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How to assess problem-solving skills

Human beings have been fascinated and motivated by problem-solving for as long as time. Let’s start with the classic ancient legend of Oedipus. The Sphinx aggressively addressed anyone who dared to enter Thebes by posing a riddle. If the traveler failed to answer the riddle correctly, the result was death. However, the Sphinx would be destroyed when the answer was finally correct.

Alas, along came Oedipus. He answered correctly. He unlocked this complex riddle and killed the Sphinx.

However, rationality was hardly defined at that time. Today, though, most people assume that it simply takes raw intelligence to be a great problem solver. However, it’s not the only crucial element.

Introduction to key problem-solving skills

You’ve surely noticed that many of the skills listed in the problem-solving process are repeated. This is because having these abilities and talents are so crucial to the entire course of getting a problem solved. Let’s look at some key problem-solving skills that are essential in the workplace.

Communication, listening, and customer service skills

In all the stages of problem-solving, you need to listen and engage to understand what the problem is and come to a conclusion as to what the solution may be. Another challenge is being able to communicate effectively so that people understand what you’re saying. It further rolls into interpersonal communication and customer service skills, which really are all about listening and responding appropriately.

Data analysis, research, and topic understanding skills

To produce the best solutions, employees must be able to understand the problem thoroughly. This is possible when the workforce studies the topic and the process correctly. In the workplace, this knowledge comes from years of relevant experience.

Dependability, believability, trustworthiness, and follow-through

To make change happen and take the following steps towards problem-solving, the qualities of dependability, trustworthiness, and diligence are a must. For example, if a person is known for not keeping their word, laziness, and committing blunders, that is not someone you’ll depend on when they provide you with a solution, will you?

Leadership, team-building, and decision-making

A true leader can learn and grow from the problems that arise in their jobs and utilize each challenge to hone their leadership skills. Problem-solving is an important skill for leaders who want to eliminate challenges that can otherwise hinder their people’s or their business’ growth. Let’s take a look at some statistics that prove just how important these skills are:

A Harvard Business Review study states that of all the skills that influence a leader’s success, problem-solving ranked third out of 16.

According to a survey by, only 10% of CEOs are leaders who guide staff by example .

Another  study at Havard Business Review found a direct link between teambuilding as a social activity and employee motivation.

Are you looking for a holistic way to develop leaders in your workplace?

Numerous skills and attributes define a successful one from a rookie when it comes to leaders. Our leadership development plan (with examples!) can help HR leaders identify potential leaders that are in sync with your company’s future goals.

Why is problem solving important in the workplace?

As a business leader, when too much of your time is spent managing escalations, the lack of problem-solving skills may hurt your business. While you may be hiring talented and capable employees and paying them well, it is only when you harness their full potential and translate that into business value that it is considered a successful hire.

The impact of continuing with poor problem-solving skills may show up in your organization as operational inefficiencies that may also manifest in product quality issues, defects, re-work and non-conformance to design specifications. When the product is defective, or the service is not up to the mark, it directly affects your customer’s experience and consequently reflects on the company’s profile.

At times, poor problem-solving skills could lead to missed market opportunities, slow time to market, customer dissatisfaction, regulatory compliance issues, and declining employee morale.

Problem-solving skills are important for individual business leaders as well. Suppose you’re busy responding to frequent incidents that have the same variables. In that case, this prevents you from focusing your time and effort on improving the future success of business outcomes.

Proven methods to assess and improve problem-solving skills

Pre-employment problem-solving skill assessment .

Recent research indicates that up to 85% of resumes contain misleading statements. Similarly, interviews are subjective and ultimately serve as poor predictors of job performance .

To provide a reliable and objective means of gathering job-related information on candidates, you must validate and develop pre-employment problem-solving assessments. You can further use the data from pre-employment tests to make informed and defensible hiring decisions.

Depending on the job profile, below are examples of pre-employment problem-solving assessment tests:

Personality tests: The rise of personality testing in the 20th century was an endeavor to maximize employee potential. Personality tests help to identify workplace patterns, relevant characteristics, and traits, and to assess how people may respond to different situations.

Examples of personality tests include the Big five personality traits test and Mercer | Mettl’s Dark Personality Inventory .

Cognitive ability test: A pre-employment aptitude test assesses individuals’ abilities such as critical thinking, verbal reasoning, numerical ability, problem-solving, decision-making, etc., which are indicators of a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ). The test results provide data about on-the-job performance. It also assesses current and potential employees for different job levels.

Criteria Cognitive Aptitude test , McQuaig Mental Agility Test , and Hogan Business Reasoning Inventory are commonly used cognitive ability assessment tests.

