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Problem Solving Technique

This advice I give to my students about solving problems in any science like physics and chemistry.

Avoid the frantic plug-n-chug syndrome- usually a mindless act resorting to Pavlovian responses. Learn to think. Do not be intimidated by the sound of the problem or that you may not know instantly the solution.

(1) Read the problem in a relaxed manner (don't even have the pen in your hand). This is to get a general flavor, perhaps to identify the class of problem at hand.

(2) Re-read, clause-by-clause, jot down information as you read and start drawing a sketch of the situation. Draw it sufficiently large and carefully so that it does not introduce additional question(s).

(3) Identify the precise question(s).

(4) Write down the general concepts, unifying relations, and equations you think may apply.

(5) The approach to the problem and consequently the solution will materialize from this logical progression.

(6) Record the logical steps as you effect the solution. This will be valuable not only in establishing a logical progression of thought, but also in checking and troubleshooting the answer, if an error is suspected.

(7) Simplify the equations before plugging-in numbers. That is, do the algebra first; re-arrange the equations, eliminate variables, etc. so that the desired quantity stands alone.

(8) Insert values and their units into the appropriate equation(s). Any necessary unit conversions will be transparent.

(9) Execute the calculation. Do not round off intermediate results.

(10) Check the answer for reality. Does it make sense?

(11) Report the final answer with the proper units and significant figures in a box or underline it. Be sure you answered all the questions; there may be more than one.

As experience breeds confidence, many of the steps can be consolidated or performed simultaneously.

I know this prescription will help the diligent.

John C. Mannone
Professor of Physics and Astronomy