March 5th, 2009

Problem Solving: A Simple Definition


We do tend to get carried away with lofty academic definitions—they are precise and detailed—but sometimes simple captures the essence in a much more compelling way. I’ve read all sorts of definitions for problem solving, most sounding something like this: “any goal-directed sequence of cognitive operations.” Fine, but put that definition alongside this one: “what you do when you don’t know what to do.” [Both of these definitions appear in the article referenced below and the functional definition is attributed to another source.]

Love it! What a quick and easy description to share with students who tend to equate problem solving with the numerical manipulations needed to find the answer to a specific problem—like one assigned for homework or appearing on a quiz.

I had to engage in a bit of problem solving myself today. My Adobe Acrobat stopped working—none of my pdf files would open, which resulted in some expletives and stress as the April issue of the newsletter was due today. So what did I do when I didn’t know what to do? Well, I tried to figure out what might be the problem: a virus? I scanned, no virus. An update I hadn’t downloaded? Nope. A file I hadn’t closed or maybe partially downloaded? Maybe, but I couldn’t get into the program. I know, this isn’t a very impressive list, but given my ability with technology, it is more than I used to be able to do when faced with a computer problem. I needed help. Spouse to the rescue: he suggested I shut down and see if the computer would reset. I did, it did, sort of, but with a bit more fussing I was back in business.

Learners need a collection of things they can do when they don’t know what to do. And these problem-solving skills can be taught. Most students pick up strategies on their own (what I’ve done when in need of computer problem-solving), but often their repertoires are limited (as I’ve just illustrated) and their understanding of how to manage that repertoire more implicit than explicit. A simple straightforward definition like this one provides a great place to start. “So how many of you don’t know how to solve this problem (or answer this question)? Can you be honest and fess up? There’s no crime in not knowing. But just for a minute here I want to ask you to consider what do you do when you don’t know what to do? How do you figure things out when you have to?” And so follows a short discussion of problem-solving possibilities—what you can do when you don’t know what to do.

Reference: Cooper, M. M., Cox Jr., C. T., Nammouz, M., Case, E. and Stevens, R. (2008). An assessement of the effect of collaborative groups on students’ problem-solving strategies and abilities. Journal of Chemical Education, 85 (6), 866-872.

—Maryellen Weimer