Convergent and divergent thinking methods

American psychologist JP Guilford coined the terms “convergent thinking” and “divergent thinking” in the 1950s.

Convergent thinking involves starting with pieces of information and then converging around a solution. An example would be determining the correct answer to a multiple-choice question.

The nature of the question does not demand creativity but rather inherently encourages a person to consider the veracity of each answer provided before selecting the single correct one.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, starts with a prompt that encourages people to think critically, diverging towards distinct answers. An example of divergent thinking would be asking open-ended questions.

Here’s an example of what convergent thinking and a divergent problem-solving model would look like.

The 5 whys method , developed by Sakichi Toyoda, is part of the Toyota production system. In this method, when you come across a problem, you analyze the root cause by asking “Why?” five times. By recognizing the countermeasure, you can prevent the problem from recurring. Here’s an example of the 5 whys method.

This method is specifically useful when you have a recurring problem that reoccurs despite repeated actions to address it. It indicates that you are treating the symptoms of the problem and not the actual problem itself.


While brainstorming is about the team coming together to try to find answers, starbursting flips it over and asks everyone to think of questions instead. Here’s an example of the starbursting method.

The idea of this method is to go and expand from here, layering more and more questions until you’ve covered every eventuality of the problem.

Use of data analysis to measure improvement in problem-solving skills for your organization

Problem-solving and data analytics are often used together. Supporting data is very handy whenever a particular problem occurs. By using data analytics, you can find the supporting data and analyze it to use for solving a specific problem.

However, we must emphasize that the data you’re using to solve the problem is accurate and complete. Otherwise, misleading data may take you off track of the problem at hand or even make it appear more complex than it is. Moreover, as you gain knowledge about the current problem, it further eases the way to solve it.

Let’s dig deeper into the top 3 reasons data analytics is important in problem-solving.

 1. Uncover hidden details

Modern data analytics tools have numerous features that let you analyze the given data thoroughly and find hidden or repeating trends without needing any extra human effort. These automated tools are great at extracting the depths of data, going back way into the past.

2. Automated models

Automation is the future. Businesses don’t have enough time or the budget to encourage manual workforces to go through loads of data to solve business problems. Instead, the tools can collect, combine, clean, and transform the relevant data all by themselves and finally use it to predict the solutions.

3. Explore similar problems

When you use a data analytics approach to solve problems, you can collect all the data available and store it. It can assist you when you find yourself in similar problems, providing references for how such issues were tackled in the past.

If you’re looking for ways to help develop problem-solving skills in the workplace and want to build a team of employees who can solve their own problems, contact us to learn how we can help you achieve it.

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Problem Solving Resources

Case studies, problem solving related topics.

What is Problem Solving?.

Quality Glossary Definition: Problem solving

Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing a solution.

Problem Solving visual

Problem Solving Chart

The Problem-Solving Process

In order to effectively manage and run a successful organization, leadership must guide their employees and develop problem-solving techniques. Finding a suitable solution for issues can be accomplished by following the basic four-step problem-solving process and methodology outlined below.

1. Define the problem

Diagnose the situation so that your focus is on the problem, not just its symptoms. Helpful problem-solving techniques include using flowcharts to identify the expected steps of a process and cause-and-effect diagrams to define and analyze root causes .

The sections below help explain key problem-solving steps. These steps support the involvement of interested parties, the use of factual information, comparison of expectations to reality, and a focus on root causes of a problem. You should begin by:

2. Generate alternative solutions

Postpone the selection of one solution until several problem-solving alternatives have been proposed. Considering multiple alternatives can significantly enhance the value of your ideal solution. Once you have decided on the "what should be" model, this target standard becomes the basis for developing a road map for investigating alternatives. Brainstorming and team problem-solving techniques are both useful tools in this stage of problem solving.

Many alternative solutions to the problem should be generated before final evaluation. A common mistake in problem solving is that alternatives are evaluated as they are proposed, so the first acceptable solution is chosen, even if it’s not the best fit. If we focus on trying to get the results we want, we miss the potential for learning something new that will allow for real improvement in the problem-solving process.

3. Evaluate and select an alternative

Skilled problem solvers use a series of considerations when selecting the best alternative. They consider the extent to which:

4. Implement and follow up on the solution

Leaders may be called upon to direct others to implement the solution, "sell" the solution, or facilitate the implementation with the help of others. Involving others in the implementation is an effective way to gain buy-in and support and minimize resistance to subsequent changes.

Regardless of how the solution is rolled out, feedback channels should be built into the implementation. This allows for continuous monitoring and testing of actual events against expectations. Problem solving, and the techniques used to gain clarity, are most effective if the solution remains in place and is updated to respond to future changes.

