4 Ways to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

The ability to problem-solve is indispensable. As you move forward with your education, it will prove to be an invaluable asset not only as you study for entrance exams and unit tests, but also in college and beyond, when you launch your career.

When you set out to solve a problem, you are essentially defining a question in need of a solution. Whether you solve that problem ultimately depends upon your ability to ask the right question and to take the necessary steps to find the most sensible solution.

Of course, problem-solving is not always straightforward. Often, it requires a great deal of insight and critical thinking to imagine possible solutions, while it takes creativity and decisiveness to implement the best solution. Learning when and how to employ these qualities involves discretion, but acquiring such skills can also be the key difference between acing and flunking an exam. Here are four ways to improve your problem-solving skills: 

1. Learn how to identify the problem

On tests, a significant amount of time is wasted when a student is unsure what the problem is about. Occasionally, the source of an incorrect answer is rooted not in misinformation, but rather in misunderstanding. When preparing to solve a problem, ensure you are certain of two things: its scope (what is the question truly asking?) and its limits (what is the question not asking?). You can then move on to defining the problem. Here are some great tips to help you identify your study style.

One way to define a problem is to rephrase the question. If you are dealing with a word problem whose sentences are long and convoluted, it may be helpful to break it into shorter, clearer portions. It may also be useful to mentally rearrange the word order so it makes sense to you. If you choose to do so, take care to avoid losing the original meaning. Correctly identifying a problem takes reading comprehension. To sharpen your reading comprehension skills, practice asking yourself questions when you read like, “Can I summarize this paragraph in two sentences?”

2. Draw connections

Once you have determined the correct question, you can then find the right answer. This can be a multi-step process. For instance, on a math test, you may encounter a complex problem that you have never encountered before. Instead of skipping it, assess whether there is any part of the question that resembles a math problem you have solved in the past. Break it into simpler steps, then think each through. Math is more than just memorizing formulas and functions and making calculations—much of math depends upon numerical reasoning and logic. As a result, to improve your problem-solving skills, sharpen your reasoning skills. You may be surprised by the results.

3. Develop good habits

To master any skill, you must first practice. Practice independently or with a mentor, like a tutor. Challenge yourself to practice problems in an area that is difficult for you. Here are a few of the best study habits for students. If solving antonym/synonym questions is simple, see if you can answer reading questions just as quickly. Or if algebra is your strong suit, perhaps you should devote more time to geometry. 

Solving such problems over and over again will help you strengthen pathways in your brain so you can do them again later—this time, more quickly. Complete practice tests. Complete problem-solving exercises. Time yourself to see if you improve. Eventually, logical solutions will present themselves more readily to you, until solving problems feels like second nature.

4. Fuel your brain power

Your brain is like an engine. It is powerful, quick, and it can go far. However, without proper fuel, it will not function well. Do not underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep and eating well. Your brain and your body go hand-in-hand. To perform at your best mentally, you also need to take care of yourself physically.

You may be surprised to learn that problem-solving skills depend on logical reasoning. The rational thinking that is required to solve problems involves a mentality that can be applied to many different scenarios. Strengthen your ability to think clearly and to identify strategies. In the end, you will have a skill set that is not only vital, but will also point you to real solutions.