Information about Problem Solving


Why is problem solving important to you?

Today's businesses want employees who can adapt to new situations rapidly and effectively.

If you can solve problems, you can write your own ticket to whatever job you want.

In college, research methodology is used quite a bit to discover new things and test new ideas. Most research techniques use some kind of problem solving methodology. If you learn how to solve problems now, you will be able to approach many academic situations with the tools you need to handle them.


Defining Problem Solving

Problems can be classified into puzzle problems, well-structured problems, and ill-structured problems. Many games contain puzzle problems and are not "serious" in nature, nor is there any real-life consequence for failing to solve them. Real-world problems that remain unsolved do have consequences. Some problems which are simple and well-defined are called well-structured problems and include a set number of possible solutions - solutions are either 100% right or 100% wrong. An example of a well-structured problem is a typical mathematical (2 + 2 = 4) question. This question has a definitive correct answer.

In contrast to this are ill-structured problems. In these cases, problems may have many possible answers because they are complex and poorly defined. The "best" solutions to ill-defined problems depend on the priorities underlying the situation. What is "best" today may not be "best" tomorrow. Ill-structured problems, because they are more difficult to "solve," require the development of higher order thinking skills and the ability to construct a convincing argument for a particular solution as opposed to all other possible solutions.

An example of an ill-structured problem would be "How can we maximize water resources in our area?" In this real-life problem more than 20 solutions were proposed and local area authorities were asked to weigh the solutions.


Identifying the Problem


Running water from faucet filling cup. Here is an example of an ill-structured problem:

The population of your community is growing. Your water supply will not support many new people. What do you do?

This is a complex problem. It affects the people, the environment, and the quality of life itself. To arrive at a good solution, you would need to use math, science, political science, psychology, and probably more!

This problem actually occurs frequently in areas with a growing population. In one community facing this problem, more than 20 possible solutions were presented to the public. A solution was then chosen that the majority of the public agreed upon. It wasn't the "right" solution because all of the 20 possible possible solutions had strengths and weaknesses.

The lesson here is that ill-structured problems usually have several workable solutions. Each solution has advantages and disadvantages that depend on who is affected by the solution. The solution chosen is often the one that has the best argument for it.