10 Modeling Problem Solving

We’ve discussed in previous chapters how part of a tutor’s task is to model good learning habits. When tutors are organized, use good time management, and leverage resources, we demonstrate the skills that students can use to be successful learners.

Problem-solving is an additional skill that tutors model for students. An organized and- intentional problem-solving approach helps us to efficiently work through challenges, and many of us effectively problem solve without much thought given to our approach.1 However, it makes sense to take a step back and do our best to model problem-solving best-practices. Remember that repeated demonstration of a tutor’s problem-solving strategies can help students learn from our example.

We know the tutor’s role is not to solve a student’s problem for them. How do we model good problem-solving, without actually solving the problem ourselves? It’s tricky, but not impossible. We can empower students to work their way through any problem by asking good questions and walking them through the steps of the process.

The Rational Problem-Solving Process

Problem-solving is something many of us have taught ourselves through practice. However, there are many scholars and professionals who have examined and broken down effective problem-solving strategies into a series of logical steps.2 We can check our own process by reflecting on what has been written about best-practices in problem-solving, and maybe make changes to be more consistent and effective. This can better prepare tutors to guide a student through the process when we apply it in a tutoring session.

Step 1: Define the Problem

It may seem obvious to state that the first step in solving a problem is to notice that we have a problem. Unless we take time to understand precisely what is wrong, however, we may find ourselves creating a solution that doesn’t actually fix anything. It’s very common to dive straight into devising a solution only to find that we’ve solved the wrong problem. Alternatively, we might develop a solution only to discover that the real problem is bigger than we thought.

A good practice for starting out is to try to define the problem in words. By writing or stating a problem definition, we’re challenged to identify the root cause, and this information can guide us in developing effective solutions.

In a tutoring session, sometimes the problem can take a variety of forms. The problem could be:

  • the literal problem given in a student’s homework assignment (a word problem in math, or a case study in biology, for example.)
  • a lack of clarity in assignment instructions.
  • the student not having a strategy for planning a project or starting a paper.
  • the student lacking confidence to tackle their homework or study independently

Keep in mind that the form the “problem” takes will change based on the student’s needs and goals. If the problem is that the student doesn’t understand something, the first step is to identify precisely what they don’t understand. If the problem is that something is missing, then understanding exactly what necessary parts are missing is the first step.

In a tutoring session this may mean asking the student to start the process, or begin describing the concept from the beginning, until they reach the point where things become unclear. Together, you can determine where the gaps are, and begin to develop a problem definition.

Step 2: Pull from Existing Knowledge

After we’ve identified and defined the problem, the next step is to ask ourselves what we already know about the situation. Take an inventory. What information do we already have? What can we learn from the context? What resources have we been given?

When working with a student, pulling from existing knowledge might involve reviewing the concepts already covered and the student’s existing knowledge of the course material. It may also mean reaching into material and experiences outside of the student’s course.

Some helpful questions to guide this step include:

  • What does the student know about topics related to the course material?
  • What experience might the student have from prior courses?
  • In what context might the student have heard these ideas discussed in their everyday lives or in popular culture?

When we encourage students to step back and really take account of everything they already know about the problem and its context, they can be surprised at how much knowledge they actually bring.

Step 3: Refer to support materials

Once we’ve pulled from the knowledge we already have, we can expand our search for supporting knowledge to outside resources. Are there reference materials we can access? Are there experts we can consult?

The first thing we can encourage students to do is to refer to their course texts, notes, study guides, and materials provided by the class instructor. These are often the best places to start because they’re most likely to provide relevant information. Once these resources have been referenced, we can also encourage students to look for information and guidance from other academic resources.

Students often forget that they can reference what others have written about their problem. Outside textbooks and supporting texts may offer similar ideas presented in a different way, and this could help the student approach the problem with new understanding or perspective. Online research and reference materials are good places to look for clarification of rules, theories, laws, formulas, processes, and examples. While these sources may not be quite as specific to a student’s class assignment, they can sometimes provide confirmation or clarity in areas where a student might need it.

