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Key skills: making a difference
Key skills: making a difference

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8 Improving your skills in problem solving

8.1 Introduction to improving your skills in problem solving

This key skill develops your problem-solving skills in your studies, work or other activities over a period of time. To tackle this key skill, you will need to plan your work over at least 3–4 months to give yourself enough time to practise and improve your skills, to seek feedback from others, and to monitor your progress and evaluate your strategy.

Problem solving runs through many other activities and, rather like the key skill ‘Improving own learning and performance’, it can be thought as a ‘metaskill’ – something that helps you plan, choose, use and adapt the specific skills you need to tackle effectively a particular problem. The key skill of problem solving supports you in planning, monitoring and evaluating a range of problem-solving strategies and techniques.

What is defined as a problem tends to depend on the particular context in which it is framed. In mathematics, for example, problems may often be well defined and have particular solutions which can be assessed by commonly agreed methods. In other areas, however, particularly where different people, perspectives and values are brought together, agreeing the boundaries of a problem and how it might be tackled – or even whether there is a problem at all – can be difficult.

In a broader sense, sometimes problems are better not seen as things to be ‘solved’, but as contexts for focusing ideas and stimulating further investigation or discussion. Framing an issue appropriately – identifying why it is a problem, stressing the factors that might have a bearing on it, and outlining what an acceptable resolution might look like – then becomes a central activity. From this perspective, problems are seen as significant questions for negotiation and enquiry, not as solvable puzzles for which there is a single, unambiguous correct answer.

Using problem-solving skills, therefore, is not a question of simply selecting a well-defined problem, choosing a particular procedure to deal with it, and then coming up with a solution. It is about people understanding the context in which they are working, recognising a gap between the present situation and what is desirable, and then being able to move strategically towards their goal.

Being strategic means breaking down an overall goal into sub-goals and reducing a problem to manageable chunks which can then be solved individually and then moving forward. However, there is no guarantee that any particular set of sub-goals will work. The trick is to try to choose those sub-goals that will simplify the problem, and avoid those that will make it worse. The key skill of problem solving aims to raise your awareness of this process.

Improving your skills involves planning how you will frame, explore and simplify your problem area, as well as finding out about the tools and techniques you might use. You will also need to apply, practise and review your skills, using feedback from others to help you think about your progress in relation to your goals. Standing back and reviewing the stages in your work helps you develop a mental picture of ‘how far’ you are from your goals, and what you could do to reduce that distance. Finally, evaluating your strategy and presenting outcomes gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your problem-solving skills, and to assess how successful your strategy was in achieving what you set out to do.