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4 Simple Steps to Increase Your Problem Solving Mastery

4 Simple Steps to Increase Your Problem Solving Mastery 1700 706 Teaching Staff

Every single subject taught in school is evaluated in one way: by having students solve problems.

These problems take many different forms. In English, you may be asked to write about literary features of a book, poem, or play. In history, you may be asked to analyze a particular historical event, and its effects on the events that followed. In science, you may be asked  to come to some conclusions about a particular set of data, or else to predict what will happen given certain conditions. In math, you may be asked to solve a math problem, or to draw the graph of a particular relationship.

Even though these problems are all so different, there are certain steps that we can use to approach all of them.

Determine what needs to be done

This may seem obvious, but it happens quite often that a student gets most of the way through a problem before realizing that they have either forgotten what they were trying to find, or, even worse, did work that was not helpful in finding the answer or solution. Indeed, this writer recalls a particular history exam in which he wrote an entire essay on the technology of the Second World War before realizing that the question he was trying to answer was about the strategies used in the War.

It is vital to write down and remember what it is that you are trying to find or answer. This will vary widely from subject to subject:

  • In many cases, you will be given a particular book, poem, or play to write or speak about. Needless to say, whatever you produce should focus on the text that you have been assigned. If, on the other hand, you are allowed to choose your text, make sure that it fits the criteria you are given by your instructor. In this case, it is also important to ensure that you focus on the chosen text. With the text or texts that you are to work with in mind, read through the details of the assignment, and make special note of what content you have to cover.
  • The most common types of history assignments include essays and presentations. Whichever you are going to be doing, it is very important that you know the scope of what you are going to write or speak about. This can often best be done using the “Five W” questions:
    • Who? Do you need to speak about specific people, or specific segments of the population? Which ones?
    • What? What events are you to write or speak about? That is, what actually happened?
    • Where? What city, country, or continent did the events take place in?
    • When? When did the events take place? Looking at the “where” and the “when” together can give us a great idea of where something falls in history.
    • Why? Why did the events take place? Looking at surrounding areas at the same time, and the same area in earlier times often helps in finding the causes of the events that you are directly concerned with.
  • In science, one is most often tasked with either conducting an experiment or predicting what would happen in a given experiment. At this stage of the problem-solving process, you should decide which you are being asked to do. If you have to make a prediction, what exactly do you have to predict? How long it will take for a ball to reach the ground? How much of oxygen will be produced? Whether or not heart rate will change? Each of these is a possibility.
  • Math may have the widest range of possibilities of all of the subjects discussed here. You may need to draw a graph, or solve for a particular variable or quantity, or apply an operation to a number or expression to find the answer. Whatever it is that you are being asked to do, it is important that you know what it is before starting work on the problem.

Determine what information you need

Before you gather any information, it is necessary to decide what information will be valuable in solving the problem. This way you can avoid collecting any information that you won’t need. The amount of information and the type of information that you will need to come up with your answer or solution will vary greatly with subject as well.

  • Before writing about any particular text, it will of course be necessary to get a copy of it, and to read through it. In many cases, the text alone will be enough to base your own work on. However, in some cases, you may need other information as well. Perhaps it would be beneficial to use other writers’ literary criticisms of the text. Perhaps you want to write a comparative piece, in which case you will need another text to compare the first text to.
  • You may have a good understanding of the events your project is concerned with already, but in history, you almost always need to research further sources as well. There are many different types of sources that can be useful to your project. You should make sure to choose only the ones that are most useful, and most reliable.
  • If you are planning on conducting an experiment, you should have an understanding of the science behind the experiment even before you start. This can help you decide which variables to change, and will also help you to come up with a hypothesis. At this point, you should also gather whatever materials you will need for you experiment. If, on the other hand, you need to predict what will happen in a certain situation, you should make note of all of the conditions you are given. These may include values for distance, time, and speed, as in a physics problem; a list of chemicals present and their quantities, as in a chemistry problem; or the physical conditions of an organism, as in a biology problem.
  • When you are given a math problem, you may be given some numbers to work with, or an equation, or some of each. You will also likely be given some hint as to which operation to use, although some students struggle with identifying these. Here is a list of common operations and their associated language for reference:
    • Addition — plus, sum, total, added to, increased by
    • Subtraction — minus, difference, less than, subtracted from, decreased by
    • Multiplication — times, product, double, triple, etc.
    • Division — divided, quotient, goes into, per, half, a third, etc.

