. You may not need to bother with this step for simple problems, but it will be essential for those of a more complex nature.[4]
    • To solve your money shortage, for example, you would want to get as detailed a picture of your financial situation as possible. Collect data through your latest bank statements and to talk to a bank teller. Track your earnings and spending habits in a notebook, and then create a spreadsheet or chart to show your income alongside your expenditures.

Devising a Plan

  1. Analyze information. The first step in finding a solution is to look at data that you have gathered about the problem and to analyze its importance. When you analyze, you will look for links and relationships in the hope of better understanding the overall situation. Start with the raw data. Sometimes, information will need to be broken into smaller, more manageable parts or to be ranked for its importance or relevance. Things like charts, graphs, or cause-and-effect models are helpful tools to do this.[5]
    • Say you have now collected all your bank statements. Look at them. When, how, and from where is your money coming? Where, when, and how are you spending it? What is the overall pattern of your finances? Do you have a net surplus or deficit? Are there any unexplained items?
  2. Generate possible solutions. Say you have looked at your data and found that you have a net deficit of funds – that is, you are spending more than you are taking in. The next step is to generate a range of potential solutions. You do not need to assess them now. Try brainstorming, for example, or reverse brainstorming. This involved asking yourself, “how could I possibly cause the problem?” and then reversing the answers that you generate.[6] You might also ask others what they would do.[7]
    • Your problem is a lack of money. Your goal is to have more spending cash. What are your options? Without evaluating them, come up with possible options. Perhaps you can acquire more money by getting a part-time job or by taking out a student loan. On the other hand, you might try to save by cutting your spending or by lowering other costs.
    • Use some strategies to help you come up with solutions:
      • Divide and conquer. Break the problem into smaller problems and brainstorm solutions for them separately, one by one.
      • Use analogies and similarities. Try to find a resemblance with a previously solved or common problem. If you can find commonalities between your situation and one you've dealt with before, you may be able to adapt some of the solutions for use now.
  3. Evaluate the solutions and choose. Just as you had to analyze the problem’s raw data, you will also have to analyze all prospective for their suitability. In some cases, this could mean testing a scenario or running an experiment; in other cases, it may mean using a simulation or “thought experiment” to see the consequences a given solution. Choose a solution that best suits your needs, seems likely to work, and does not creating further problems.[8]
    • How can you raise money? Look at expenditures – you aren’t spending much outside of basic needs like tuition, food, and housing. Can you cut costs in other ways like finding a roommate to split rent? Can you afford to take a student loan just to have fun on the weekend? Can you spare time from your studies to work part-time?
    • Each solution will produce its own set of circumstances that need evaluation. Run projections. Your money problem will require you to draw up budgets. But it will also take personal consideration. For example, can you cut back on basic things like food or housing? Are you willing to prioritize money over school or to take on debt?

Implementing and Assessing the Plan

  1. Implement a solution. Once you have chosen the best solution, put it into practice. You might do this on a limited, trial scale at first to test the results. Or, you might go all in. Keep in mind that unforeseen problems can arise at this stage, things which you did not plan on during your initial analysis and evaluation, especially if you did not structure the problem correctly.[4]
    • You decide to cut costs, because you were unwilling to take on debt, to divert time away from school, or to live with a roommate. You draw up a detailed budget, cutting a few dollars here and there, and commit to a month-long trial.
  2. Review and evaluate the outcome. Now that you have implemented a solution, you will have to monitor and review the results. Ask yourself if the solution is working. Does it allow you to achieve your goal? Are there any unforeseen new problems? Review the problem and your problem-solving process.[9]
    • The results of your trial are mixed. On one hand, you have saved enough during the month for fun weekend activities. But there are new problems. You find that you must choose between spending cash and buying basics like food. You also need a new pair of shoes but can’t afford it, according to your budget. You may need to a different solution.
  3. Adjust if necessary. Keep in mind that problem-solving works in a cycle. It will generate a number of different potential solutions that each must be evaluated. If you fix the problem, you have found a suitable solution. If not, then you must look for an alternative solution and start the process over again.[10] Reconsider your initial solution and adjust if it is not working. Try another solution, implement it, and review the outcome. Repeat this process until you finally solve the problem.
    • After a month, you decide to abandon your first budget and to look for part-time work. You find a work-study job on campus. Making a new budget, you now have extra money without taking too much time away from your studies. You may have an effective solution.

Honing your Skills Further

  1. Do regular mental exercise. Like a muscle in your body, you will need to work on problem solving if you want to improve its strength and functioning over time. In other words, you will need to “exercise” regularly. Studies show that things like brain games can make you more mentally limber.[11] There are any number of games or activities you can try.
    • Word games work great. In a game like “Split Words,” for example, you have to match word fragments to form words under a given theme like “philosophy.”[12] In the game, “Tower of Babel,” you will need to memorize and then match words in a foreign language to the proper picture.[13]
    • Mathematical games will also put your problem solving to the test. Whether it be number or word problems, you will have to activate the parts of your brain that analyze information. For instance: “James is half as old now as he will be when he is 60 years older than he was six years before he was half as old as he is now. How old will James be when his age is twice what it was 10 years after he was half his current age?”[14]
  2. Play video games. Video games have been portrayed as “intellectually lazy” for a long time. However, new research shows that playing video games can improve parts of thinking like spatial perception, reasoning, and memory. Not all games are created equal, however. While first-person shooter games can improve your spatial reasoning, they are not as effective as others at developing problem solving skills.[15]
    • Play something that will force you to think strategically or analytically. Try a puzzle game like Tetris. Or, perhaps you would rather prefer a role-playing or strategy game. In that case, something like “Civilization” or “Sim-City” might suit you better.
  3. Take up a hobby. A hobby is another way that you can continue to improve your problem solving skills. Pick something that either involves active problem solving or activates appropriate parts of your brain. For example, start to learn a foreign language. Language functions in both hemispheres of the brain, so learning one will activate areas that control analysis as well as reasoning and problem solving.[16] This is where problem solving
    • Web design, software programming, jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, and chess are also hobbies that will force you to think strategically and systematically. Any of these will help you improve your overall problem solving.

Related Articles

Sources and Citations

You may like