Students should be made to feel free to leverage other academic supports as well. They are already leveraging one aspect of this support when they come to see a tutor. Other supports may include making use of the library or computer center, visiting their instructor’s office hours to ask questions, or even reaching out to other classmates. It’s always helpful for tutors to remind the student that these other supports are available and to encourage them to use these resources.

If a student is unsure or intimidated by contacting an instructor or a classmate, or is uncomfortable learning how to use other support resources, encouragement from a tutor can often be the nudge a student needs. Remind them of these supports and offer to help them access them where appropriate.

Step 4: Brainstorm Solutions

There’s usually more than one way to solve a problem, and it’s helpful to brainstorm multiple solutions to find the one that works best.

It’s important that tutors allow students to take an active role in developing their own solutions to the problem. This is where our Socratic questioning skills become really crucial and can help the students to apply what they know to the problem they’ve identified. The tutor’s role here is to facilitate the solution-generating process, contributing where appropriate, and helping to guide the student in a productive direction.

It is possible that the student will suggest a solution that we know will not solve the problem. Depending on the nature and scale of the problem, it may not always be appropriate for us to tell the student that we think it won’t work. Guiding the student through the problem-solving process is about helping students to engage with the process itself. That way, they can feel confident applying it on their own, even when a helpful tutor isn’t around to give hints. It’s up to each tutor in each situation to decide when it is appropriate to expedite the process by providing insights into solutions, and when it is best to allow students to test their solutions to determine their effectiveness.

Step 5: Test a Solution

Choose a solution and try it out. Maybe it will work! Maybe it doesn’t. Having a variety of solutions to try is why we brainstorm more than one. Though trial and error can sometimes feel frustrating, it is in the testing of our solutions that we often learn the most. We’re able to better understand the parts that work, the parts that don’t, and hopefully learn the reasons why. This can result in solutions that are more efficient and better suited to our needs.

Solution-testing is an opportunity for students to learn from mistakes in a safe, low-risk way. Often mistakes in class result in deducted points, a bad grade, or maybe an embarrassing moment in from t of classmates. As a guide through the problem-solving process, tutors can help students to see mistakes as necessary and helpful steps on the way to a solution that works, rather than as failures. It’s important that the tutor help the student see mistakes as progress, especially when a student becomes discouraged. This helps the student maintain a growth mindset while identifying ways to improve.

Step 6: Revising the Solution

When a solution doesn’t work, it may not mean the whole idea was bad. Maybe it needs some revisions and refining, but doesn’t always need to be discarded. We can use what we learned from solution-testing to make effective revisions.

This may mean we guide a student back to previous steps in the problem-solving process. Students may once more need to pull from existing knowledge, revisit those support materials, or look at some of the alternative solutions that the student developed.

Step 7: Revisit the Problem

We’ve got a solution that works! Did it fix our problem? If yes, then great!

Sometimes, however, a solution may “work,” without fixing our problem.

When this happens, we need to revisit the problem definition. Do we really understand it? Is there a detail we didn’t consider when developing our solutions? Did we misinterpret what the problem actually is when we crafted our problem definition?

At this point, perhaps we need to revise the solution once more. Sometimes in our process of researching and brainstorming, we can get off course, and taking time to refer to the initial problem can help us recalibrate our efforts and get us back on track.

Other times we may need re-define our problem. Perhaps after developing and testing several solutions, it becomes clear that the real problem is different than what we initially thought it was. Or perhaps our solutions address parts of the problem, but don’t get to the deeper root of the issue.

When a student has worked through the problem-solving process and still feels stuck, tutors can guide them to revisit the problem and clarify the initial goal. Returning to previous steps of the process as needed is normal and often necessary. Ensuring students that they’re still correctly applying the process, even when they need to jump back and forth between these steps, can help keep them from getting discouraged.

