Strategies in Problem Solving

Solving problems is integral to learning. You began solving problems at a very young age. Granted, those problems may seem trivial (how to get a toy) now compared to the problems you face as an adult (how to pay the bills), but they certainly didn't seem trivial at the time. Problems are problems, regardless of the importance or severity; they all have a common goal: to reach a solution. So how do you do that? By employing problem-solving strategies. There are numerous problem-solving strategies out there, but let's take a look at some of the most commonly used.

Trial and Error

Trial and error involves trying out all of the possible solutions until one is found that works. It is most effective in situations where there are a limited number of options. As children, the most common problem-solving strategy we employed was likely trial and error. For instance, let's say the problem a child faces is how to retrieve a toy his mother has put up on a shelf. The child may try to stretch his arms to reach the toy. That doesn't work. Next, he tries to climb up on the shelf to reach the toy. He falls; that doesn't work. When he can't get it on his own, he asks his mother for the toy. She says no; that doesn't work. Still undeterred, the child cries a bit for the toy. The mother ignores the cries; that doesn't work. Finally, he throws a full-blown tantrum, complete with screams, kicks, and tears. Exasperated, the mother gives the child the toy to appease him. Bingo — the tantrum worked. What do you think he's going to do the next time he faces the same problem?

Puzzles are a great example of problems solved through trial and error. There are several types of puzzle games out on the market to help children learn, and they learn through trial and error. In order to complete the puzzle, children have to try to fit a puzzle piece in a particular spot. If that doesn't work, they either keep working with that piece until they find its proper location or they move on to another piece and work with the original spot they were trying to fill.


Brainstorming is a problem-solving strategy in which you come up with as many possible solutions as you can, usually within a certain period of time. You write down everything that comes to mind, regardless of how ridiculous or implausible it may seem. You simply let your mind go. In using this technique, you are often able to come up with some very creative and imaginative ideas. While not all solutions are going to be able to be employed, chances are you are going to come up with a few that just might work. Once you've created a list and the brainstorming session is over, you can then work through each idea and either discard it or set it aside for closer inspection. By narrowing down the list, you are able to focus your attention on those ideas that are most plausible.

The next time you are facing a comprehensive problem at work, and you just can't seem to come up with a solution, gather a few of your coworkers and suggest a brainstorming session. Brainstorming is even more effective when you are able to tap the minds of more than one person.

Take It Step-by-Step

Probably the best-known (or at least the most-studied) problem-solving technique is the step-by-step method that was introduced by Allen Newell and Herbert Simon (Human Problem Solving, 1972). This strategy breaks down the problem into steps that you go through to reach a solution. Here's a look at the basic principle of each step.

The first step is to identify the problem. You must recognize that a problem exists before you can begin to solve it. The second step is to build a representation of the problem, defining it by stating the problem as it was first introduced and the problem's goal. The third step is to create a list of possible strategies and evaluate each. The fourth step is to choose the best strategy out of those possible and to apply that strategy. The final step is to reflect on the effect of that strategy — in other words, see if it worked.

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