Problem Solving

In the previous section there were some general tips in regards to homework sets as a whole.  Here are some tips to help you actually work the problems.  Note that some of the ideas were important enough that they are actually in both sections.

  • Read the Problem.  Read the problem to get an idea of what you’re being asked to do.  This one of the biggest sources of point loss that I’ve seen in grading.  Too many students just skim the problem and assume they know what’s going on and what they are being asked to do.
  • Read the Problem Again.  Now that you know what you’re being asked to do, read the problem again.  This time around make note of what you are given and what you need to find.  Also make sure that you understand just what you’re being asked to do.
  • Clearly Note What You Are Asked to Find.  Clearly write down somewhere what you’re being asked to find.
  • Clearly Note What You Know.  Clearly write down somewhere all the information you’ve been given.
  • Draw a Diagram.  If appropriate draw a diagram and label what you know and what you need to find.  Often diagrams will suggest the solution technique, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of drawing them.
  • Devise a Plan.  Try to figure out what you’re going to need to work the problem.   Identify formulas that may help you.  See if there are any intermediate steps/answers that will be needed in order to arrive at the final answer.
  • Work a Similar Problem.  If you can’t figure out how to work the problem find a similar problem that is simpler.  Work this then go back and compare what you did in the simpler problem to the problem you’re asked to do.
  • Work the Plan.  Once you’ve got the plan, work it out to get the answer.
  • Check Your Solution.  Is the answer in proper form?  Does your answer make sense?  If possible, plug your answer back into the original problem as a check.
  • Go Back Over the Problem.  Once you’re satisfied that you’ve got the correct answer go back over the problem.  Identify concepts/methods/formulas that were used for the problem.  Try to understand why these concepts/methods/formulas were used on this problem. Look for identifying characteristics that will help you identify this kind of problem in the future.

Here is a great problem solving flow chart by Eric Austin (a Mechanical Engineer from Clemson University). This flow chart really encompasses all the ideas here in a nice easy to remember process!

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