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Strategies for Problem Solving

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Strategies for Problem Solving
257
Problem Solving
Problem Solving
䉴 What’s the best way to solve a problem?
Suppose that you’re lost, you don’t have a map or a navigation system, and there’s nobody
around to ask for directions. You have a problem. The circle of thought suggests that the
most efficient approach to solving it would be to first diagnose the problem in the elaboration stage, then formulate a plan for solving it, then execute the plan, and finally evaluate the results to determine whether the problem remains (Bransford & Stein, 1993).
But people’s problem-solving efforts are not always so systematic. This is one reason why
medical tests are sometimes given unnecessarily, diseases are sometimes misdiagnosed,
and auto parts are sometimes replaced when there is nothing wrong with them.
Strategies for Problem Solving
When you are trying to get from one place to another, the best path may not necessarily be a straight line. In fact, obstacles may require going in the opposite direction to get around them. So it is with problem solving. Sometimes, the best strategy does not involve mental steps aimed straight at your goal. For example, when a
problem is especially difficult, it can sometimes be helpful to allow it to “incubate”
by setting it aside for a while. A solution that once seemed out of reach may suddenly appear after you have been thinking about other things. The benefits of incubation probably arise from forgetting incorrect ideas that may have been blocking
the path to a correct solution (Anderson, 2000). Other effective problem-solving
strategies are more direct.
One of these strategies is called means-end analysis. It involves continuously asking
where you are in relation to your final goal and then deciding on the means by which
you can get one step closer to that goal (Newell & Simon, 1972). In other words, rather
than trying to solve the problem all at once, you identify a subgoal that will take you
toward a solution (this process is also referred to as decomposition). After reaching that
subgoal, you identify another one that will get you even closer to the solution, and you
continue this step-by-step process until the problem is solved. Some students apply this
approach to the problem of writing a major term paper. The task might seem overwhelming at first, but their first subgoal is simply to write an outline of what they think
the paper should cover. When the outline is complete, they decide whether a paper
based on it will satisfy the assignment. If it will, the next subgoal might be to search
the library and the Internet for information about each section. If they decide that this
information is adequate, the next subgoal would be to write a rough draft of the introduction, and so on.
A second strategy in problem solving is to work backward. Many problems are like
a tree. The trunk is the information you are given; the solution is a twig on one of
Simply knowing about problem-solving
strategies, such as decomposition, is not
enough. As described in the chapter on
motivation and emotion, people must
believe that the effort required is worth
the rewards it can bring.
CALVIN AND HOBBES © Watterson Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. All rights reserved.
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