Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Chinese proverb

Improving My Problem-Solving Skills

I Clearly Define My Problem

Until I have a clear idea of what exactly the problem is and a sufficiently precise vision of the goal I wish to attain, it is inadvisable for me to follow a course of action and risky to adopt the first solution that comes to mind.

There are two types of learning problems that arise in university:

  • Well-structured problems, where expected results are expressed in specific questions, data is complete, pertinent, and similar in nature, where constraints are clearly established and where problem-solving approaches have been tried and are supposedly known (here again, I must make it a habit to closely read questions and data and to keep it in mind without distortion!);
  • Open-ended problems, like case studies present more realistic and complex situations, with partial or superfluous data of varying nature and where solution options are many. This type of problem is more demanding and requires a good repertoire of fundamental and field-specific strategies.

Problems encountered in professional or everyday life (technical, organizational, financial, health, relational, etc.) are open-ended problems. I must examine if the apparent problem is not hiding a deeper problem, define the problem situation and describe what about it, is problematic. I must do an inventory of available, missing and inaccessible information in order to better understand both the initial and desired situation. I must also define the limits in which I can propose solutions and the constraints that come into play with the problem-solving operations. The quality of the chosen solutions will largely depend on the initial definition and analysis of the problem.

Some advantages inherent to clearly defining a problem before trying to solve it:

  • Having a precise idea of what I am looking to obtain.
  • More easily distinguishing pertinent from impertinent information.
  • Bringing a satisfactory and long lasting solution to the problem.
Applications to Learning Problems

When I read a scientific, technical or informative text, defining my problem consists of clarifying my purpose before I start to read, in other words, that which I am looking to obtain from my read. If necessary, I can write down my purpose or prepare specific questions.

When I draft a report (reading, lab, field work), defining my problem involves identifying for whom the report is intended and why (their position, expectations, level of knowledge in the subject) and defining the effect on the audience that I hope to achieve (to impress, inform, prove my competence).

When I conduct a research project, clearly defining my problem involves formulating the precise question to which my research is supposed to provide an answer. If the formulation of my question is vague, chances are that my research will quickly stray from the track.

And finally, when I prepare and write an exam, defining my problem involves first clearly defining my performance objectives and secondly taking the time to understand exactly what is being asked and its implications.

I Select Pertinent Data

The selection of data is as important for understanding the problem as, understanding the problem is for the selection of important data. This is why it is common for me, when I am facing a problem, to have to return to my initial understanding of the original problem.  A new definition of the problem provides me with data that I had not previously selected and leads me to discarding data that has become obsolete.

This strategy consists of keeping data that is absolutely necessary to the problem resolution and eliminating useless or obsolete data, once the nature of the problem is clearly understood. A good tactic is writing down the important data on a separate sheet of paper so that I will not lose sight of it and it facilitates the data handling and processing. This way of doing things relieves my memory work and helps me to avoid going off track.

Some advantages inherent to selecting data that is pertinent to the problem:

  • Reducing the volume of data to process.
  • Facilitating memory work.
  • Reducing the risk of going off track.
Applications to Learning Problems

The most frequent learning problems that arise in university are related to difficulty understanding the material and difficulty remembering a large volume of new knowledge. A large part of these problems, stem from insufficient or unskilled information selection. The clarification of information that is not understood is the prerequisite condition of elucidation and all requests for assistance. Concerning the selection of key information and its organization into an efficient memory tool format, clarification is the only means to circumvent difficulties related to the assimilation of masses of knowledge within a relatively short time frame.

I Break my Problem into Sub-problems

All major personal or professional projects present themselves like a series of overlapping multi-dimensional problems to be solved (technical, financial or social) with numerous constraints (competences, time, resources). Their apparent complexity can be disheartening. By breaking a complex problem into smaller and simpler sub-problems and stages, I can take on one piece at a time.

Some advantages inherent to breaking a problem into sub-problems:

  • Reducing complex problems into a series of more simple problems.
  • Avoiding discouragement when facing the greater dimensions of certain problems.
  • Reducing the volume of data to be simultaneously processed.
  • Planning more easily and proceeding step by step.
Applications to University Studies

Proper planning of a university semester relies upon breaking learning activities into digestible pieces. Each course is a set that can be broken into smaller subsets and each subset into smaller parts, from which I can more realistically determine the time and effort required in order to learn them. And, if I cannot do it all, determine the priorities. It is better to learn less, well, than it is to learn more, poorly.

Applications to Changing Learning Habits

We do not easily change a bad habit on our first attempt. Sometimes becoming aware of my habit suffices to definitively modify it, such as hastily and superficially reading exam questions, for example. Other changes will be more gradual and initially require my vigilance and sustained effort. If, for example, I have never created summary sheets or any personal memory tools, my first attempt will be time consuming and I may not be very efficient. My efficiency for this type of work will increase quickly if I stick with it. In the medium-term, my effort will be well rewarded. Therefore, it is preferable that I experiment with new strategies with a reduced portion of my work (one course, for example), by setting my effort-to-change priorities. Once a new strategic habit is acquired, it becomes less demanding in vigilance and execution time and it is more easily integrated into my routine.

I Methodically Explore Solution Avenues

Facing a problem that is new to me is like entering unknown territory: if I do not have reference points or cannot map the locations as I explore them, my risk of getting lost or going around and around in circles is high.

There is no all-purpose problem-solving method, that is to say, a method that ensures me of a successful, rectilinear course of action every time.   Given this, a computer and human intelligence do not use the same processes: the processing speed of computers allow them to verify, one by one, all possible solutions, while human intelligence can only look at a limited number of solution avenues, which are determined based on acquired knowledge and experience in that particular field, by way of initial mental processes. In addition to logical reasoning, human intelligence uses other problem-solving modalities including memorized experience, intuition and successive empirical trial and error exploration.

Regardless of the problem-solving mode employed: logic, experience, intuition, empirical trial and error, or a combination of these modes, my path to a solution must be organized if I want to limit useless steps such as random operation applications, going backwards without realizing, repeatedly using fruitless and ineffective reasoning or heading towards a dead-end. Each trial and avenue explored brings me new information and contributes to the construction of my goal path. But this, only on the expressed condition that my trials are done in an ordered and systematic way, that I note and remember my results and that I do not prematurely give up on the solution avenues that I am exploring.

Some advantages inherent to methodically exploring solution avenues:

  • Progressing towards a satisfactory solution instead of going around in circles.
  • Better remembering previously explored solution avenues.
  • Ensuring that I have explored all solution avenues before finding the right one.

I Elaborate and Verify Various Solution Hypotheses

The first problem-solving idea that comes to mind is not necessarily the best. In the majority of problems for which only one solution exists (closed or convergent problems), I elaborate and successively verify several potential hypotheses until I find the one that works. Since most problems occurring in daily or professional life are problems that have multiple solutions (open-ended or divergent) and since their solutions are not necessarily equal in value, the valid solution choice depends on a variety of considerations.

But, for me to make a real choice, I must have a wide range of possible solutions to choose from. The first idea that comes to mind may be valuable, but is rarely the most original. Before I opt for it, I should give myself the time to allow alternatives to emerge.

Some advantages inherent to elaborating and verifying solution hypotheses:

  • Ensuring that I do not over-look the right solution.
  • Choosing the best solution possible.
  • Having the satisfaction of making an informed choice.

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