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What is Problem Solving?

What is Problem Solving?

Problem solving is a complex mental activity that involves cognitive skills and actions to first identify the problem; analyse and evaluate the problem by applying prior experience and knowledge in the process in order to derive the most practical and fitting solution.
Chan, CKY (2021)

Some definitions of problem solving in the literature include:

Problem solving is the process of constructing and applying mental representations of problems to finding solutions to those problems that are encountered in nearly every context (Jonassen & Hung, 2012, p. 1).

Problem solving is defined as a process, used to obtain a best answer to an unknown, or a decision subject to some constraints (Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee, 2004, p. 1).


Are You a Strong Problem Solver?

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According to Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee (2004), a good problem solver has the following characteristics:

  • They are strong at identifying problems;

  • They can analyse and evaluate the problem thoroughly;

  • They are able to apply prior experience and knowledge in the problem solving process, and be flexible in the process even if it involves some trials and errors; and 

  • They can solve problems according to the plan or process after careful consideration of multiple perspectives.

Are You a Strong Problem Solver?

Are You a Strong Problem Solver?
Why is Problem Solving Important?

Why is Problem Solving Important?

The importance of problem solving, especially in the workplace, has been validated for years in many studies. Problem solving is regarded as an essential competency for any employees. According to Elger, Armstrong, Beyerlein, Felicione, Fulcher, Rousseau (2001), problem solving competency is imperative to the success in workplace. Therefore, graduates are expected to well-develop their problem solving competency in higher education before starting their first career.  According to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (2021), problem solving is important because:

  • With good problem solving competency, your other competencies such as creativity, resilience, etc. can also be revealed;

  • Problem solving competency is vital for your professional and lifelong development;

  • With good problem solving competency, one is regarded as a valuable assets in the team;

  • Those with good problem solving competency are usually proactive thinker as well; and 

  • It is essential to have problem solving competency if you want to advance your career more quickly.

How is Problem Solving Developed?

How is Problem Solving Developed?

Because of the importance of problem solving, it is essential for students to develop their problem solving competency. However, as problems are different under various contexts, there is not a standardized methodology that can be best fit for all contexts. In light of this, we narrow down to a specific context, the engineering context, before introducing a possible methodology.

Wood's Process of Problem Solving

The methodology adopted by Wood, with reference to the Professional Decision making (PDM) model (Elger, Armstrong, Beyerlein, Felicione, Fulcher, Rousseau, 2001) is specifically designed for the engineering context for problem solving. It includes six stages after engaging the problem. They are as follow:


Wood's Process of Problem Solving

Applying Wood's Process of Problem Solving in Teaching

Based on Wood’s Problem Solving Process Model, Wood and colleagues (1975) recommended ways in which problem solving skills can be taught at each stage in the model.

Stage 1: Define the Problem

In this stage, there are several things that teachers can do to guide students in defining the problem. Teachers can first guide students to read the problem statement and interpret useful information. Afterwards, students need to identify what exactly the problem is, the relevant knowledge that requires to solve the problem, as well as the unknown. Then, teachers also need to instruct students identify the implied constraints in the problem. Furthermore, teachers will guide students to think about what a logical answer should be for the specific problem. 

Stage 2: Explore the Problem

In this stage, teachers can guide students to develop a mental image regarding the problem they are solving. Students should have determined what background knowledge is needed in order to solve the problems. Teacher will also encourage students to start information collection that helps to solve the problem in this stage.

Stage 3: Plan a Solution

In this stage, teachers can guide students to consider all possible strategies for solving the problem. Teacher can also help students to select the best strategy for the problem and remind students the answers that students are supposed to find.

Stage 4: Carry out the Plan

Teacher can remind students to be patient and persistent while carrying out the plan. This is because we do not generally solve problems on the first attempt and therefore, teachers will need to be the one to encourage students to try solving the problem with another strategy (Woods, Wright, Hoffman, Swartman & Doig, 1975).

Stage 5 & 6: Check the Solution & Evaluate / Reflect

When students ultimately reach a solution, this is not the end. Teachers can further prompt students to reflect on whether the answers obtained correctly or effectively answer the problem or not, as well as whether they are logical or not. Teachers also need to encourage students to reflect on their learning experience regarding the problem solving process, as well as if there are more alternatives for solving the problem.

Demonstrating Wood’s Problem Solving Process in a Classroom Setting

To demonstrate how this methodology is used, Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee (2004) has provided several examples, in which “open-ended problems from fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and heat transfer” (p. 2) are studied. Here, we use the fluid mechanics problem as an example.

In Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee (2004)’s example, students need to solve the problem in the given scenario by deciding whether the individual in the scenario is going to walk or run in the rain from the building and get into the car. The condition is that students need to find the best way that can save the clothes of the individual from getting wet. Applying the methodology introduced above, students starts by defining the criterion of the scenario (the amount of water for the clothes to absorb under both options). Then, they explore the problem by examining the issues and make assumptions for parameters (e.g. the rain droplet volume) in the problem that may affect the problem solving process. Afterwards, they start planning the solution by generating the relevant equations to calculate the amount of water that the clothes will absorb under two options (run or walk). After formulating the equation, students implement the equation by substituting the assumed values into the equation. The next step is then to check whether the calculations of the equations are accurate or not, as well as whether the units are correct or not. Finally, students check if the answers they obtain from the equation is reasonable or not. Through the answers, students revise assumptions to obtain answers that are more reasonable.