Quickwrite Exercise

Think back to a time you solved a problem in the past. It could be an obstacle you encountered in an academic setting (completing an assignment, researching for a paper, troubleshooting a technical problem) or in your personal life.

Take a moment to reflect:

  • Did you use pieces of the rational problem solving process, without knowing?
  • If you could go back and approach the problem again, how would you implement this problem solving approach? What would it look like? How would it have been different?

Facilitating the Problem-Solving Process

The rational problem-solving process is an excellent tool to help tutors guide students through problems big and small. This organized way of approaching the task can help us make sure we’re heading in a productive direction, from solving a math problem to developing a strategy to finish a research paper. How do we ensure we’re empowering students to use this process on their own?

It can be helpful to both tutors and students to use the process as a checklist during a problem-solving session. We can name each step as we move through, and make it clear to the student the purpose of each activity. This doesn’t mean we turn a session of math tutoring into a lesson on the problem-solving process, but explicitly stating the names of each step can make it clear to the student the purpose of each activity, and help them to become familiar with the process. If we “narrate” our process as we go, students can experience a guided problem-solving process during their tutoring session and be encouraged to apply it independently.

Once we’ve guided a student through the process, we can then provide opportunities for the student to take charge. We can prompt the student to move from step to step, supporting them in their problem-solving efforts along the way. This guided practice can help students to become well-versed in the process itself, and to feel more comfortable applying it independently.3

Something to Try

In your next session, when a student comes to you with a problem, use your Socratic questioning skills to walk the student through the problem solving process. (This may be something you’re already implementing naturally!)

Be deliberate about each step. Assist the student in defining the problem, guide the student to collect their existing knowledge, help the student pull from reference materials available, etc.

How does it work for you?

Practicing the Problem-Solving Process

Don’t forget, that while this process is an excellent tool for helping students to solve problems during a session, it can also help tutors to problem-solve during a session!

Perhaps you encounter a student faced with a problem you yourself don’t know how to solve. No worries! The problem-solving process works just the same.

We can apply it to challenges with assignments, and we can also apply it to other issues we encounter during a tutoring session. Every student is unique, and it may take some problem-solving to learn how to best work with each student. Identifying the “problem,” pulling from our knowledge, consulting our supports, brainstorming, and testing solutions are all ways tutors can determine how best to assist students.


  1. Dane, E., Baer, M., Pratt, M. G., and Oldham, G. R. (2011). Rational versus intuitive problem solving: How thinking “off the beaten path” can stimulate creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. 5(1), 3–12. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017698.
  2. Uzonwanne F.C. (2016). Rational Model of Decision Making. In: Farazmand A. (eds) Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2474-1.
  3. Klegeris, A., Bahniwal, M., and Hurren, H. (2017). Improvement in Generic Problem-Solving Abilities of Students by Use of Tutor-less Problem-Based Learning in a Large Classroom Setting. Life Sciences Education. 12(1), 1-116. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.12-06-0081.

Additional Resources:

McNamera, C. (2020). Problem Solving and Decision Making (Solving Problems and Making Decisions). Free Management Library. Authenticity Consulting LLC. https://managementhelp.org/personalproductivity/problem-solving.htm. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.

Nezu C., Palmatier, A., and Nezu, A. (2004). Social Problem-Solving Training for Caregivers. In Chang, D’Zurilla, & Sanna (Eds.) Social Problem Solving: Theory, Research, and Training. (223-238). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10805-013.

Nezu, A., Nezu, C., and D’Zurilla, T. (2007). Solving Life’s problems: a 5 Step Guide to Enhanced Well-Being. Springer Publishing Company LLC. https://www.springerpub.com/solving-life-s-problems-9780826114891.html.

Scott, G. M., Lonergan, D. C., and Mumford, M.D. (2010).  Conceptual Combination: Alternative Knowledge Structures, Alternative Heuristics. Creativity Research Journal. 17(1), 79-98. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15326934crj1701_7.


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