Lesson 2: The Problem Solving Process


This lesson introduces the formal problem solving process that students will use over the course of the year, Define - Prepare - Try - Reflect. The lesson begins by asking students to brainstorm all the different types of problems that they encounter in everyday life. Students are then shown the four steps of the problem solving process and work together to relate these abstract steps to their actual experiences solving problems. First students relate these steps to the aluminum boats problem from the previous lesson, then a problem they are good at solving, then a problem they want to improve at solving. At the end of the lesson the class collects a list of generally useful strategies for each step of the process to put on posters that will be used throughout the unit and year.


This lesson aims to anchor the formal problem solving process students will use throughout the course in some real-life experiences they already have solving problems. Future units in CS Discoveries will present problems in contexts that may or may not be familiar. A structured problem solving process will be an important tool for helping students move forward in the face of novel and complex challenges.


Warm Up (5 min)

Activity (30 min)

Wrap Up (15 min)

Extended Learning

Assessment Opportunities

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Students will be able to:

  • Identify the four steps of the problem solving process
  • Given a problem, identify individual actions that would fall within each step of the problem solving process
  • Identify useful strategies within each step of the problem solving process


For each student

For the class

  • Poster paper
  • Markers/colored pencils


Heads Up! Please make a copy of any documents you plan to share with students.

For the Teachers

For the Students

Teaching Guide

Warm Up (5 min)

Discussion Goal

Goal: This conversation aims to demonstrate that problems and problem solving are a part of everyday life. Use this brainstorm to list as many different kinds of problems on the board as you can. This will be useful when you later ask students to select one type of problem that you believe they're particularly good at solving.

Problems Brainstorm

Prompt: We use the term "problem" to refer to lots of different situations. I could say I have a problem for homework, a problem with my brother, and a problem with my car, and all three mean very different things. On a sheet of paper I want you to brainstorm as many different kinds of problems as you can and be ready to share with the class.

Teaching Tip

Make Categories: You may want to group problems into larger categories during this conversation and invite students to help you do so. For example, if two suggestions are "finding my keys" and "finding my homework" suggest a larger category of "finding lost things".

Real World Problems: Try to guide students away from too many homework or subject-area type problems (e.g. math problems, word problems, science problems, etc.) by saying you're more interested in real-life problems like solving disagreements, making big decisions, fixing or finding things, getting from one place to another, etc.

Discuss: Students should silently record their ideas in writing for a couple minutes. Afterwards invite them to share what they wrote with a neighbor and then finally bring the whole class together to develop a classwide list. Record all the different kinds of problems students think of on the board or somewhere else that they'll be clearly visible.


Clearly we encounter problems in lots of different areas of our lives. Depending on the context, this word can have many different meanings. For now let's just say that a problem is a situation that could be fixed or improved.

Activity (30 min)

Introduce the Problem Solving Process


We solve problems all the time, but we don't often think about how we're solving problems. Having a strategy or process to approach lots of different kinds of problems can make you a more thoughtful, creative, and successful problem solver.

Distribute: The Problem Solving Process - Activity Guide

Discussion Goal

Goal: For this first conversation in particular you're making sure students understand the meaning of the 4 different steps. While some steps might sometimes be categorized in two ways, use this chance to talk about that ambiguity. Your goal is to use the shared context of the aluminum boats problem to understand this process. Here's a possible set of steps students may come up with.

Define: Understanding the problem when it was assigned, examining available resources, finding problems with their original design before deciding how to fix them, looking at problems with other groups' boats

Prepare: Discussing with team members how to proceed, brainstorming approaches, anticipating possible flaws.

Try: Actually building the boats, running the test

Reflect: Examining the results of their test, comparing their results to their predictions, discussing with group members the reasons the boat sunk eventually.

The Problem Solving Process in Context

Step 1: Introduce and as a class review the descriptions of the four steps in the process by reading them aloud. Answer or discuss any questions students have about the process but otherwise move on to completing the first section of the activity guide.

Step 2: Have students complete the first section of the activity guide by filling in the steps of the previous day's activity they think fall within each step of the problem solving process.

Discuss: Once students have completed the first section of the activity guide ask them to share with neighbors and then with the class as a whole.

Step 3: Ask students to select one type of problem that they think they're really good at solving. Use the list of problems already on the board to help students think of their type of problem. Again give them a couple of minutes to quietly record the steps of their process before sharing with a neighbor.

Discussion Goal

Goal: All three of these discussions aim to reinforce the meaning of the four steps in the problem solving process. In this discussion you might lean more heavily on other students to ensure that the strategies and steps being offered by students seem to fit the definitions of the four steps provided on the activity guide.

Discuss: Have students share what they wrote with a neighbor and then once again lead a discussion of the conversations they had. Ask students to talk about the individual steps they're using to solve their chosen problem but also point out instances where the same types of strategies are appearing multiple times.

Step 4: Place students in pairs and ask them to complete the final section of the activity guide. They will need to choose a type of problem that both members of the group want to get better at solving and then write the steps they would use within the problem solving process to solve that problem.

Discuss: Lead one final share out in which students present how they would use the problem solving process to approach a less familiar problem.

Wrap Up (15 min)

Create Posters of the Steps

Set-up: At the front of the room place four large posters with the names of one of the steps of the problem solving process written on each.

Prompt: At your tables review all the work you did today looking at the problem solving process in a number of contexts and pick the two most important strategies for each step in the process. These should be strategies that you think can help in lots of different types of problems when you're working on that step.

Circulate: Walk around the room and check that groups are making progress on picking their strategies. Remind them that these are supposed to be generally useful and not specific to a single type of problem. Once all groups are ready bring the class back together

Share: Go through each step of the problem solving process and ask groups to share their strategies. At the front of the room record the strategies on the appropriate poster. Once all posters have been completed place them somewhere visible in the room.


I began by saying a formal problem solving process could help us solve all kinds of problems. Today we began to understand what this process looks like in a variety of real life situations. Tomorrow we're going to start putting this process into action to see how it actually works.

Extended Learning

Article Discussion

Read through the article, You Are Solving the Wrong Problem

  1. What was interesting about this article?
  2. What current events do you think we need to look at through this problem solving process? Why?

Assessment Opportunities

Given a problem, identify individual actions that would fall within each step of the problem solving process

  • In the activity guide, students describe the steps with two problems of their choosing.

Identify useful strategies within each step of the problem solving process

  • In the activity guide, students describe strategies for solving problems.

Standards Alignment

View full course alignment

CSTA K-12 Computer Science Standards (2017)

AP - Algorithms & Programming
  • 1B-AP-08 - Compare and refine multiple algorithms for the same task and determine which is the most appropriate.
  • 1B-AP-11 - Decompose (break down) problems into smaller, manageable subproblems to facilitate the program development process.