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Four ways to support students’ problem solving skills in the new academic year

Problem solving is an incredibly important skill and used by students to navigate challenges throughout the curriculum (1). Research shows that problem solving helps pupils develop their resilience, ability to think for themselves and persevere (1). It not only underpins all curricular areas by improving their cognitive skills but also helps with their social development (2). 

At the end of the summer break, teachers across the country are thinking about the new academic year. The main focus of the first few weeks is on settling students back into the school or college environment. During this time learners can face both social and cognitive challenges, negotiating new classes or beginning to learn new topics. 

Whilst also considering the academic content needed in that first term it’s important to think about how you will support your students to start building their problem solving skill to navigate these challenges. Here are four simple ways that students can develop this skill in school or college, that can be seamlessly added into your lessons and teaching resources.

Completing tasks by following instructions

The first step in the problem solving skill is being able to follow instructions to complete tasks. Students encounter multiple different forms of instructions in each lesson, such as behaviour expectations, preparing for learning or completing tasks. Here they will need to follow the order of the instructions otherwise the task will not be completed accurately and they will encounter problems. 

Supporting your students to follow instructions

There are a few strategies that you can teach your students to help them follow instructions:

  • Know what the goal is: It is helpful for students to know what the end goal is. If they can imagine what they are trying to achieve then they can see whether or not they are on track to do so.
  • Have the space to focus: Following instructions takes focus and concentration. Students need to be in a space where they don’t have any initial distractions so they can make the best start.
  • Look over the instructions before starting: This is always good practice and students should have a good look at all of the instructions before they begin. This helps them to understand how they fit together.
  • Work through them in order: Encourage your students to work through the instructions one at a time and follow them carefully. They could use strategies such as repeating them, rereading them or saying them to someone else.
  • Check them as they go: Remind students to check their work as they complete each instruction and only move on if they are happy to do so.

Reinforcing the learning

By building chances to encounter and follow a variety of instructions into lessons and teaching resources, students will increase in their confidence and ability to complete them accurately.

Finding someone to help with any problems

Students will undoubtedly encounter situations where tasks are too difficult to do themselves. They might not understand, they might not have done that task before, they might not have learnt the necessary information to complete it or they might be in a new place. This is particularly relevant at the beginning of an academic year when there are lots of firsts for students as they settle into a new year group.

Encouraging learners to be able to ask for help

When facing these situations students need to feel comfortable in asking for help. However, before they do,they should be encouraged to think about the issue: are there any instructions they could follow?; do they remember doing something like this before?; are there ways of solving it themselves? 

How to ask for help

Once they have been through these steps and are at the point of asking for help, students need to consider who the best person to ask is, based on the situation. You can support them with this by sharing these handy questions to help them identify the most suitable individual:

  • Why do I think this person might be able to help me?
  • Who else could I ask if they are not the right person?
  • How will I explain to them what the problem is, so that they can help me?

No matter who they ask, the key takeaway for your students is to keep asking others if the first person cannot help them.

Modelling and practising the step

One example of how you could develop this aspect of the problem solving skill with your students is by taking through examples of problems they might encounter. Model identifying who they would need to talk through and encourage them to share their own examples and experiences.

Explaining problems to ask for advice

When encountering any type of problem, your students will need to explain what that issue is. Depending on the complexity of the situation, this is sometimes an area that they might struggle with. 

Explaining clearly

You can teach and develop your students’ ability to explain a situation as part of your wider lessons. The below structure is something they can use to guide their explanations.

  1. Start with the goal - what are you trying to do, and why? Whoever is helping the student needs to know what they are trying to achieve so that they can see whether their suggestions can help.
  2. The challenge - where have you got stuck? Students then need to explain what is currently stopping them from achieving their goal.
  3. Attempts already - what have you tried so far? By letting the person assisting know what has already been tried they know not to suggest similar solutions.

Learners need to be open to receiving advice but they also need to ensure it makes sense before acting on it. They should always think fully about any guidance, either following it if it seems logical and sensible, or thinking of their own solution by using it as a starting point. 

Applying the structure

As with the above steps, this is also one that can also be practised in the classroom. 

Your students could provide examples of problems they have found difficult to solve and can be supported to gather advice from their peers. You could then model the next part of thinking about the advice and deciding whether to follow it or not. 

Finding the information needed to solve the problem

Information is another word for knowledge and usually focuses on facts or things we know to be true, particularly when used in the context of education. 

Sometimes students may encounter problems because they don’t have enough information to complete tasks. For example they might not know what maths formula to use to solve a question, or may not have read the chapter of the book being referred to in English lessons so they don’t know what happens. 

In this situation it’s important for students to have the confidence and ability to find the information they are missing. This is often something that happens naturally in schools, with learners being encouraged to gain that knowledge then allows them to solve the issue or question. However, this is about really making that process explicit and demonstrating how it also helps to build their ability to problem solve.

Supporting learners to find information

For learners who are unsure how to find the relevant information, you could help them think about where they need to look; different types of information can be found in different places. For example, if they were after dates or facts about an event they could look in an encyclopaedia or online. If they are looking for instructions on how to do something they might want to look in a manual. In some cases the information they need may not be written down so they need to think about who to ask to get it. 

Practising retrieving information

Getting students to practise this is a beneficial and straightforward activity. You could provide them with different problems where they only have parts of the information and encourage them to talk through how they would find the missing information. This could be applied to different situations in subjects or wider school or college events.

Further resources to build essential skills

Developing this skill early means students will be equipped with strategies to use across their education when problems arise in different subjects. It will also help set them up to deal with and navigate problems they encounter in all aspects of life.

The Skills Builder Partnership has developed a range of teaching resources on Skills Builder Hub for schools and colleges to use to develop pupils’ essential skills. The short lessons for the problem solving skill, focusing on each skill step, are a great place to start in September with key information and engaging activities for students to practise the skill. You can sign up for free as an individual teacher or join us as a school or college on an Education programme.

1) Wood, I. (2017). ‘Want to develop your pupils’ problem solving skills? Here’s the solution’ [Blog] TES Magazine. Available at: (Accessed: 28th July 2023).

2) Admin, O. (2021). ‘5 Ways to Encourage Problem-Solving in your Classroom’ [Blog] Osiris Educational. Available at: (Accessed: 28th July 2023).