Home - Teaching Resources - Classroom Tips


Problem-Solving Skills

One of the things that employers often identify as being an important quality when hiring college graduates is their problem-solving skills. Students need to develop the ability to apply problem-solving skills when faced with issues or problems that are new to them. The development and use of problem-solving skills also improves learning. Rossman (1993) suggests that when students use problem-solving skills, "The role of the student changes from a passive recipient of information to a participant in the creation of understanding. The problem should captivate students' attention, be meaningful, and allow a wide range of individual responses."

For example, here is one way to present a problem to a class.
Began with the simple question, "What is heat?" Have the students use journals and the chalkboard to record their ideas. Then collectively discuss the ideas and write down a summary of the "best thinking so far" on the subject of heat. Next, say the magic words, "Let's find out" and begin exploring information and experimenting.

In this example, the teacher gathered the students' prior knowledge so that he could assess their background and then decide how best to approach the problem. The students could also be given the opportunity to "own" the problem instead of just being given a problem that they may not have interest in or any prior knowledge about. This can be done by simply asking the students what problems they would like to solve.

Having a process for solving problems helps to keep efforts focused and eliminate becoming stalled. Problems solving usually involved the following steps

  • Identify the problem
  • Analyze the problem and gather information
  • Generate potential solutions
  • Select and test the solution
  • Analyze/Evaluate the results

Some of the tools used in problem-solving include:

  • Brainstorming. This technique is used to encourage participation from each member of the team. Brainstorming helps to break people out of the typical mode of approaching things to produce new and creative ideas. It creates a climate of freedom and openness, which encourages an increased quantity of ideas.
  • Root Cause Analysis (AKA as the "Five Why's."). The objective of Root Cause Analysis is to find the fundamental cause for a problem. One way is to ask "Why?" five times or more to really get at the root of the problem.
  • Cause and Effect Diagrams. This diagram is drawn to represent the relationship between an effect (the problem) and its potential causes. The diagram helps to sort-out and relate the interactions among the factors affecting a process.
  • Pareto Charts. A Pareto Chart shows a frequency distribution where each bar on the chart show the relative contribution of contributing problems to the larger problem. It help to identify where to focus energy to obtain the most positive impact.
  • Flowcharting. A Flowchart is a map that shows all the steps in a process. It helps in understanding the process and making sure all steps in the process are addressed.
  • Decision Matrix. A Decision Matrix is useful when faced with making a difficult decision. The options or alternatives are listed in the left-hand column and the selection criteria is listed across the top row. Each of the options are rated against the selection criteria to arrive at the best logical decision.

With the appropriate teacher action, students will be able to learn how to solve a variety of problems.

Teacher Tips

Appreciating and Valuing Diversity

Are You Really Listening?

Coaching for Success in the Classroom

Goal Setting

Developing an Interest in Science and Math

Developing Communication Skills

Developing Problem-solving Skills

Effective Discipline

Encouraging Cooperative Learning

Encouraging Creativity

Encouraging Students to Explore for Answers

Fostering Independent Thinking

Motivating Students

Overcoming the Fear of Making a Mistake

Practicing Effective Questioning


Self-Evaluation Using Video

Teaching with the Constructivist Learning Theory

Teamwork in the Classroom

There is Not Always Just One Right Answer

Understanding Different Learning Styles