Learning problem-solving skills

Inukshuk: meaning ‘in the likeness of a human’ in the Inuit language. A traditional symbol meaning ‘someone was here’ or ‘you are on the right path’.

One definition of engineering given in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘the action of working artfully to bring something about’.  This action usually requires creative problem-solving which is a common skill possessed by all engineers regardless of their field of specialisation.  In many universities, students acquire this skill though solving example problems set by their instructors and supported by example classes and, or tutorials.

In my lectures, I solve example problems in class using a pen and paper combined with a visualiser and then give the students a set of problems to solve themselves.  The answers but not the solutions are provided; so that students know when they have arrived at the correct answer but not how to get there.  Students find this difficult and complain because I am putting the emphasis on their learning of problem-solving skills which requires considerable effort by them.  There are no short-cuts – it’s a process of deep-learning [see ‘Deep long-term learning’ on April 18th, 2018].

Research shows that students tend to jump into algebraic manipulation of equations whereas experts experiment to find the best approach to solving a problem.  The transition from student to skilled problem-solver requires students to become comfortable with the slow and uncertain process of creating representations of the problem and exploring the possible approaches to the solution [Martin & Schwartz, 2014].  And, it takes extensive practice to develop these problem-solving skills [Martin & Schwartz, 2009].  For instance, it is challenging to persuade students to sketch a representation of the problem that they are trying to solve [see ‘Meta-representational competence’ on May 13th, 2015].  Working in small groups with a tutor or a peer-mentor is an effective way of supporting students in acquiring these skills.  However, it is important to ensure that the students are engaged in the problem-solving so that the tutor acts as consultant or a guide who is not directly involved in solving the problem but can give students confidence that they are on the right path.

[Footnote: a visualiser is the modern equivalent of an OverHead Projector (OHP) which instead of projecting optically uses a digital camera and projector.  It’s probably deserves to be on the Mindset List since it is one of those differences between a professor’s experience as a student and our students’ experience [see ‘Engineering idiom’ on September 12th, 2018]].


Martin L & Schwartz DL, A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking, Visual Studies, 29(1):80-93, 2014.

Martin L & Schwartz DL, Prospective adaptation in the use of external representations, Cognition and Instruction, 27(4):370-400, 2009.


CALE #9 [Creating A Learning Environment: a series of posts based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell and Eann Patterson in the USA supported by NSF and the UK supported by HEA] – although this post is based on an introduction to tutorials given to new students and staff at the University of Liverpool in 2015 & 2016.

Photo: ILANAAQ_Whistler by NordicLondon (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/25408600@N00/189300958/

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