4.1 Types of Problems & Problem Solving Strategies
Types of Problems
In school and in everyday life, we all have to solve a wide variety of problems. In school, these problems might be how to complete an algebraic equation or remembering the order of U.S. Presidents. In everyday life, problems might be how to maintain a long-distance relationship or how to pay bills on a limited income. Either way, in order to be successful, we must have the ability to solve different types of problems using different types of solution strategies.
Problem solving is the application of ideas, skills or factual information to achieve the solution to a problem or to reach a desired outcome. Let’s talk about different types of problems and different types of solutions.
Educational psychology has broken down problems in two different ways. The first way is to make a distinction between well-defined and poorly-defined problems. A well-defined problem is one that has a clear goal or solution, and problem solving strategies are easily developed. In contrast, a poorly-defined problem is the opposite. It’s one that is unclear, abstract, or confusing, and that does not have a clear problem solving strategy.
For example, imagine that you are in school. If your teacher gives you a quiz that asks you to list the first ten U.S. Presidents in order and name one important historical fact about each, that would be a well-defined problem. The instructions and expected outcome is clear, and you can use a simple memory recall strategy to come up with the correct answer. However, if your teacher gives you a quiz that instead asks you, ‘think about some history, then draw a picture and be sure to wash your hands,’ you’re not really sure what to do. What does the teacher expect of you? This is a poorly-defined problem, because you don’t know how to reach a solution or answer.
The second way that educational psychology has broken down different types of problems is by making a distinction between routine and non-routine problems. Just like the name indicates, a routine problem is one that is typical and has a simple solution. In contrast, a non-routine problem is more abstract or subjective and requires a strategy to solve. Routine problems are what most people do in school: memorizing simple facts, how to do addition and subtraction, how to spell words, and so on. However, in more advanced years or in more advanced subjects in school, teachers might present students with non-routine problems that require critical thinking skills and subjective solutions. For example, the ethics of social issues such as the death penalty, or the role of civil rights in laws, or themes in famous literature, might be considered non-routine problems. Non-routine problems require more complicated or creative problem solving strategies. Let’s talk about problem solving strategies now and go over several possible options.
Problem Solving Strategies
Depending on the type of problem, you have a lot of options regarding possible solution strategies. In this lesson, let’s start with solutions that are common strategies for well-defined or routine problems.
The first strategy you might try when solving a routine problem is called an algorithm. Algorithms are step-by-step strategies or processes for how to solve a problem or achieve a goal. The most common example you might think of for using algorithms might be in math class. When presented with an algebraic equation, you might have learned about how to solve for x using certain well-defined steps. But algorithms can be used in other subjects as well. For example, when you are learning about how to take apart and clean a car engine, you will want to approach this problem using a set series of steps, making sure that you don’t misplace or mix up any of the parts.
Another solution that many people use to solve problems is called heuristics. Heuristics are general strategies used to make quick, short-cut solutions to problems that sometimes lead to solutions but sometimes lead to errors. Heuristics are sometimes referred to as mental short-cuts, and we often form them based on past experiences. You have probably used heuristics all the time in your daily life, maybe without knowing what they are called. For example, when you go to the store to buy a product, there will probably be several options on the shelf. When trying to decide the quality of the different choices many people use the heuristic rule, ‘you get what you pay for,’ meaning more expensive items will be of higher quality. While this might be true in many cases, it’s not necessarily always true. So, using this strategy does make for a quick decision but it could backfire.
Another example of a heuristic is ‘shorter lines will move faster.’ Once you select the item you want to purchase at the store, you head over to the cash registers. You pick the line with the fewest number of people, assuming it will move the fastest. While normally this strategy would work, you might get behind someone who needs to do a price check or a cashier who is new to the job and doesn’t know how to use the register. So, in summary, heuristics are a common problem solving strategy for everyday life types of problems, and usually they lead to good decisions but they can sometimes lead to mistakes.
A third type of problem solving that you might have used in the past is to use graphic representations. Graphic representations are visual-based illustrations of a problem that might lead to clarification of a problem or creative solutions. Examples of graphic representations are flow charts, diagrams, outlines or mind maps. With any of these options, you can draw the problem out, and this might help you see the problem in a new way.
Let’s talk about one more problem solving strategy that comes from educational psychology. This final strategy is called The IDEAL Strategy, where ‘IDEAL’ is an acronym, meaning each letter stands for one idea. This strategy includes five steps, each corresponding to one letter.
- The ‘I’ stands for identify, which is the first step in the IDEAL strategy. Here, you identify what the problem is, as clearly as possible.
- The ‘D’ stands for define. Here, you define what the possible final goal or solution might be.
- Next, the ‘E’ stands for explore. This is the step where you explore possible ways to reach the solution or goal. You could use other strategies we’ve discussed here, such as a graphic representation, heuristics, or brainstorming.
- The fourth letter is ‘A,’ which stands for anticipate. In this step, you look forward to possible outcomes of different solutions you’ve created, and try to see which solution will work the best. You then choose one of the solutions and act on it. While the ‘A’ in IDEAL stands for anticipate, not act, you can remember that the ‘A’ could include both anticipation and action if it’s helpful.
- The final step in the IDEAL solution is the ‘L,’ which stands for look. After you have chosen one solution and acted on it, you now look back and learn from what you did. So again, you could think of the ‘L’ as standing for both look and learn.
Did your solution lead to a positive outcome? If not, go back to the beginning and try to find a different solution. While the IDEAL solution may seem complicated with many steps to it, it’s actually a fairly intuitive way to solve problems. You identify the problem, define what you want to achieve, explore possible solutions, pick one and see what happened. Most of us use this general strategy when problem solving; we might just not label it with the IDEAL name.
In summary, problem solving is the application of ideas, skills or factual information to achieve the solution to a problem or to reach a desired outcome. Before we solve a problem, we should know what kind of problem it is. There are well-defined problems and poorly-defined problems, as well as routine and non-routine problems. There are many possible problem solving solutions or strategies. This lesson covered algorithms, heuristics, graphic representations and the IDEAL strategy.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define problem-solving, well-defined problem, poorly-defined problems, routine problems and non-routine problems
- Identify and describe four different problem-solving strategies