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Problem solving

As a student you are likely to be involved with a wide range of activities on campus, at work, in your home and with your friends. At times during these activities challenges or problems will arise. Often you would resolve these automatically, however sometimes you may experience a significant problem which you find difficult to solve as quickly or as automatically as you may under other circumstances.

The aim of this resource is to assist you to develop the skills you need to become an effective problem solver when facing challenging or difficult situations.

What is problem solving?

Problem solving is a process and skill that you develop over time to be used when needing to solve immediate problems in order to achieve a goal.

A seven-step problem solving cycle

There are many different ways to solve a problem, however all ways involve a series of steps.

The following is a seven-step problem solving model:

Diagram showing the 7 seven step problem solving cycle


Step 1. Identify the problem

Firstly you need to identify and name the problem so that you can find an appropriate solution. You may not be clear of what the problem is or feel anxious/confused about what is getting in the way of your goals. Try talking to others, as this may help you identify the problem.

Step 2. Explore the problem

When you are clear about what the problem is you need to think about from different angles. You can ask yourself questions such as:

Seeing the problem in different ways is likely to help you find an effective solution.

Step 3. Set goals

Once you have thought about the problem from different angles you can identify your goals. What is it that you want to achieve? Sometimes you may become frustrated by a problem and forget to think about what you want to achieve. For example, you might become ill, struggle to complete a number of assignments on time and feel so unmotivated that you let due dates pass.

If you decide your goal is to improve your health, that will lead to different solutions to those linked with the goal of completing your assignments as soon as possible. One goal may lead you to a doctor and another may lead you to apply for extensions for your assignments. So working out your goals is a vital part of the problem solving process.

Step 4. Look at Alternatives

When you have decided what your goal/s is you need to look for possible solutions. The more possible solutions you find the more likely it is that you will be able to discover an effective solution. You can brain-storm for ideas. The purpose of brain-storming is to collect together a long list of possibilities. It does not matter whether the ideas are useful or practical or manageable: just write down the ideas as they come into your head. Some of the best solutions arise from creative thinking during brain-storming. You can also seek ideas about possible solutions by talking to others. The aim is to collect as many alternative solutions as possible.

Step 5. Select a possible solution

From the list of possible solutions you can sort out which are most relevant to your situation and which are realistic and manageable. You can do this by predicting the outcomes for possible solutions and also checking with other people what they think the outcomes may be. When you have explored the consequences, you can use this information to identify the solution which is most relevant to you and is likely to have the best outcomes for your situation.

Step 6. Implement a possible solution

Once you have selected a possible solution you are ready to put it into action. You will need to have energy and motivation to do this because implementing the solution may take some time and effort. You can prepare yourself to implement the solution by planning when and how you will do it, whether you talk with others about it, and what rewards you will give yourself when you have done it.

Step 7. Evaluate

Just because you have implemented the best possible solution, you may not have automatically solved your problem, so evaluating the effectiveness of your solution is very important. You can ask yourself (and others) :

If the solution was successful in helping you solve your problem and reach your goal, then you know that you have effectively solved your problem. If you feel dissatisfied with the result, then you can begin the steps again.

When to use problem solving

You can problem solve anytime you experience a challenge or have a goal to achieve. You can use the problem solving model to look for solutions to concerns connected with your study or other aspects of your life. You can take the problem solving steps by yourself, with a friend or others. Problem solving with others is often very effective because you have access to a wide variety of viewpoints and potential solutions. The problem solving model is a useful resource for you to utilise in all aspects of your life and when dealing with challenging situations.

If you require further assistance, please make an appointment with a Counsellor at the Learning and Teaching Unit.

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