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Teaching problem solving

In many teaching situations, TAs are responsible for helping students solve problems in their disciplines. Whatever the instructional setting you are in, the basic strategy for addressing problems remains similar. First, explain principles in your discipline for assessing a situation and making sense of the given information. Then, explain how to apply these general principles to a particular problem. Whether the discipline is Political Science or Engineering, the problem solver must first represent the problem and then devise and implement a strategy for solution.


The purpose of the representation step is to help students organize the data, define the problem and identify key issues. In this phase, you might ask students to:

  • frame the problem in their own words
  • define key terms and concepts
  • determine statements that accurately represent the givens of a problem
  • identify analogous problems
  • determine what information is needed to solve the problem

In the solution phase, one develops and then implements a coherent plan for solving the problem. As you help students with this phase, you might ask them to:

  • identify the general model or procedure they have in mind for solving the problem
  • set sub-goals for solving the problem
  • identify necessary operations and steps
  • draw conclusions
  • carry out necessary operations

In all cases, the more you get the students to articulate their own understandings of the problem and potential solutions, the more you can help them develop their expertise in approaching problems in your discipline.


A few different ways you can introduce a problem to students include:

  • demonstrate a problem solution by systematically explaining each step and its rationale
  • ask the students how they would approach solving the problem
  • ask the students to help you solve the problem by posing questions at key points in the process
  • have the students work together in small groups (3 to 5 students) to solve the problem and then have the solution presented to the rest of the class (either by you or by a student in the group)