Principles for teaching problem solving

Quick take
List of ways to help students learn problem solving.

Technical Paper #4

Jamie Kirkley, Indiana University


1) For any “real-world” job or work skill, identify both the declarative and procedural knowledge components. Give each appropriate instructional emphasis.

2) First introduce a problem solving context, then either alternate between teaching declarative and procedural knowledge, or integrate the two.

3) When teaching declarative knowledge, emphasize mental models appropriate to the problem solving to come, by explaining knowledge structures and asking learners to predict what will happen or explain why something happened.

4) Emphasize moderately- and ill-structured problem solving when far transfer is a goal of instruction.

5) Teach problem solving skills in the context in which they will be used. Use authentic problems in explanations, practice and assessments, with scenario-based simulations, games and projects. Do not teach problem solving as an independent, abstract, decontextualized skill.

6) Use direct (deductive) teaching strategies for declarative knowledge and well structured problem solving.

7) Use inductive teaching strategies to encourage synthesis of mental models and for moderately and ill-structured problem solving.

8) Within a problem exercise, help the learners understand (or define) the goal, then help them to break it down into intermediate goals.

9) Use the errors learners make in problem solving as evidence of misconceptions, not just carelessness or random guessing. If possible, determine the probable misconception and correct it.

10) Ask questions and make suggestions about strategy to encourage learners to reflect on the problem solving strategies they use. Do this either before or after the learner takes action. (This is sometimes called cognitive coaching).

11) Give practice of similar problem solving strategies across multiple contexts to encourage generalization

12) Ask questions which encourage the learner to encourage the learner to grasp the generalizable part of the skill, across many similar problems in different contexts.

13) Use contexts, problems and teaching styles which will build interest, motivation, confidence, persistence and knowledge about self, and reduce anxiety.

14) Plan a series of lessons which grow in sophistication from novice-level to expert-level understanding of the knowledge structures used.

15) When teaching well-structured problem solving, allow learners to retrieve it (e.g., from a reference card). If the procedure is frequently used, encourage memorization of the procedure and practice until it is automatic.

16) When teaching moderately-structured problem solving, encourage the learners to use their declarative (context) knowledge to invent a strategy which suits the context and the problem. Allow many “right” strategies to reach the solution, and compare them for efficiency and effectiveness.

17) When teaching ill-structured problem solving, encourage the learners to use their declarative (context) knowledge to define the goal (properties of an acceptable solution), then invent a solution. Allow many “right” strategies and solutions, and compare them for efficiency and effectiveness.