You can also search articles , case studies , and publications  for problem solving resources.

Innovative Business Management Using TRIZ

Introduction To 8D Problem Solving: Including Practical Applications and Examples

The Quality Toolbox

Root Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem Solving and Corrective Action

One Good Idea: Some Sage Advice ( Quality Progress ) The person with the problem just wants it to go away quickly, and the problem-solvers also want to resolve it in as little time as possible because they have other responsibilities. Whatever the urgency, effective problem-solvers have the self-discipline to develop a complete description of the problem.

Diagnostic Quality Problem Solving: A Conceptual Framework And Six Strategies  ( Quality Management Journal ) This paper contributes a conceptual framework for the generic process of diagnosis in quality problem solving by identifying its activities and how they are related.

Weathering The Storm ( Quality Progress ) Even in the most contentious circumstances, this approach describes how to sustain customer-supplier relationships during high-stakes problem solving situations to actually enhance customer-supplier relationships.

The Right Questions ( Quality Progress ) All problem solving begins with a problem description. Make the most of problem solving by asking effective questions.

Solving the Problem ( Quality Progress ) Brush up on your problem-solving skills and address the primary issues with these seven methods.

Refreshing Louisville Metro’s Problem-Solving System  ( Journal for Quality and Participation ) Organization-wide transformation can be tricky, especially when it comes to sustaining any progress made over time. In Louisville Metro, a government organization based in Kentucky, many strategies were used to enact and sustain meaningful transformation.


Quality Improvement Associate Certification--CQIA

Certified Quality Improvement Associate Question Bank

Lean Problem-Solving Tools

Problem Solving Using A3

NEW   Root Cause Analysis E-Learning

Quality 101

Making the Connection In this exclusive QP webcast, Jack ReVelle, ASQ Fellow and author, shares how quality tools can be combined to create a powerful problem-solving force.

Adapted from The Executive Guide to Improvement and Change , ASQ Quality Press.

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how to assess problem solving skills

Problem Solving Skills Assessment Test

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Problem Solving Skills Assessment

Assessment details, assessment summary, skills tested in this assessment, what to test with this assessment, about the problem solving skills assessment.

Ready to find the best candidates with top problem solving skills to grow your business? Use our Problem Solving skills assessment and never make another unqualified hire again.

Problem Solving is all about using logic, imagination, and creativity, to understand a situation and then come up with an intelligent solution to the problem. The best problem solvers can actively anticipate potential future problems and act quickly to prevent them from ever happening or to mitigate the effects.

This Problem Solving test assesses whether job candidates have the ability to learn, solve problems, and understand instructions while allowing you to see how adaptable they are to coaching and training.

Candidates who perform well on this Problem Solving assessment will have all the technical skills to successfully understand and articulate a problem and plan for it. They will also have the necessary soft skills to critically think about solutions to problems and effectively communicate this back to stakeholders.

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Frequently asked questions.

A problem solving test is a type of assessment that measures an individual’s ability to identify and solve problems. The test usually consists of a series of questions or scenarios that require the candidate to select the best course of action. Problem solving tests are commonly used in educational and workplace settings as a way to evaluate critical thinking and decision-making skills. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to problem solving, the ability to break down a problem into smaller components, identify potential solutions, and select the most effective course of action is often key to finding a successful resolution.

Vervoe’s problem solving skills test can help to improve the recruitment process by providing a more accurate assessment of a candidate’s ability. By presenting candidates with problems and seeing how they respond, employers can get a better idea of how they will perform on the job. In addition, problem solving tests can help employers to analyze data of their candidate pool more effectively. By identifying patterns in how candidates respond to problems, employers can identify those who are likely to be successful in the role.

Many jobs require problem solving as part of their skill set, but some are more obviously oriented toward this type of work than others. For instance, jobs in the field of engineering often require employees to find solutions to complex technical problems. Similarly, positions in sales or customer service frequently entail finding creative ways to resolve customer issues. Even jobs that are not traditionally seen as requiring problem solving skills can benefit from employees who are able to think on their feet and come up with solutions to challenges as they arise. In today’s ever-changing business landscape, the ability to solve problems is an essential skill for success in any career.

Problem solving tests are designed to assess a range of skills that are essential for success in the workplace. The ability to creative think is perhaps the most important skill that is tested, as it allows candidates to generate multiple solutions to a problem. This is important as it allows different perspectives to be considered and the best solution to be chosen. Other skills that are assessed include the ability to think logically and rationally, as well as the ability to communicate effectively. These skills are all highly relevant to job performance, making problem solving tests an excellent way to identify the best candidates for a role.

