Practical Problem Solving

Practical Problem Solving

Often, problems are knots with many strands and looking at those strands can make a problem seem different.         — Fred Rogers

There are many different approaches to problem solving and different levels of difficulty.

There are math problems. You might want to check Mathematical Thinking . This might point you in the right direction, but it is impossible to list strategies that are helpful for all the different levels and areas of math.

There are many different business strategies that go by the name of Problem Solving, Many of them seem to make the process much more complex that it needs to be.

But there are three areas of problem solving that I have included on the website.

1. This page, Practical Problem Solving is most simple. It is about solving  problems in your life.

2. Complex Problem Solving is considered by some people as one of the major goals of a college education. If this is true, it is surprising that I have never needed this sort of skill in any class I’ve ever taken. But it is a skill you will certainly find helpful.

3. Strategic Thinking or Strategic Problem Solving is also related. It generally begins when you have defined the problem, you now the goal, but you need strategies to help you get to that goal.

Begin with defining the problem. (That isn’t as easy as you think.)

An anxious looking blond girl seems about to crySome people say that the first step is problem finding. I don’t think you want to go around looking for problems. Let’s stick with problems that are pretty obvious.

Think carefully about the problem. People sometimes discover that the problem they found a solution for wasn’t the real problem at all.

Emma is obviously upset. She is failing chemistry. She thinks that her problem is that she is failing chemistry. But Emma is wrong. This is the situation.

There is a difference between a problem and the situation. You can’t change the situation. Emma is upset about the situation.

But, even if Emma can’t change the past, that doesn’t mean she can’t do something about the future. It’s easy to guess what Emma’s goal is. She wants to pass chemistry.  Now she just needs to define the problem.

We need to know why Emma is failing chemistry before we can get clear on the problem. Yes, I know. Emma says

1. Chemistry is too hard.
2. College Chemistry is not anything like high school chemistry.
3. The teacher doesn’t explain things clearly.

Try again Emma. All of these are part of the situation. This is no possibility that you can make chemistry easier or more like high school, and your teacher is not likely to suddenly begin to explain things more clearly.

A good problem must be something that can be solved.  What could you change that might get that failing grade up to passing in the time you have left in the semester?  Emma tries again.

1. I could have paid better attention during lectures, and taken better notes.
2. I could have talked to the teacher when I didn’t understand.
3. I could have gotten a tutor,
4. I could have done all the homework problems.”

Now we’re on the right track but she is still talking about the past. That can’t be changed. But she could begin to do these things now.  You should notice that Emma has skipped from the situation to possible solutions but she still hasn’t defined the problem.

“Emma, think really hard. Tell me the real reason you are failing chemistry. Why weren’t you paying attention during lectures? Why weren’t you taking good notes? Why didn’t you talk to the teacher? Why didn’t you get a tutor? Why didn’t you do all the homework problems?”

Now the questions are harder. We are getting closer to the problem. “I made mostly A’s in high school with very little work. I didn’t realize college classes would be so hard.”

That might be true, Emma, but is that really the problem?  “No, not really. I should have known I was in trouble when I failed the first test. I guess I  just hoped the next test would be better.”

“So, Emma, what is the real problem? Why didn’t you work harder after failing that first test?”

Slowly, the truth begins to emerge. Emma hadn’t wanted to go to college but her parents insisted. She started thinking about all the fun she could have, but she didn’t think much about needing to study. Now, she wants to pass. Why? She doesn’t want to disappoint her parents. And, she is starting to think college isn’t all that bad. She’s even starting to like chemistry. She really wans to pass chemistry.

The Problem: “When I started out, my top priority was having fun. My studies should have been the top priority.”

If this is still early in the semester, Emily can probably drop chemistry and take it again another semester. But the last date to drop classes was two weeks ago.

The next step is thinking about what you want and how much you want it

Finally, we are clear about the problem.  Now, we need to look at what Emma really wants. Emma wants to make at least a passing grade. She’d like at least a C and a B would be better. Is she just feeling wishful, or is she willing to do that much work?

Emma needs some information

She might look at her syllabus and see how many tests are still to come. She might also find how grades will be calculated. She will probably need to take another step and talk to her teacher. She needs to find out what kind of grades she’d need to make for the rest of the semester to bring her grade up to a C, or up to a B?  Is there any way she could earn extra credit? (That’s more common in high school but it doesn’t hurt to ask.)

Emma and her teacher have a serious conversation. They do some calculations. Emma’s average now is close to 50. If you makes an average of 90 for the rest of the semester, the average would be 70 which is a C-. “But what if I make a perfect score on every test for the rest of the semester?” Emma asks.

The average of 50 and 100 is 75, still a C.  “But doesn’t the final count for more?” Emma asks hopefully.

“Yes the final counts for more,” the teacher agrees. She offers Emma a bargain. “I really don’t expect you to make a perfect score on every test. But, if you manage to make an A on everything, including the final, your final grade will be a B. I think that’s fair, especially since the final covers the entire semester. You’ll need to go back and learn the earlier material too.”

When you have the information and think about it, you can set your goal

“I will do it. I’ll have to work harder than I’ve ever worked, but I am going to do it,” Emma says firmly..

So, Emma has the information she needed, she knows what she wants to do. She can state her goal. But Emma cannot solve her problem just by setting a goal. She might try to study harder and learn that this isn’t enough. Emma needs some detailed plans.

Brainstorm possible solutions or strategies

Emma needs to look at all the reading she has to do, all the problems to work, all the definitions to learn. And she has twice as much material to cover  as the other students. She has to keep up with the current assignments and go back and learn the earlier material. Emma needs a plan, a good, very detailed plan.

She estimates how long it will take her to prepare each chapter including reading, learning vocabulary, doing every single problem. How long will it take? She remembers that it’s a good idea to study 2-3 hours outside class for every hour of class. That’s a good place to start. She has four hours a week of class. Four time 3 hours made 12 hours. But she wanted to make an A. She decided to spend 15 hours. But she’d also need 15 hours a week for the first half of the semester. That was 30 hours. And she had other classes to keep up in.

Emma’s first strategy or solution is to learn how to manage her time. She is willing to cut out most of her fun time for the rest of the semester. She could do that. Her grades are her top priority. She decided to do the following:

1. Learn about time management and make a detailed schedule that included 30 hours a week to study chemistry and enough time to study  other subjects too.

2. Ask three classmates if she could make copies of their lecture notes. Organize the information into a single detailed outline. Use these notes as a guide to learn how to take better notes, herself.

3. Make flashcards for the chemistry terms. Carry them at all times and practice in all spare time.

4. Work with a classmate to do chemistry problems.

5. Go back over earlier tests and study the kinds of questions used.

6. Keep detailed reading notes and review them regularly.

Choose strategies that will work best

Emma will use all of these strategies and reflect every night on what was working. She will add new strategies if these aren’t enough. She might need a tutor, but she wants to try it on her own for at least a week.

Every problem contains within it the seeds of its own solution. If you don’t have any problems, you don’t get any seeds.    — Norman Vincent Peale

Summary of Practical Problem Solving

1. Define the Problem. Know the difference between a problem and the situation.

2. Set your Goal. It must be realistic.

3. Think about what you need to know. Collect information.

4. Use your information to define your goal in more detail.

5. Brainstorm possible strategies.

6. Choose strategies that seem best and make a plan. Create a list of what you need to do each day and check your accomplishments at the end of the day.

You might also be intereted in      Complex Problem Solving

2 Responses to Practical Problem Solving

  1. Sharon says:

    Thank you for the article. I will take what I learn from this article and apply it to my life.

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