Problem Solving

Every semester I get frustrated emails from students containing the phrase, “I just spent ____ hours on this and couldn’t figure it out.” Here’s a short excerpt that I usually include with my reply:


I can sure understand how frustrating it is to do something without success for so many hours. But, next time something like this happens, and after the first half hour, stop and ask for help, do something different, or find another resource. It depends on the problem but, normally if you are spending more than a half hour trying to solve a problem than your problem-solving skills need some work.

Here’s a checklist that will help you build up your problem-solving skills and hopefully speed your way to solutions:

  1. Stay focused. Don’t try to multi-task. Behavioral scientistists have proven that trying to do multiple things at once makes all of the tasks suffer.
  2. Simplify the problem. Web page not changing? Try typing in some odd letters (XYZ) in the middle of the page to see if they display. If they don’t you might have been spending the last hour typing in one file and looking at another!
  3. Keep track of what you have tried. Write it down so you aren’t repeating the same thing over and over and over. Be organized and consistent on how you look for a solution. Don’t just shotgun things over and over and over.
  4. After each failure try something different. If one combination doesn’t work think of something different to do. (Use number keys instead of number pad, check caps lock, type out the password in a simple editor to see the results…)
  5. Google is your friend Do a web search with the error message or a short phrase so you can see if others have had a similar problem.
  6. Think about the problem differently. Maybe what is broken is something completely separate from what you are focused on! Think of what else might be causing the problem.
  7. Go do something else or take a short nap After a set period of time, stop what you are doing and do something else. I usually give myself 1/2 hour to an hour depending on the problem.) Go take a shower, or sit down with a cup of tea, coffee, or pop and sit quietly, go take a 15 minute nap. Let other alternative solutions come to mind and then jot them down. Don’t force them, they will run away like minnows in a clear pool. Set a time limit for this activity. You should have 3 or 4 alternative things to do in 15 minutes of sitting quietly.

    No, playing video games does not count here. That just focuses you on other problems that may be more interesting (at the moment) to solve.

  8. Imagine what the solution or success looks like. If you don’t believe something will work, it probably won’t.

Photo from iStockPhoto.com. I tell my Java students that this is what the Java compiler looks like :-)

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