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13 Problem-Solving Interview Questions to Assess a Candidate

Solving problems is something we all do on a daily basis, whether it be in our personal life or at work. The issue is that finding the right solutions to those problems is not always easy for everyone. Some people are simply better at it than others.   But how can you determine a candidate’s problem-solving skills by only looking at their resume or motivational letter? You simply cannot. That’s why you should assess candidates’ problem-solving skills during the interview process.

Why? Because it is a good chance for evaluating how different candidates approach challenging situations. 

Problem-solving skills: A Definition

A problem can be defined as a gap between the current situation and the desired outcome. To fill this gap, problem-solving abilities are needed. Problem-solving in the workplace describes our way of thinking and the behaviour we engage in to obtain the desired outcome we seek, which could be attaining a certain goal or finding a satisfactory answer to our questions.

Different problem-solving strategies can be based on factors such as the amount of information available about the problem, the time spent on planning, or whether multiple solutions have to be tested before deciding on the optimal one. 

Why assess problem-solving when it comes to candidates

You and I both know that there every single business, as well as every single job role consists of people constantly being faced with challenges and a variety of problems. Some smaller, some more drastic. But that is the reality and it’s unavoidable. 

Often being faced with a problem in the workplace can become a problem within itself. Especially if you don’t have the right people in your team. That’s why it is important to assess someone’s level of problem-solving skills before you hire them. In positions that involve frequent decision-making or in which you often get confronted with complex business issues, this is an important skill. 

In the workplace, employees are expected to solve problems daily, ultimately ensuring the smooth functioning of the company. Therefore, the problem-solving ability is one of the most important aspects which needs to be assessed prior to hiring. Problem-solving ability is associated with several sub-skills depending on the nature of the tasks involved in the profession.

For instance, a successful business consultant might want to be equipped with good communication skills, empathy, and analytical thinking, all of which can be considered sub-skills of problem-solving ability. 

People who are very good at problem-solving are more self-reliant, as they need less help. However, they also tend to take their time when solving problems. People who are less good at problem-solving are more likely to try different solutions (trial-and-error approach), but also might ask for help more. Depending on the team, work setting, and type of job, you might prefer one type over another.

Types of problem-solving skills to look for in candidates

Problem-solving skills probably encompass more layers than you might initially think they do, after all, any job role involves a set of challenges that need to be overcome. Other aspects that fall under problem-solving, could also be:

What interview structure allows to best assess candidates problem-solving skills?

According to research , a structured interview is more reliable, valid, and less discriminatory than an unstructured interview. When you structure your interview process, the assessment of personality becomes a designed process. Every question should be carefully chosen to assess the candidate’s skills and knowledge.

Guide: How to set up a structured interview process

Get your guide here, 13 interview questions to determine problem-solving abilities.

Problem-solving skills may not be tangible but it shows up in behaviors and conversations, it is visible and you can hear it:

Once you have a full understanding of the above-mentioned, here are some questions you can use throughout interviews with candidates to assess their problem-solving skills.

2 interview questions for assessing listening skills when solving problems

For example, if a candidate says that in such a situation they would be uncomfortable and would prefer someone else to take over coming up with a solution – it’s likely that they possess lower problem-solving skills. In contrast, if a candidate would tell you about their strengths and ability to work independently in such a situation, then that would indicate higher problem-solving abilities.

If a candidate mentions that they would try to gather more information relating the potential causes of the problem to be able to grasp it better, that’s probably a better answer than just stating that they’d just decide to give up. 

3 interview questions for assessing analytical thinking skills when solving problems

Asking this question will help you determine whether this person is more intuitive and fast. Or more analytical and a bit slower.  If a candidate were to answer: “I normally make a list of advantages and disadvantages of each solution before deciding which is the most beneficial one” , then this person is likely to be a bit slower when it comes to solving problems than someone who just picks the first solution they come up with.

The main goal of asking this question during the interview is to be able to determine what steps the person chooses to take when addressing the problem. For example, people who seem to plan less and act more intuitively will likely prefer a more trial-and-error, rather than an analytical approach to solving a problem.

If a candidate answers the following: “When I’m faced with a problem, I typically start by doing research and gathering all the relevant information before proceeding.” Then you can assume that they are more likely to take an analytical approach when solving a problem. Whereas, if someone were to say that they just go with the flow, then this person is more likely to prefer a trial-and-error-based approach.

When asking the candidate this question, you are looking for an honest, self-critical answer. The candidate should also be able to explain how making this mistake led them to become better at their job. Their answer to this question will serve as an indication of how they deal with challenging situations. 

