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What is Problem Solving?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Problem solving is a complex cognitive process where people identify problems and develop methods for resolving them. While humans are known for being problem solvers, many animals are capable of this process as well, at least on some level. Learning about the level of ability a person has can provide more information about cognition and higher-order thinking processes. People use problem solving skills on a daily basis and in a variety of settings.

A “problem” can be anything from a set of equations on someone's math homework to a challenge in the workplace. The first step in the process involves identifying, describing, and exploring the problem to learn more about it. Young children may require more time to do this, as their brains have not yet learned to recognize common patterns they might encounter in life. As the problem is analyzed, people can start to explore solution methods that may be effective, eventually developing a plan of action for attacking the problem. If the plan is not successful, a new plan needs to be developed.

This particular cognitive ability can require diverse skill sets, depending on the type of problem. Analytical reasoning skills are important, as are things like pattern recognition and matching and memory recall. Some approaches to education involve presenting people with problems and encouraging them to solve them, with the goal of teaching students while developing cognitive abilities. In a language class, for instance, the teacher might only provide instruction in a foreign language, forcing students to adapt and compensate as the lessons progress, gradually acquiring language skills in the process.

Some cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities can interfere with problem solving. People may have problems with executive function, finding it hard to organize their thoughts for the purpose of managing a problem. Others may not be able to acquire new skills, or could have trouble retaining and developing skills to handle more complex problems. These individuals will be able to resolve issues up to a certain point, but may not experience an increase in their abilities as they grow older.

Parents who want to develop these skills in their children to prepare them for school, as well as future success, can use a number of tactics. Many children's toys require some amount of problem solving skills and reward children both for correct solutions and for increases in speed when it comes to solving problems. Things like reading to children to develop language skills can also help children develop analytical skills, as well as the ability to identify, differentiate, and describe things.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Sep 15, 2013

I want my daughter to have great analytical skills. I think these skills are necessary regardless of what one does with their life. My daughter is only four, but I'm already buying toys that teach her problem solving among other things.

When I was growing up, we didn't have access to educational toys like this and I think my analytical and creative problem solving aren't very well developed for this reason. I want my daughter to do better.

By bluedolphin — On Sep 14, 2013

@alisha-- Yes, I think that can be considered problem solving.

I watched a show about this on TV recently and it showed how chimpanzees, birds, elephants and even dolphins can solve problems.

For example, they were giving the animals food in a closed container and they had to use some kind of tool to open the container. The monkeys and birds were very good at this. You could actually see them analyzing the situation and trying different things to open the container. Cognitive skills are definitely well developed in some animals.

By discographer — On Sep 14, 2013

What type of problem solving strategies and skills are animals capable of?

My cat can open doors, is this considered problem solving?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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