Organize the information

Once you’ve compiled all of the information that you are going to need to come up with your answer or solution, it’s important to organize it. This will allow you to put it all together much more easily. If you skip over this step, it will take much longer to finish the problem than if you follow it, even though it may seem boring or unnecessary at first.

  • The most common format for an English essay or presentation involves splitting up different types of information, or information that suggests different things, into three or four categories. The writer or presenter then writes or speaks about each category in turn, and talks about how they all support the main idea of the assignment. At this stage, it is good to have an idea of what divisions you are going to use in your project and to split up the information you have–which will probably include mostly quotations from the text–into these divisions. Decide what you are going to write or say in each section and split the quotes up that way. Once these have been sorted, decide what order makes the most sense within each section as well.
  • The strategy for a history essay or presentation will be rather similar to the one for an English essay or presentation. Decide how you can split up your project logically, and put your information into these categories. Even before doing this, you should probably take the information from all of your sources and write them out as bullet-points. Then you can sort the bullet points into your sections. This is a good idea because some of your sources may offer help with more than one area of your project. Once your points have been sorted, decide what order they should go in within each section as well.
  • If you are conducting an experiment, you should write everything that you can before actually doing the experiment. Write out your question and hypothesis, based on what you learned from your research in the previous step. Also, make a table to put the results of your experiment in. This will make it much easier to organize data, and by doing it beforehand, you can save a lot of frustration during the experiment. On the other hand, if you are given a set of conditions and asked to find the result, it is at this point that you should list all of the information you have, including what is given in the question and any constants or facts that will be useful. If applicable, you may also want to draw a diagram outlining the situation.
  • Similarly to the approach for a science problem, you should list all of the information from the question, and anything else that may be useful. Most often, this will mean an equation or formula. By listing everything at this stage, you will not have to worry about it while working on the solution itself. If you need to draw a graph, you should also list all of the information you can about it–the type of function or relation, some sample points on the graph, the basic shape, and anything else you can find.

Find the solution to your question

This is the final step: to actually answer the question, or solve the problem. Many students try to skip to this right from the beginning, but it is very helpful to go through the steps outlined above first. They will always make this step much easier. Of course, what the answer or solution actually is will vary greatly with the subject and the specific question or problem, but the groundwork above will help regardless of the style of answer required.

  • Whether you are working on an essay or a presentation, you will likely have to do some analysis of the quotations you have selected. Try to be as clear as possible, and make sure that you relate each quotation back to your main purpose–your thesis. Once you have all of your quotations in order, and you know what you want to say about each, you simply have to put them all together in your essay or presentation.
  • Once again, you will need to do some analysis of the information you have researched. This should be concise, but very clear, and relate back to your thesis. After you know how you are going to relate each piece of information to your thesis, it should be fairly straightforward to put everything together as an essay or presentation.
  • If you are conducting an experiment, now is the time to actually do it. Make sure to record your data, as well as any other observations you can make, while you are doing the experiment. Once the experiment is completed, analyze the data and draw conclusions as required by your teacher. What exactly is required will be different from school to school, and class to class. If you are working on a question rather than an experiment, use whatever information you collected in the previous step to find the answer. You may have to use a formula, or just a relationship between two or more things.
  • If you are using a formula or equation, substitute in all of the information that you know, and solve for whatever you need. If you are drawing a graph, place all of the points you know, and roughly draw out what it will look like. Since there are so many different possible math problems, it is difficult to say for certain what this final step will look like, but you should know what you need to do based on the first step of this process–figuring out what needs to be done.


Once you have your solution to the problem, or your answer to the question, there several possibilities, depending on the subject and the nature of the problem or question itself.

If you have written something, or created a presentation, try to have someone else read or watch it. They may be able to give you tips on how you can improve your work, and point out anything that doesn’t make sense or could be done better.

If you have come up with a solution to a problem in math or science, go over your work again and make sure that you didn’t make any mistakes. All too often, one minor mistake early on will result in a completely incorrect answer. Ensure that this hasn’t happened to you.

After following all of these steps, you should have a solid answer or solution to the question or problem. If you find that you do not, look through the steps again and see if there is anything that you missed, or could have done better. Whatever you change, make sure that you go through everything afterward and update your work as well.

It can be difficult to know where exactly one should start when solving a problem, but following these simple steps can help immensely.

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