For example, if a candidate shows a sense of integrity and understanding of how they could avoid making the same mistake in the future when solving a problem – you’ve found yourself an individual that learns from their mistakes to better themselves.

2 interview questions for assessing creative thinking when solving problems

Of course, when hiring new people, we want to hire those who take the most innovative and creative approaches to solving problems, as well as implementing these ideas in reality. In this case, you should be looking for an answer in which the candidate is focusing on explaining the creative approach they took, rather than the problem they were trying to solve. After all, you are looking for someone who can solve problems in a creative way rather than someone who can describe the problem.

This is an example of the so-called behavioural interview questions. These questions focus on revealing how individuals act in certain situations. In this case, if you’re looking for someone with high problem-solving abilities, you are looking for someone who will be able to critically assess and explain their problem-solving process. As well as highlight how problems can often be transformed into opportunities for improvement and growth.

3 interview questions for assessing time and workload management when solving problems

When asking this question to a candidate, you should be on the lookout for an answer that includes all of the following: an example story, placing their focus on how they handled the stressful situation. Basically – focusing more on actions rather than feelings, and highlighting what skills allowed them to deal with the situation successfully. 

The answer you are probably not looking for is “I’ve never been stressed, cannot even imagine what that would feel like within a work environment.” Such an answer just indicates straight up that someone is lying because we all know that there is no such work environment in which stress is non-existent (even if you’d work at puppy daycare).

As human beings, we all have the tendency to want to arrive at a solution as quickly as possible. However, not all solutions will lead to the most optimal outcomes. 

Within the startup environment, things are often subject to rapid change. This also means that it’s more likely that various problems can occur quite suddenly. In this case, you are looking for a candidate who prefers a more trial and error-based approach. Why? Because people who have extremely high problem-solving skills tend to take a longer time for a problem. What is the danger of having only people with sharp problem-solving skills in a team? It can take very long to solve problems that are maybe ad-hoc.

This question has everything to do with how the candidate works under pressure. As well as the extent to which they are capable of prioritizing. When faced with multiple problems, the individual should be able to prioritize between tasks that are of high importance and those that are not as urgent. 

When answering this question, the candidate should be able to walk you through their prioritization process and rationally argue their choices. While also placing focus on explaining their planning strategies to ensure that no problem is left unsolved.

3 interview questions for assessing collaboration when solving problems

I think the important thing to take into account when asking this question is that asking for help should not be considered a sign of weakness. 

What you should be looking for in the answer to this question is someone’s ability to be able to gauge in which situations they should most definitely ask for help. And in contrast, in which situations it’s not really necessary. This way you will be able to tell whether this person is capable of solving a problem independently or is always asking for help even when it comes to the little things.

A question similar to the previous one, however, in this case it’s all about the phrasing from your side as the interviewer. The answer of the candidate to this question will allow you to grasp whether they feel comfortable asking for help when encountering a road block in terms of solving a problem or rather choose to hand it over to someone else entirely.

Lastly, save the best for last – a question that will show to you how the candidate deals with feedback provided about the process of solving a problem and the solution itself. P.S. Sometimes thinking slow is the best way to go! 😉

Key differences between people with systematic vs. intuitive problem-solving style

Person with more systematic problem-solving style.

Person that prefers more intuitive problem-solving style

Cons of assessing problem-solving in interviews

Inaccurate and unreliable results.

I dare you to take a second and do a simple google search for “how to answer problem-solving interview questions” or any query similar to that.

I guarantee you will see hundreds of articles pop up regarding the best ways of answering these questions. 

Just look at the number of results available out there for just these two queries…

That’s exactly where the danger lies – candidates can prepare their answers to these questions, thus leading to unreliable assessment from your side on whether they have the problem-solving skills you are looking for.

No standardized way of presenting results

Using solely interview questions to assess problem-solving skills allows for no standardized way of presenting results as each candidate you interview will give a different answer to your question and it will become gradually more difficult to compare candidates with each other.

Ultimately, resulting in – hiring decisions made based on gut feeling & influenced by your implicit bias.

Extremely time-consuming

If the job posting receives 100 CVs. Now, you not only need to scan 100 CVs, but you also need to decide which candidates out of these 100 will be invited for an interview. And even though that doesn’t sound so bad, it actually is.

Because how can you decide which candidates are the best suited for a role by just taking a short glimpse at their CV? You simply cannot.

So then you’ll probably end up interviewing more people than you should. Just imagine all the time spent interviewing, talking, asking questions, taking notes of the candidate’s answers, and then later on comparing them.

