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How to develop your problem-solving skills at university

James Davis

Careers Commentator
You’ll be doing a lot of problem-solving during your time at uni. There are a couple tricks to utilise that’ll help you get even better at it.

Developing problem-solving skills can be a problem unto itself for the uninformed. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be a mystery. We’ll highlight some methods for improving your ability to think laterally, vertically and push beyond your comfort zone. Bear in mind all of these will require continuous practice and effort, but as long as you’re mindful, they won’t be as challenging as you might initially think. Even if they are, the more you solve problems, the easier they’ll become. 

But first, what exactly is problem-solving?

In a university context, it can mean just about any necessary activity or idea for overcoming… well, problems! It’s here types of problems (and consequently the sort of solutions required) start to diverge. There are several ways to categorise problems, but for the sake of argument we’ll be using the following:

Urgent problems. These are issues for which there’s only limited time to ponder and require an immediate response, but that response is both known and simple. For instance, an exam question. 

Linear problems. These are complicated and solvable through methodology, be it predefined or created for the purpose. A mathematical proof is an example. 

Nonlinear problems. Although just as complicated, their solutions are ambiguous and have no defined methodology for arriving at them. An example would be a loosely defined research paper.

The method you use for categorising is subjective. All that matters is you’re able to identify the problem to the best of your ability so you’ve got the best shot at using the most effective tool for the job. For instance, what if you’re assigned a research paper with a recommended structure and type of content already laid out? It’s far more linear at that point. What if you’re a masochist working on a famed paradox or mathematical dilemma without a solution? Maybe you’ve got a nightmare combination of these problems demanding usage of multiple methods, imagination and haste. If you can label it, you’ve got a better shot at applying the right methods. 

So what can you actually do with this knowledge? It’s pretty unhelpful just slapping all kinds of labels onto problems. What you need to do is understand the two major methods of innovative thinking, which we’ve got an entire article on here. If you’re not ready to click off just yet, here’s the run-down. 

Lateral thinking is what people refer to when they’re ‘thinking outside the box’. It’s about weighing up problems creatively to come up with multiple potential solutions and make an educated guess at which is best. 

Vertical thinking is methodical, logical and strict. It’s about driving home the solution to a problem, working through the steps until you’ve got an answer. 

At a glance, you may not see something like “vertical thinking” as particularly innovative, but adhering to formula or rulesets often requires more than just reading an instruction manual. It can involve creating those methods in the first place, perhaps even in combination with lateral thinking too. In fact, you’ll find many problems that could benefit from both. We’d definitely recommend reading our article if you’re interested in the specifics of what each entails. 

So how on earth does one go about improving these skills? Well, there are several every-day exercises and activities just about any university student in Australia can undergo. The natural progress of your degree will kind of ‘force’ you to refine them as you blast through your assignments, but it doesn’t hurt to know the tricks. 

Spend more time reflecting

If you’ve got a commute into work or uni, it pays to just turn off your podcasts, put your phone back into your pocket (especially if you’re driving), put on some quiet music and use the trip to work through problems nagging at you, be they academic or personal. This is your chance to practice whichever method of thinking is required. If you’ve got an essay you’ve yet to start, now’s the time to work through different potential structures and the research each may require. If you’ve got some basic tute questions, try to recall the method for solving them in as much detail as possible. 

Reflecting is also valuable for reviewing how you performed. What worked? What didn’t? Where do I think I need to improve regarding my problem-solving methods? Was the execution flawed? Even with something like group assignments, it pays to consider what you could have done better rather than fall to the temptation of shifting blame. This is such a simple, yet easy to overlook practice. We’re absolutely inundated with distractions after all. If you can find plenty of moments to just disconnect and think, you’ll give yourself a significant chance to truly develop as a problem-solver. 

Be inquisitive

Just asking how your mate tackled their assignment, answered their exam or thought through their issues and why can make a lot of difference. It’s a chance to expose yourself to potentially new methods of thinking, which is in-turn a chance to evaluate your current methods. Are theirs better? If they are, why not adopt them? Did they go wrong in their reasoning? Perhaps you misunderstood how they went about it. No matter the outcome, the skill development should always be positive. Whether you adopt a new method for future problems of a similar nature or stick to your guns, you’ll have tested yourself, which is what becoming a better problem-solver is all about. 

You can also ask mentors for examples of when they overcame problems, be it your parents, professors, former teachers or just about anyone whose judgement you trust. The most important thing is being exposed to different methods of thinking. To this end, your questions can be oriented toward vertical or lateral examples depending on your current focus or interest. 

