Effective problem solving

As a university student you are likely to be involved with a wide range of activities on campus, at work, in your home, with your friends. At some time during these activities, challenges or issues or problems will arise. Most students deal with challenges daily and solve problems almost automatically. Sometimes, however, there will be a significant issue which is difficult to solve quickly or automatically. You will then want to know, ‘How do I solve this problem?’ The first aim of the following information is to help you answer that question.

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In addition to assisting you with an immediate issue, problem solving is also a life skill. The University considers that problem solving is such an important skill that it focuses on its students becoming ‘effective problem solvers by applying logical, critical and creative thinking to a range of problems’ (Word doc 45.5kb). And so the second aim of this Learning Guide, is to help you become an ‘effective problem solver’.

What is problem solving?

Problem solving is a tool, a skill and a process. It is a tool because it can help you solve an immediate problem or to achieve a goal. It is a skill because once you have learnt it you can use it repeatedly, like the ability to ride a bicycle, add numbers or speak a language. It is also a process because it involves taking a number of steps.

You can engage in problem solving if you want to reach a goal and experience obstacles on the way. As a student, your goals are likely to be many and varied. You might want to write more effectively, increase the number of your friends, get a job, become computer literate, buy a car or improve your fitness. So it is likely that in working towards your goals you will encounter some barriers.

At the point at which you come up against a barrier you can engage in a problem solving process to help you achieve your goal. Every time you use a problem solving process you are increasing your problem solving skills.

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A seven-step problem solving cycle

There are a variety of problem solving processes but each process consists of a series of steps, including identifying an issue, searching for options and putting a possible solution into action. It is useful to view problem solving as a cycle because, sometimes, a problem needs several attempts to solve it, or the problem changes. Figure 1 shows a seven-step problem solving cycle.

To solve a problem, take the steps, one at a time.

Diagram showing the 7 seven step problem solving cycle

Step 1. Identify the problem

The first step you need to take is to identify and name the problem so that you can find an appropriate solution. Sometimes you might be unsure about what the problem is: you might just feel general anxiety or be confused about what is getting in the way of your goals. If it is a personal problem you can ask yourself, your friends or a counsellor, ‘What is the problem which is getting in the way of me achieving my goal’. If it is an academic issue you can ask yourself, ‘What is hindering me from completing this task’, and you can consult with your tutor, supervisor or a Learning Adviser to clarify the issue.

Step 2. Explore the problem

When you are clear about what the problem is you need to think about it in different ways. You can ask yourself questions such as:

  • ‘How is this problem affecting me?’

  • ‘How is it affecting others?’

  • ‘Who else experiences this problem?’

  • ‘What do they do about it?’

Seeing the problem in different ways is likely to help you find an effective solution.

Step 3. Set goals

Once you have thought about the problem from different angles you can identify your goals. What is it that you want to achieve? Sometimes you might get so frustrated by a problem that you forget to think about what you want. For example, you might become ill, struggle to complete a number of assignments on time and feel so unmotivated that you let due dates pass. It is important at this time to consider the question, ‘What is my immediate goal?’ Do you want to:

  • improve your health?

  • increase your time management skills?

  • complete the assignments to the best of your ability?

  • finish the assignments as soon as possible?

If you decide your goal is to improve your health, that will lead to solutions which are different from those linked to the goal of completing your assignments as soon as possible. One goal may lead you to a doctor and/or to take leave of absence from university; the other goal may lead you to apply for extensions for your assignments. So working out your goals is a vital part of the problem solving process.

Step 4. Look at Alternatives

When you have decided what your goal is you need to look for possible solutions. The more possible solutions you find the more likely it is that you will be able to discover an effective solution. You can brain-storm for ideas. The purpose of brain-storming is to collect together a long list of possibilities. It does not matter whether the ideas are useful or practical or manageable: just write down the ideas as they come into your head. Some of the best solutions arise from creative thinking during brain-storming. You can also seek ideas about possible solutions from friends, family, a partner, a counsellor, a lecturer, books or the internet. The aim is to collect as many alternative solutions as possible.

Step 5. Select a possible solution

From the list of possible solutions you can sort out which are most relevant to your situation and which are realistic and manageable. You can do this by predicting outcomes for possible solutions and also checking with other people what they think outcomes might be. For example, if a possible solution is withdrawing from a course and it seems realistic and manageable to you, you can check with university staff how withdrawing will affect your grade for that course, your future enrolment and your Higher Education Contributions. And if you are receiving a Centrelink Allowance you will need to check with Centrelink whether or not withdrawal from a course will affect your payment. When you have explored the consequences, you can use this information to identify the solution which is most relevant to you and is likely to have the best outcomes for your situation.

Step 6. Implement a possible solution

Once you have selected a possible solution you are ready to put it into action. You will need to have energy and motivation to do this because implementing the solution may take some time and effort. (If the solution had been easy to find and do, you would have probably already done it.) You can prepare yourself to implement the solution by planning when and how you will do it, whether you talk with others about it, and what rewards you will give yourself when you have done it.

Step 7. Evaluate

Just because you have worked your way through the problem solving process it does not mean that, by implementing the possible solution, you automatically solve your problem. So evaluating the effectiveness of your solution is very important. You can ask yourself (and others) :

  • ‘How effective was that solution?’

  • ‘Did it achieve what I wanted?’

  • What consequences did it have on my situation?’

If the solution was successful in helping you solve your problem and reach your goal, then you know that you have effectively solved your problem. If you feel dissatisfied with the result, then you can begin the steps again. Viewing problem solving as a cycle may help you recognise that problem solving is a way of searching for a solution which will lead to different possible solutions, which you can evaluate. If you have solved the problem you have found an effective solution. If you judge the problem has not been solved you can look for, and try, alternative possibilities by beginning the problem solving cycle again.

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When to use problem solving

You can problem solve anytime you have a problem to solve or a goal to achieve. You can use the problem solving model to look for solutions to issues connected with your study, relationships, work or sport. You can take the problem solving steps by yourself, with a friend, or in a group. Problem solving with others is often very effective because you have access to a wide variety of viewpoints and potential solutions. The problem solving model is a useful resource for you to utilise in your personal, academic and professional lives.

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Conclusion

Problem solving is a skill and a process which you can learn. You can implement the process to help you solve a problem by following the seven steps outlined in this Learning Guide. Once you have learned the steps and begun to implement the process, problem solving will be a new skill which you have acquired and can be used at university, home and in the workplace.

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Resources