Wrong first impressions, lasting consequences

According to The New York Times, 44% of all job openings online still require a certain educational level/degree. Why is it so? Because education for most of us is perceived as a solid proxy for intelligence. If someone completed higher education – they must possess analytical intelligence, creativity, ability to collaborate and so on. However, science says something else:

This means that someone’s cognitive ability (also called your General Mental Ability, the indicator for human intelligence) is 6.5x as predictive for future job performance than education. So, the habit to link intelligence to education might not be as solid as we’d think.

How does this relate back to assessing problem-solving skills in interviews? Well, even before deciding whom you will be inviting for an interview, you most likely take a look at their CV. This is exactly the very first moment your implicit bias star playing tricks on how you perceive the candidate. Here is what happens:

If you really value problem-solving ability and intelligence, and these are crucial skills to perform well at the job you are hiring for – it is (highly) likely that, based on this first gut feeling, you will invite Candidate A to an interview.

However, the thing is – fit for a job and future job performance is so much more than just one or two skills. It is in fact a combination of multiple factors that contribute to the success someone will have in a certain job. There is no one size fits all.

The bottom line..

Knowing what to look for in candidates even before the interview process is a crucial step to setting your hiring process up for success. And that starts with gathering data-backed, objective and science-based insights about your teams and your candidates…

Interviews are often perceived as the ultimate gateway to finding the perfect candidate, however, in reality, it’s littered with many pitfalls:

Read more about the 6 Major pitfalls when assessing candidates solely based on interviews

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Interview questions to assess problem solving skills

Problem solving interview questions are used to identify, test and measure candidate's approach to difficult and unusual situations.

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10 Problem Solving Interview Questions To Hire the Best

Examples of problem-solving interview questions Describe a time you had to solve a problem without managerial input. How did you do it and what was the result? Give an example of a time you identified and fixed a problem before it became urgent. Tell me about a time you predicted a problem with a stakeholder.

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1. What Is Your Approach To Problem Solving? 2. How Do You Identify Potential Problems? 3. How Do You Evaluate The Impact of Potential Problems? 4. How Do

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Top 3 Problem-Solving-Based Interview Questions 1. Can you tell me about a time when you had to solve a challenging problem? 2. Describe a time where you made

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Problem Solving Skills at Work: Crucial Tips for Managers and Employees Alike

James Elliott

Research has shown that interpersonal and problem-solving skills are the main drivers for workplace performance, not IQ. If you’re looking to build a kickass team, we think you should pack it full of great problem-solvers, and in this article, we’ll convince you of that too. 

After we’ve looked at what problem-solving skills actually are and why they’re so important, we’ll look at four great problem-solving techniques your team can use straight away. We’ll then finish off by looking at the best way to assess the problem-solving skills of your candidates. 

Quick Links: 

What Actually Are Problem-Solving Skills?

Why are problem-solving skills so important at work, 4 common problem-solving techniques teams can use at work, skills testing – the best way to assess problem-solving skills when hiring.

how to assess problem solving skills

The Oxford Dictionary describes problem-solving as “the process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues.”

But come on, James. Surely we already know what problem-solving skills are, it’s being able to solve a problem, right? At one level, you’re correct, but have you ever tried breaking down how you solve a problem? There’s a lot more to it – let me explain the process.

As you can see, problem-solving skills are actually pretty complex. They’re underpinned by a range of other skills such as: 

That’s why being an excellent problem-solver isn’t straightforward. It requires a broad mix of hard and soft skills that have to be executed together to effectively solve a problem. 

The modern workplace is full of problems that need solving. As technology enables organizations to move faster, employees have to be able to solve complex problems fast. 

“Employers like to see good problem-solving skills because it also helps to show them you have a range of other competencies such as logic, creativity, resilience, imagination, lateral thinking, and determination.”

Here are some of the benefits amazing problem solvers bring to an organization and those around them. 

Problem-Solvers Work Well Under Pressure

When a problem arises, it needs to be fixed quickly. Employees with amazing problem-solving skills roll with the punches and tight deadlines to deliver when it matters. 

To do this, expert problem-solvers react quickly to short-term situations while thinking proactively about future problems. That ability to act fast and effectively exuberates confidence, creating a sense of calm across the wider team.

They Create Amazing New Ideas

Problem-solving and creative thinking go hand-in-hand. The best problem-solvers don’t just put bandaids over an issue, they fix them in a dynamic, value-adding way. 

Exciting, out-of-the-box thinking isn’t just good in the moment but creates an exciting, innovative culture across the organization. That helps organizations stay ahead of the curve and attracts other expert problem-solvers to join the organization, improving the workforce’s capability over time. 