For more details about the examples above, or if you are interested in reading other examples about how students make use of the methodology introduced to solve problems, you may refer to the Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee (2004)’s literature.

How Should I Assess Problem Solving?

How Should I Assess Problem Solving?

Similar to the development of problem solving competency, the assessment of problem solving is not standardized as well because of the complexity of the problems, especially for ill-structured problems. There are different ways to assess students’ problem solving skills, and here are examples of some assessments which have been implemented.

Case Studies

Computing Professional Skills Assessment (CPSA)

The case study introduced is conducted by Danaher & Schoepp (2020), using Computing Professional Skills Assessment (CPSA) as the assessment method.  This is an assessment method that enable six learning outcomes to be assessed, including problem solving, continuing learning, teamwork, communication, computing impacts, as well as legal, security and ethical aspects. This assessment instrument applies “a scenario-based asynchronous discussion board to assess student groups’ ability to problem solve” (p. 2). All the scenarios in the discussion board are ill-structured workplace problems.


Examples of Assessment Approaches for Problem Solving

As stated by Danaher & Schoepp (2020), the purposes of the research include (1) to investigate in how prevalent problem solving is within the discussions in CPSA (2) investigate in how problem solving competency are manifested based on the discussions in CPSA and (3) examine whether there are differences in how problem solving is manifested according to students’ year of study. For the assessment rubric, three criteria with six performance levels are assessed, including (1) problem identification, (2) recommendations for solutions and (3) stakeholder perspective. The study was conducted with all Emirati nationals, from different years (2nd, 3rd, 4th and master). For undergraduate samples, all are females aging from 18 to 24. While for master students, there is a mixture of samples in terms of gender, all ages 24 to 35.

This research demonstrates how the assessment method, CPSA, is effectively applied to assess problem solving. The results show that students’ level of problem solving is increased year by year (from 2nd year till master’s levels), although they did not meet the desired performance level. Senior students, especially those studying masters involve more and perform better when being assessed with their problem solving competency. One main factor for master students to perform better is because of their working experience, which allows them to better identify a problem in different perspectives. With the results assessed, this research proposes that a revision of curriculum to a more problem-based one should be considered. More integration of ill-structured problem solving should be conducted in the computing curriculum to satisfy the demand of workplace in the 21st century (Danaher & Schoepp, 2020). Students should be trained early on how to deal with ill-structured and open-ended problems.

Stealth Assessment

Apart from CPSA, another assessment method is stealth assessment. In a research conducted by Shute & Emihovich (2018), they explained howproblem solving can be assessed through stealth assessment in a game-based immersive environment. The problem solving stealth assessment is developed by Shute, Wang, Greiff, Zhao & Moore (2016) and is embedded in the game, Use Your Brainz. In this example, a four-facet problem solving competency model is developed. Associating with the four-facets, 32 observable indicators are delineated after repeatedly game playing and reviewing expert solutions. The indicators are then classified into separate scoring categories before establishing statistical relationships “between each indicator and the associated levels of the competency model variables” (p. 642).

Assessments of Problem Solving in the Workplace Setting

Similar to the assessments of problem solving in higher education, the problem solving competency of graduates are always assessed by their employers as well. As stated by Targetjobs (2021), employers apply different assessment methods such as competency-based interview questions, hypothetical interview questions, as well as problem solving tests or exercises (e.g.: ability test, game-based recruitment tests, case study exercises, etc.) to assess job candidates’ problem solving competency. If you are interested to know more on the researches mentioned, please visit the further reading session.

Further Readings

For further examples about developing problem solving or even the challenges that hinder the development of problem solving, you can refer to the following references:

  • Defining, teaching, and assessing problem solving skills - written by Nikos J Mourtos, Nicole Okamoto and J. Rhee​

  • Developing Problem Solving Skills: The McMaster Problem Solving Program - written by Donald R. Woods et al.

For more examples of assessing problem solving, you can refer to the following references:

  • Assessing problem solving skills in game-based immersive environments - written by Benjamin Emihovich and Valerie J. Shute

  • Assessment Strategies for Enhancing Students’ Mathematical Problem solving Skills: A Review of Literature - written by Fidele Ukobizaba, Gabriel Nizeyimana and Angel Mukuka

Further Readings


Danaher, M., & Schoepp, K. (2020). Effective Assessment of Workplace Problem Solving in Higher Education. Journal of Information Technology Education, 19. 1-16.

Elger, D. F., Armstrong, T. R., Beyerlein, S. W., Felicione, C. F., Fulcher, K. J., & Rousseau, P. W. (2001). A structured problem solving model for developing high-level skills. age, 6, 2.

Jonassen, D. H. (2014). Assessing problem solving. Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, 269-288. Springer, New York, NY.

Jonassen, D. H., & Hung, W. (2012). Problem Solving. Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA.

Mourtos, N. J., Okamoto, N. D., & Rhee, J. (2004). Defining, teaching, and assessing problem solving skills. In 7th UICEE Annual Conference on Engineering Education. 1-5.

Shute, V. J., Wang, L., Greiff, S., Zhao, W., & Moore, G. (2016). Measuring problem solving skills via stealth assessment in an engaging video game. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 106-117.

Shute, V. J., & Emihovich, B. (2018). Assessing problem solving skills in game-based immersive environments. Second handbook of information technology in primary and secondary education, 635-648.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. (2021). Problem Solving. Retrieved from:

Woods, D.R., Wright, J.D., Hoffman, T.W., Swartman, R.K., Doig, I.D. (1975). Teaching Problem solving Skills. Engineering Education, 1(1). 238.

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