Teaching Students Problem Solving— Goal and Strategy

At some time, often as early as middle school, the complexity of school activities ratchets up a notch. Simple reading assignments are replaced by projects requiring multiple steps such as a paper requiring research. Clubs begin taking on more involved projects. There is a transition here and just a little guidance about problem statements and strategy can go a long way toward making it successfully. A problem statement, strategy plan, and a method to stay on track can help students to manage larger problems and projects.

State the Problem/Goal

Often, the goal is clear to everyone and stating it seems to be unnecessary. Sometimes though, there is a misunderstanding about the problem or goal. Any confusion on this point can lead to wasted time and work leading to an unsuccessful project. A key question to answer:

“What does a successful project look like?”

As simple as it sounds, take the time to answer this question and state the desired result clearly. The student should be able to visualize the finished product. The goal must be a quantifiable, physical fact.

The expected date of completion should also be included. If it is a group project, write it down so that everyone can agree.

Make a Strategy Plan

For a project with multiple steps, a plan that the student has made himself can help to keep the work on track. The strategy plan outlines a roadmap for the project or problem solving activity. The strategy is written down before the actual work begins. Once the plan is made, there must be an intention to follow it.


Two questions that can guide making the plan are:

“What are the steps required to complete the project?”

“Why is this action being done?”

The plan essentially allows a big project to be reduced to a sequence of smaller tasks, each of which can be done by the student. The progress of the work can also be checked against the plan.

For example, if the assignment is to write a paper about the pyramids. The goal statement may be the subject of the paper, the length, the number of references required, the format, and the due date. A strategy plan could include the sources for the research, the completion date for the research, analysis of the research, and submission of the first draft.

Expect Changes—Stay on Track

Not even the simplest project follows the plan. Changes are not a big deal if they changes get things moving back in the direction of the stated goal.

The original plan provides a basis for making these changes. The overall question is the similar:

“Why is this change needed?”

“How is it related to reaching the goal?”

One risk with changes is the student can lose sight of the goal and drift off in some other direction. These questions can help to focus the child on the reason for doing the work in the first place. A reality check keeps the work on track.


With a little experience, this framework of a problem statement, a strategy plan, and method to stay on track can be used intuitively on other projects.

related articles are: Teaching Problem Solving to Children-The Cycle of Confusion/Resourcefulness/Confidence and Teaching Problem Solving to Students–Tools and Resources 



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