Problems Create Risk, and Problem-Solvers Fix Problems

From an organizational perspective, problems create risk. Even if a business process is slightly off-kilter, it can become a much greater issue. 

Problem-solvers help organizations reduce risk in the moment while mitigating future risks before they even occur. That helps everyone sleep sounder at night and also removes financial liability from the c-suite. 

Problem-Solvers Beat The Competition

Ultimately, excellent problem-solvers help organizations stay ahead of their competition. Whether through creative ideas, faster outputs, or reduced risk, organizations with awesome problem solvers find themselves delivering better products and services to their clients. 

And as we all know, it’s the people that make an organization great, and problem-solvers are some of the best people out there! 

If you’ve got a team of wannabe problem-solvers, the good news is that it’s a skill that can be improved over time. 

Here are four problem-solving techniques you and your team can use to tackle problems in your day-to-day business.

Understanding a Problem – 5 Whys

If you’re trying to get your head around a problem, the 5 whys technique is a great way to uncover the root cause. 

When presented with a problem, ask why that problem exists. Then for each answer, ask again four more times until you’ve drilled right down into the root cause of the problem. 

how to assess problem solving skills

This great diagram from MindTools shows the 5 whys problem-solving technique perfectly, drilling down into this delivery problem until the true issue is identified. 

Analyzing a Problem – SWOT Analysis

Once you understand the root cause of a problem, you need to analyze the position you find yourself in to decide what to do next. 

SWOT is a tool that’s useful across the business world, but for problem-solving, it’s a great way to begin formalizing a solution by considering the following:

By viewing your problem, and a potential solution through the SWOT lens, you consider the internal and external perspectives to come up with a well-rounded solution. 

Formulate Creative Solutions – Design Thinking

If your problem-solvers are struggling with new ideas, design thinking helps you get a fresh and unique perspective. 

The 5-step process first helps problem solvers empathize with the problem, then begin defining and developing new ideas before prototyping and testing them. 

how to assess problem solving skills


Design thinking helps cut out the noise and refocus on the real-life benefits a solution can deliver. If you’d like to read more, check out this article on design thinking for problem-solving . 

Implementing Action Plans – Trial & Error

For problem-solvers that need to come up with solutions fast, adopting a trial and error mindset helps deploy ideas quickly and gain rapid feedback. 

When you take the trial and error approach, you commit to simply going ahead and trying different options to solve a given problem. When one fails, you stop and start over with another option. 

The key here is to be comfortable with failure by adopting a fail-fast mindset to work through ideas until you find one that really sticks. This sort of philosophy is commonly used in software development, sports, and pharmaceuticals, where it’s easy to continually pivot to new ideas until you achieve the desired result. 

As we’ve seen, being a rockstar problem-solver is about bringing together a broad range of skills, from communication to data-gathering. 

Problem-solving is also an inherently practical exercise. It isn’t something you can get a degree for, and it isn’t something you can just write on your resume. 

The best way to ensure a candidate is an amazing problem-solver? Put them to the test with a Toggl Hire Skills Assessment. 

problem-solving skills in Toggl

Toggl Hire allows you to really understand your candidates, assessing how they perform in a real-life situation to assure you that they can actually do the job. Best of all, we’ve got a Problem-Solving skills test already made up, so it’s as simple as just two clicks to get started. 

But, if you want something more bespoke, we’ve got you covered, too, thanks to our 10,000-strong question library and the ability to create bespoke questions in 7 different formats. 

Want to see how it works? Check out the explainer video below! 

Forget IQ, problem-solving skills are one of the best indicators of workplace performance when you’re building a kickass team. While on the surface problem-solving skills may seem simple, it actually requires a complex mix of hard skills and soft skills to get it right. 

Because of this complexity, traditional recruitment methods may not cut it, and we’d recommend a skills test to fully understand a candidate’s problem-solving abilities. After all, why take the risk when you can see how a candidate solves a real-life problem right before your eyes? 

James Elliott

James Elliott is a Strategy Manager and Writer from London, UK. When not working on the day job, James writes on a variety of business and project management topics with a focus on content that enables readers to take action and improve their ways of working. You can check out James’ work on his website or by connecting on LinkedIn.

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How to Teach Kids Problem-Solving Skills

how to assess problem solving skills

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

how to assess problem solving skills

Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP, is a board-certified pediatric psychologist, parent coach, author, speaker, and owner of A New Day Pediatric Psychology, PLLC.

KidStock / Blend Images / Getty Images

Whether your child can't find their math homework or has forgotten their lunch, good problem-solving skills are the key to helping them manage their life. 

