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Problem Solving

Question at Issue or Central Problem

(All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, solve some problem.)

Fundamental Standards:
  1. Clarity of Question
  2. Significance of Question
  3. Answerability
  4. Relevance

Failures of Purpose:

  1. Unclear
  2. Insignificant
  3. Not answerable
  4. Irrelevant

Principle: To settle a question you must understand what it requires.

Good Reasoners Bad Reasoners Feedback to Student
are clear about the question they are trying to settle are often unclear about the kind of question they are asking (+)You do a good job of clarifying the question at issue.
(-) The main question at issue is never made clear.
can re-express a question in a variety of ways express questions vaguely and find them difficult to reformulate (+) I like the way you reformulate your question in different ways. It helps the reader see it from different points of view.
(-) You need to reformulate your question in a couple of ways to recognize the complexity of it.
can break a question into sub-questions are unable to break down the questions they are asking (+) You do a good job of analyzing the main question into sub-questions.
(-) It would be easier to solve your main problem if you would break it down somewhat.
have sensitivity to the kind of question theya re asking... routinely distinguish questions of different types have little sensitivity to the kind of question they are asking... confuse questions of different types... often respond inappropriately to the questions they ask (+) You do a good job of keeping the economic issues separate from the social ones.
(-) You are confusing a legal question with a moral one.
distinguish significant from trivial questions confuse trivial questions with significant ones (+) The problem you raise is a very significant one.
(-) You begin with a significant question but seem to wander off into some insignificant ones.
distinguish relevant questions from irrelevant ones confuse irrelevant questions with relevant ones (-) The questions you raise in the second part of your paper do not seem to be relevant to the main question at issue.
are sensitive to the assumptions built into the questions they ask often ask loaded questions (+)You put your question in a neutral and unbiased form.
(-) The way you put the question is loaded. You are taking for granted from the outset the correctness of your own position.
distinguish questions they can answer from questions they can't

NOTE: This table is taken from page 158 of Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students For a Rapidly Changing World, by Richard Paul, 1993.


In the book, The Art of DECISION MAKING: 7 Steps to Achieving More Effective Results, John D. Arnold says that "…the easiest way to learn and use decision-making skills is to break them down into seven components… [mnemonic is IPCEST]

    1. "SMOKE OUT THE ISSUE.. Why is a decision necessary? What are the consequences of doing nothing?" (25).

      "Answering these questions will tell you whether a decision is indeed called for and, if so, why… many situations that appear to require a decision are found on further examination not to require any action at all" (26).

    2. "STATE YOUR PURPOSE.. What needs to be determined? What do you want to decide? Why?

      "Don't be satisfied with your first answers to these questions. Keep asking why until you have established your basic statement of Purpose. Try to state your Purpose as broadly as possible, rather than as an either/or proposition. In defining your Purpose, you may find it helpful to distinguish what the problem IS from what it IS NOT" (26).

    3. "SET YOUR CRITERIA.. What do you want to achieve, preserve, and avoid by whatever decision you make?

      "The answers to these questions become the standards or Criteria for evaluating possible courses of action" (26).

    4. "ESTABLISH YOUR PRIORITIES.. What are the Criteria that any solution absolutely has to satisfy? What other Criteria should it meet?

      "The first group of Priorities are called ABSOLUTE REQUIREMENTS, because no decision is acceptable unless it meets them. Lesser Priorities are labeled DESIRABLE OBJECTIVES and are ranked in order of importance, from 10 (most desirable) downward" (26).

    5. "SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS.. How can you meet the Criteria you have set?

      "List all the possible courses of action open to you and - here or in Building Block No. 6 - gather any information that may be helpful in making a final selection.

    6. "TEST THE ALTERNATIVES.. How does each Alternative stack up against the Priorities?

      "Does one emerge a clear winner? Does this "best" Solution have significant weaknesses in some areas? How can they be overcome? Consider combining features of two or more Alternatives to devise an even better decision. In adversary proceedings such as negotiations, refining your Alternatives to create an advantageous situation for all parties is often the key to a better decision" (26).

    7. "TROUBLE SHOOT YOUR DECISION.. What could go wrong? How can your choice be improved?

      "Create refinements that prevent, overcome, or minimize the dangers of the Alternative you select" (27).

The author states that "In the world of decision making, process is paramount" (27). What he means by this is that the only route to making consistently good decisions is to learn the proper process and follow it.

This will not be easy. It is tempting to return to your old habits of jumping to conclusions, following your "gut feelings." There is always a feeling or urgency to get an answer. But do you want a BAD answer?

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