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Pedagogical Development Office

Teaching Tip: Basic Problem Solving

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In all disciplines, we rely on problem solving skills, and it’s often helpful to remind students how to apply these skills to new areas. Start with a simple example that you solve together, or divide the class into groups and have them go through the process, taking note of their considerations and decisions at each step.


Step 1: Understand and Clarify the Problem

  1. Present the problem to students and ask them to identify:
    a. Key verbs: what are they being asked to do (i.e. solve, calculate, explain, hypothesise, compare, etc.)?
    b. Key concepts and laws: what do they need to know before they can solve the problem?
    If students seem unclear on the task, ask them to rephrase the question in their own words.


 Step 2: Analyse and Organise the Information Provided

  1. Ask students to identify the knowns and unknowns of the problem.
  2. Have students identify what kind of solution they are looking for.
  3. Encourage students to organize the information visually, using concept maps, schematics, diagrams, lists, or tables.

 Step 3: Discuss Possible Strategies

  1. Ask students to use prior knowledge to identify any basic concepts or laws and the associated equations that may be relevant to solving the problem. Accept all strategies at this point.

 Step 4: Apply the Strategies to Solve the Problem

  1. As a class, or in small groups, have students apply the identified concepts, laws, or equations to solve the problem.

 Step 5: Examine the Different Strategies and Solutions

  1. Discuss the different strategies and solutions found. Are they equivalent?
  2. Have students list reasons why some strategies or solutions might be preferable to others.

 Step 6: Select the Best Solution

  1. Select the “best” solution and discuss why it’s the best. Remind students that even when starting with basic principles, there are usually several ways to reach the same solution.

Pedagogical Development Office
Vanier College