If you don’t believe yourself to be a very good problem solver in some area, it could be that you lack the requisite knowledge, skills or intelligence, but when it comes to uni work, it is quite likely that there is some other barrier or barriers to your success. To overcome any possible barriers, it is first useful to identify what they might be, and some common barriers are listed below. Once you have identified any that might apply to you, look back on the Problem solving skills page for some possible solutions.

  • While many novices think they lack the requisite knowledge and skills, in many cases the problem is in fact that they have trouble identifying and activating the relevant knowledge that they do have. When this is the issue, organising and reviewing relevant knowledge prior to problem solving as explained on the Problem solving skills page can be a big help.
  • A lack of experience with how to go about solving problems.

    One example here is waiting until you know what to do before putting pen to paper (which may never eventuate), when in fact it is often the case that you need to start writing things down, even if you don't know what to do with those things, in order for some ideas on how to get started to get triggered.
  • A belief that you either know how to do something or you don't, and that if you don't there's not much point trying beyond a few minutes.
  • Lack of confidence that you can solve problems if you just try hard enough and for long enough (note that it can take novices a long time to "find" all the knowledge they need to solve a problem).
  • Seeing errors as indicating incompetence rather than just an inevitable and necessary part of learning or as possible guides to the correct approach. (Note that Einstein made lots of "mistakes" on his route to developing his general theory of relativity, but used what he learned from those "mistakes" to hone in on the correct theory.)
  • Going with the first solution approach which pops into your head rather than first trying to determine what the possible options might be.

    Calculus example

  • Trying to make one's first approach work when the evidence is that it doesn't rather than scrapping the approach and trying something different. (The challenge here is to try to determine the difference between giving up too early and persevering too long. See the nine dot problem below for an example of this.

    Nine dot problem


    Check out the solution to the nine dot problem.