Solving Problems

Learning Objectives

  • Describe problem solving strategies, including algorithms and heuristics

People face problems every day—usually, multiple problems throughout the day. Sometimes these problems are straightforward: To double a recipe for pizza dough, for example, all that is required is that each ingredient in the recipe be doubled. Sometimes, however, the problems we encounter are more complex. For example, say you have a work deadline, and you must mail a printed copy of a report to your supervisor by the end of the business day. The report is time-sensitive and must be sent overnight. You finished the report last night, but your printer will not work today. What should you do? First, you need to identify the problem and then apply a strategy for solving the problem.

Problem-Solving Strategies

When you are presented with a problem—whether it is a complex mathematical problem or a broken printer, how do you solve it? Before finding a solution to the problem, the problem must first be clearly identified. After that, one of many problem solving strategies can be applied, hopefully resulting in a solution.

A problem-solving strategy is a plan of action used to find a solution. Different strategies have different action plans associated with them. For example, a well-known strategy is trial and error. The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” describes trial and error. In terms of your broken printer, you could try checking the ink levels, and if that doesn’t work, you could check to make sure the paper tray isn’t jammed. Or maybe the printer isn’t actually connected to your laptop. When using trial and error, you would continue to try different solutions until you solved your problem. Although trial and error is not typically one of the most time-efficient strategies, it is a commonly used one.

Table 1. Problem-Solving Strategies
Method Description Example
Trial and error Continue trying different solutions until problem is solved Restarting phone, turning off WiFi, turning off bluetooth in order to determine why your phone is malfunctioning
Algorithm Step-by-step problem-solving formula Instruction manual for installing new software on your computer
Heuristic General problem-solving framework Working backwards; breaking a task into steps

Another type of strategy is an algorithm. An algorithm is a problem-solving formula that provides you with step-by-step instructions used to achieve a desired outcome (Kahneman, 2011). You can think of an algorithm as a recipe with highly detailed instructions that produce the same result every time they are performed. Algorithms are used frequently in our everyday lives, especially in computer science. When you run a search on the Internet, search engines like Google use algorithms to decide which entries will appear first in your list of results. Facebook also uses algorithms to decide which posts to display on your newsfeed. Can you identify other situations in which algorithms are used?

A heuristic is another type of problem solving strategy. While an algorithm must be followed exactly to produce a correct result, a heuristic is a general problem-solving framework (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). You can think of these as mental shortcuts that are used to solve problems. A “rule of thumb” is an example of a heuristic. Such a rule saves the person time and energy when making a decision, but despite its time-saving characteristics, it is not always the best method for making a rational decision. Different types of heuristics are used in different types of situations, but the impulse to use a heuristic occurs when one of five conditions is met (Pratkanis, 1989):

  • When one is faced with too much information
  • When the time to make a decision is limited
  • When the decision to be made is unimportant
  • When there is access to very little information to use in making the decision
  • When an appropriate heuristic happens to come to mind in the same moment

Working backwards is a useful heuristic in which you begin solving the problem by focusing on the end result. Consider this example: You live in Washington, D.C. and have been invited to a wedding at 4 PM on Saturday in Philadelphia. Knowing that Interstate 95 tends to back up any day of the week, you need to plan your route and time your departure accordingly. If you want to be at the wedding service by 3:30 PM, and it takes 2.5 hours to get to Philadelphia without traffic, what time should you leave your house? You use the working backwards heuristic to plan the events of your day on a regular basis, probably without even thinking about it.

Watch It

What problem-solving method could you use to solve Einstein’s famous riddle?

You can view the transcript for “Can you solve “Einstein’s Riddle”? – Dan Van der Vieren” here (opens in new window).

Another useful heuristic is the practice of accomplishing a large goal or task by breaking it into a series of smaller steps. Students often use this common method to complete a large research project or long essay for school. For example, students typically brainstorm, develop a thesis or main topic, research the chosen topic, organize their information into an outline, write a rough draft, revise and edit the rough draft, develop a final draft, organize the references list, and proofread their work before turning in the project. The large task becomes less overwhelming when it is broken down into a series of small steps.

Everyday Connections: Solving Puzzles

Problem-solving abilities can improve with practice. Many people challenge themselves every day with puzzles and other mental exercises to sharpen their problem-solving skills. Sudoku puzzles appear daily in most newspapers. Typically, a sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid. The simple sudoku below (Figure 1) is a 4×4 grid. To solve the puzzle, fill in the empty boxes with a single digit: 1, 2, 3, or 4. Here are the rules: The numbers must total 10 in each bolded box, each row, and each column; however, each digit can only appear once in a bolded box, row, and column. Time yourself as you solve this puzzle and compare your time with a classmate.

A four column by four row Sudoku puzzle is shown. The top left cell contains the number 3. The top right cell contains the number 2. The bottom right cell contains the number 1. The bottom left cell contains the number 4. The cell at the intersection of the second row and the second column contains the number 4. The cell to the right of that contains the number 1. The cell below the cell containing the number 1 contains the number 2. The cell to the left of the cell containing the number 2 contains the number 3.

Figure 1. How long did it take you to solve this sudoku puzzle? (You can see the answer at the end of this section.)

Here is another popular type of puzzle that challenges your spatial reasoning skills. Connect all nine dots with four connecting straight lines without lifting your pencil from the paper:

A square shaped outline contains three rows and three columns of dots with equal space between them.

Figure 2. Did you figure it out? (The answer is at the end of this section.) Once you understand how to crack this puzzle, you won’t forget.

Take a look at the “Puzzling Scales” logic puzzle below (Figure 3). Sam Loyd, a well-known puzzle master, created and refined countless puzzles throughout his lifetime (Cyclopedia of Puzzles, n.d.).

A puzzle involving a scale is shown. At the top of the figure it reads: “Sam Loyds Puzzling Scales.” The first row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with 3 blocks and a top on the left and 12 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “Since the scales now balance.” The next row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with just the top on the left, and 1 block and 8 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “And balance when arranged this way.” The third row shows an unbalanced scale with the top on the left side, which is much lower than the right side. The right side is empty. Below this row it reads: “Then how many marbles will it require to balance with that top?”

Figure 3. The puzzle reads, “Since the scales now balance…and balance when arranged this way, then how many marbles will it require to balance with that top?

Try It


algorithm: problem-solving strategy characterized by a specific set of instructions
heuristic: mental shortcut that saves time when solving a problem
problem-solving strategy: method for solving problems
trial and error: problem-solving strategy in which multiple solutions are attempted until the correct one is found
working backwards: heuristic in which you begin to solve a problem by focusing on the end result


Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More