Discussing methods for coming to true conclusions is valuable for both lateral and vertical thinking. A perfectly memorised method for doing something doesn’t equate to perfect execution, after all! Perhaps there’s some refinement to your process or execution you hadn’t considered. Computer science is often like this; while there are many ways to write code and make it work, for most languages, solutions are often not created equal! In this example at least, reviewing your friend’s code or asking why they wrote it as they did can be an immense help. For something more open-ended like bedside manner if you’re learning to become a nurse, you may learn new ways to express sentiments to patients in a more comforting manner. If you’re always being inquisitive and seeking better ways to do things, you’ll really advance by leaps and bounds as a problem-solver. 

Find more responsibilities

Naturally, exposing yourself to new problems carries the benefit of practice in finding solutions. You’ll likely doing all the right things just through building your resume anyway. New internships, part-time work, volunteering and getting on the committees of student clubs are all valuable ways to expose yourself to new problems. It doesn’t matter how big they are; every one is a chance to get out of your comfort zone and exercise multiple methods of thinking. 

You’ll probably be surprised at just how many new responsibilities you can take on and still have time for study. Near the end of each semester, you’ll have to dial the notch back of course, but during semester breaks and the first four or five weeks of your first and middle years, you’ll be able to find prime opportunities for these activities. No shame in keeping third-year clear, provided you’ve done all you can in previous years! 

We’d highly recommend doing all these things, even if they weren’t useful for developing your problem-solving skills. Yet, they do! Here are just a few examples of what each can do:

Internships give you an insight into what could be your first graduate job. Your work will likely involve a combination of urgent, linear and nonlinear problems. As an intern, you’ll be able to see how professionals tackle these problems sequentially, calmly and what methods they use to arrive at sound conclusions. This is an opportunity to exercise the previous steps too; asking plenty of questions and reflecting on the answers are things you absolutely should be doing to maximise value from an internship. 

Volunteering is similar. Even something simple like serving soup at a homeless shelter can carry with it the obligation to listen to an understand struggling people. Am I listening effectively? Am I communicating effectively? How can I better hear and understand the people I’m speaking with? Am I cooperating with my fellow volunteers to the greatest extent I can? With a bit of imagination, many optimisations and questions can be come mini problem-solving exercises and chances to improve. Outside these internal exercises are the real-world opportunities that logistical hurdles can present. If you’re called upon to advertise for a dinner, book a lecture or find catering for an event, these are all problems that may not have defined solutions or a single correct answer. It’s a chance to sift through your options. 

Student clubs can offer a similar experience. If you’re part of a club’s organisational committee, you may be called upon to spread the word about an event, help organise a ball, figure out how to delegate appropriately or any number of problems that again, may not have clear-cut solutions. 

Seek additional problem solving exercises

This is for those of you wanting to go the extra mile! While other activities in this article specify the utilisation of things you should already be doing anyway, or just making use of downtime, this will take a bit of concerted effort. 

There are plenty of books on critical thinking, innovation and general problem-solving you can use to bolster your efforts. Why not pick up one or two of the classics, like Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats or Decision Making and Problem Solving by John Adair? If books aren’t your thing, there are all kinds of activities and problems online. Lateral thinking puzzles are a fairly popular activity among those wanting to improve their lateral thinking skills, for instance. As for vertical thinking, just undergoing math problems appropriate to your current knowledge level are a great way to develop. This might seem wildly counterintuitive if you’re an aspiring artist or historian, but what better way to develop your adherence to strict methods than with math? Hey, even just doing increasingly difficult sudoku puzzles can suffice. If you keep at it, you may develop a real taste for this sort of thing and will find it easier to tackle problems throughout academia and work. 

You should now have a much better idea of all the ways problem-solving skills can be developed at university. Honestly, the biggest takeaway is to just be creative with all the activities you’re already doing. Reading books and putting effort exclusively into this can be effective, but it’s also time consuming. Some of the most practical things you can do include simply working problem-finding and solutions into your current schedule, which is totally doable. No matter what you’re doing, there’s likely a way to get better at solving problems while doing it. Even if you’re in a repetitive part-time job, there are bound to be opportunities for self-improvement just by treating each perceived inefficiency or opportunity as a problem that can be solved. With keen reflection, asking good questions regularly and taking on more responsibilities, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a formidable problem-solver.