Problem Solving and Utilizing Advice


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand the steps to take when solving problems.
  • Learn to combine creative thinking and critical thinking to solve problems.
  • Understand the role of input in making good decisions.

Much of your college and professional life will be spent solving problems; some will be complex, such as deciding on a career, and require time and effort to come up with a solution. Others will be small and will allow you to make a quick decision based entirely on your own experience. In either case, solving the problem will involve the same basic steps.

  • Define the problem. Analyze the situation by answering the following questions: What is the real issue? Why is it a problem? What are the root causes? What kinds of outcomes or actions do you expect to generate to solve the problem? What are some of the key characteristics that will make a good choice: Timing? Resources? Availability of tools and materials? For more complex problems, it often helps to write out the problem and the answers to these questions.
  • Narrow the problem. Many problems are made up of a series of smaller problems, each requiring its own solution. Can you break the problem into different facets? What aspects of the current issue are “noise” that should not be considered in the solution? Use your critical thinking skills to separate facts from opinion in this step.
  • Generate possible solutions. List all your options. Use your creative thinking skills in this phase. Did you come up with a second “right” answer, a third, or fourth? Can any of these answers be combined to create a stronger solution? What past or existing solutions can be adapted or combined to solve this problem?
  • Choose the best solution. Evaluate the pros and cons of each possible solution, and commit to the best course of action for your situation.
Figure deciding between three red paths with arrows

Decisions, Decisions

As discussed above, it will be necessary for you to make many major and minor personal decisions in college and in life, and you will most likely be asked for your input to help others make decisions that affect their personal and professional lives as well. To be effective in both of those circumstances, it is helpful to understand the role of advice in making good decisions.


With major decisions, it is always best to seek the advice of someone who is an expert in that particular area, for example an academic advisor to help you determine your major or a realtor to help you find a home to buy. Advice is usually not necessary for our day to day choices, but for the big decisions, it’s best to use your critical thinking skills to determine who would be the best people to give you input and then consider their advice carefully.

Input is sought or given due to experience or expertise, but it is up to the decision maker to weigh the input and decide whether and how to use it.

Advice is just one of the pieces of knowledge needed to make sound decisions, and that input should be fact based, or if an opinion is offered, it should be clearly stated as such. Sometimes people will give conflicting advice or have very strong ideas about what should be done, so while it’s important to consider what they say, it’s vital to evaluate all information and decide for oneself.

In the examples above, it is ultimately the student, not the advisor, who will be pursuing that course of study and looking for jobs in that field and the customer, not the realtor, who will be living in that neighborhood and paying that mortgage. Always remember that the advice given should not be ignored but does not have to be followed either if it isn’t the right decision for the situation at hand.

Finally, once input is given and a course of action is chosen, the advisor should support the decision made, whether or not the input is actually used.

Key Takeaways

  • Effective problem solving involves critical and creative thinking.
  • The four steps to effective problem solving are the following:
    • Define the problem
    • Narrow the problem
    • Generate solutions
    • Choose the solution
  • Advice from experts should be used as one piece of all the information gathered and used to make decisions.


Apply the problem-solving steps described above to an academic struggle or challenge you are experiencing. Write out the entire process on paper in any form you’d like: a journal entry, charts, a concept map, or lists, for example.

If possible, seek out and consider the advice of an advisor, a professor, or another appropriate person.