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Problem-solving skills

Home > Study skills > Thinking > Problem-solving skills

A problem can be any task or assignment or project that you need to complete. Usually, it involves several different steps or stages. Some of these will require specific methods that are particular to your subject area.

However, there are generic skills and processes that contribute to success for any kind of 'problem', whether writing an assignment, conducting a student project, undertaking projects at work, or taking on an undertaking in your personal life.


Working through basic problem-solving processes

To approach most problems you will need to:

1. Define the task clearly. What exactly is required?

2. Set priorities. What must be done first? What can be left until later?

3. Develop an appropriate strategy: what steps must you take to address the task?

4. Use experience from similar problems: what do you already know or what have you already done that would offer a starting place or guidance on how to approach the current problem?

5. Set targets: what steps must you accomplish by when? How will you know you have achieved each target? How will you measure your progress?

6. Develop an action plan. List all the steps necessary to achieve each target. Identify the best order for accomplishing each step and a deadline for each.

7. Get started. Do not wait until the last minute, start early on the tasks that you can begin straight away. Keep yourself focused and motivated.

8. Monitor your performance against targets and indicators. Check regularly whether you are meeting your targets and revise your action plan accordingly.

9. Evaluate your performance. How well did you achieve your targets? What did you learn that will be of use to you for future problems and tasks?


Elaborating the problem to find the best solution

Research shows that people who spend more time at the beginning working out exactly what a task involves have a better chance of success. This is referred to as 'elaborating the problem'. The most important process in problem-solving is in 'defining the task'.

It is worth spending time reflecting on what kind of problem it is, how it is like other problems you have encountered, and what different options there might be for approaching the task. A less successful approach is to launch in too quickly, without undertaking the initial reflection and preparation.

Once you have done that, weigh up different solutions. Consider lots of options for how to approach the task or solve the problem. Don't dive in without a good plan. It will take time to weigh up the advantages and challenges of each possible solution. Work towards the best solution by:

1. Knowing what would make a 'best possible solution' How far is this feasible in your circumstances?

2. Working to the deadline. Avoid solutions that cannot be met by the deadline.

3. Discussing your ideas with others. Find out how other people have approached similar problems.

4. Researching your options. Look for hidden advantages and flaws. What has been tried and failed before?

5. Evaluating and costing options. Can you afford them? Do you have the right resources for each?

6. Checking your expertise. Do you have the right expertise and skills? Could you develop these in time?

7. Giving your mind time to 'play' with and mull over different options.


Evaluating the process

Consider:

  • How well did it work?
  • What would have led to a better outcome?
  • What else needs to be done?
  • How far you met deadlines and budgets (where relevant).
  • How far did the solution meet the task requirements or the needs of the client?
  • What feedback have you received from others? What does this tell you about your performance?

Writing up the problem

Your tutor (or client groups if you are at work) will want to know how you arrived at the solution you adopted. Present clearly:

  • How you defined the problem.
  • The parameters of the problem (i.e. the time available, the cost, available resources, expertise, the nature of the brief).
  • The solutions that you considered with their advantages, disadvantages and interesting features.
  • How you arrived at the decision you took.
  • Your method for applying the solution and what you did.
  • The results.
  • An evaluation.

This content has been written by Stella Cottrell author of Critical Thinking Skills and The Study Skills Handbook