Problem Solving Strategies

Updated: Nov 7, 2016

Problem solving skills are an essential part of the learning process, especially for college students and those seeking advanced degrees.

Problem-solving skills are an essential part of the learning process, especially for college students and those seeking advanced degrees. Unlike high school, most college courses require that you learn independently and figuring out where to find the answers to questions posed in class and the determining the best approach to a class project is a necessary part of the college learning equation. The better you are at solving problems, the more you will gain from your college education.

Problem-Solving Strategies

The type of problem-solving strategy you use depends, in part, on the type of situation you are facing. For instance, finding the answer to a mathematical equation requires different skills than writing an essay on the differences between two philosophers' views on religion. One has a fixed, set answer; the other is subject to interpretation. Below are a few problem-solving strategies, how each works and when they are appropriate:

ALGORITHMS. These types of problem-solving techniques rely on a set formula that allows you to arrive at one fixed answer. Good examples of algorithms are mathematical formula and computer programs. 

HEURISTIC. Heuristic problem-solving tactics are commonly referred to as "rule of thumb" strategies. These tactics are based on past experience and don't usually arrive at a single, fixed answer. Such problem-solving techniques are used when an exact answer isn't necessary when a range or an approximation is good enough. An example of using a heuristic problem-solving technique is estimating how long it will take you to drive home from campus. If, on previous trips, it has taken between 30 and 35 minutes, it's likely that the next trip will take the same amount of time. However, unusually heavy traffic or construction could change this answer.

CONSTRUCTIVE CONTROVERSY. This problem-solving technique, developed in the late 1970s, involves presenting your proposed solution to a group of other people, defending your idea, listening to their input and modifying your idea based on their feedback. This approach works well for team projects.


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INSIGHT. This technique is less structured, but often very effective. This is the "let me sleep on it" way of solving problems, such as when you awake with an answer to a problem or the answer comes to you in the shower or on the way to class. This technique relies on the subconscious using our past experiences to formulate an answer to a similar problem to those we've dealt with in the past. Since you have no way of knowing if you'll arrive at an answer this way, this is obviously a poor technique to use for projects with a deadline.

BRAINSTORMING. Brainstorming unleashes the talents of multiple team members on a single project. This technique involves throwing out tentative ideas, discussing each idea's merits and challenges and using the best of these possible solutions to solve the problem.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER. Some projects, such as reading an entire text or writing a 5,000-word paper, can seem overwhelming. Dividing those huge projects into smaller, more manageable segments, such as reading a chapter a night or writing 500 words a week, often makes them easy to handle.

RESEARCH. This problem-solving tactic makes use of other people's past experience with similar problems to solve a current problem. As the name implies, this technique involves studying past performances and applying this acquired knowledge to the task at hand.

Problem-solving skills are a necessary part of college, the work environment, and everyday life. The better you become at the different types of skills and at determining which type to use in which situation, the easier you will find not only your college studies but navigating the world at large.

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