A 2010 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that kids who lack problem-solving skills may be at a higher risk of depression and suicidality.   Additionally, the researchers found that teaching a child problem-solving skills can improve mental health . 

You can begin teaching basic problem-solving skills during preschool and help your child sharpen their skills into high school and beyond.

Why Problem-Solving Skills Matter

Kids face a variety of problems every day, ranging from academic difficulties to problems on the sports field. Yet few of them have a formula for solving those problems.

Kids who lack problem-solving skills may avoid taking action when faced with a problem.

Rather than put their energy into solving the problem, they may invest their time in avoiding the issue.   That's why many kids fall behind in school or struggle to maintain friendships .

Other kids who lack problem-solving skills spring into action without recognizing their choices. A child may hit a peer who cuts in front of them in line because they are not sure what else to do.  

Or, they may walk out of class when they are being teased because they can't think of any other ways to make it stop. Those impulsive choices may create even bigger problems in the long run.

The 5 Steps of Problem-Solving

Kids who feel overwhelmed or hopeless often won't attempt to address a problem. But when you give them a clear formula for solving problems, they'll feel more confident in their ability to try. Here are the steps to problem-solving:  

Practice Solving Problems

When problems arise, don’t rush to solve your child’s problems for them. Instead, help them walk through the problem-solving steps. Offer guidance when they need assistance, but encourage them to solve problems on their own. If they are unable to come up with a solution, step in and help them think of some. But don't automatically tell them what to do. 

When you encounter behavioral issues, use a problem-solving approach. Sit down together and say, "You've been having difficulty getting your homework done lately. Let's problem-solve this together." You might still need to offer a consequence for misbehavior, but make it clear that you're invested in looking for a solution so they can do better next time. 

Use a problem-solving approach to help your child become more independent.

If they forgot to pack their soccer cleats for practice, ask, "What can we do to make sure this doesn't happen again?" Let them try to develop some solutions on their own.

Kids often develop creative solutions. So they might say, "I'll write a note and stick it on my door so I'll remember to pack them before I leave," or "I'll pack my bag the night before and I'll keep a checklist to remind me what needs to go in my bag." 

Provide plenty of praise when your child practices their problem-solving skills.  

Allow for Natural Consequences

Natural consequences  may also teach problem-solving skills. So when it's appropriate, allow your child to face the natural consequences of their action. Just make sure it's safe to do so. 

For example, let your teenager spend all of their money during the first 10 minutes you're at an amusement park if that's what they want. Then, let them go for the rest of the day without any spending money.

This can lead to a discussion about problem-solving to help them make a better choice next time. Consider these natural consequences as a teachable moment to help work together on problem-solving.

Becker-Weidman EG, Jacobs RH, Reinecke MA, Silva SG, March JS. Social problem-solving among adolescents treated for depression . Behav Res Ther . 2010;48(1):11-18. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2009.08.006

Pakarinen E, Kiuru N, Lerkkanen M-K, Poikkeus A-M, Ahonen T, Nurmi J-E. Instructional support predicts childrens task avoidance in kindergarten .  Early Child Res Q . 2011;26(3):376-386. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2010.11.003

Schell A, Albers L, von Kries R, Hillenbrand C, Hennemann T. Preventing behavioral disorders via supporting social and emotional competence at preschool age .  Dtsch Arztebl Int . 2015;112(39):647–654. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2015.0647

Cheng SC, She HC, Huang LY. The impact of problem-solving instruction on middle school students’ physical science learning: Interplays of knowledge, reasoning, and problem solving . EJMSTE . 2018;14(3):731-743.

Vlachou A, Stavroussi P. Promoting social inclusion: A structured intervention for enhancing interpersonal problem‐solving skills in children with mild intellectual disabilities . Support Learn . 2016;31(1):27-45. doi:10.1111/1467-9604.12112

Öğülmüş S, Kargı E. The interpersonal cognitive problem solving approach for preschoolers .  Turkish J Educ . 2015;4(17347):19-28. doi:10.19128/turje.181093

American Academy of Pediatrics. What's the best way to discipline my child? .

Kashani-Vahid L, Afrooz G, Shokoohi-Yekta M, Kharrazi K, Ghobari B. Can a creative interpersonal problem solving program improve creative thinking in gifted elementary students? .  Think Skills Creat . 2017;24:175-185. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2017.02.011

Shokoohi-Yekta M, Malayeri SA. Effects of advanced parenting training on children's behavioral problems and family problem solving .  Procedia Soc Behav Sci . 2015;205:676-680. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.09.106

By Amy Morin, LCSW Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.

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Problem-solving is the skill which you mostly require at the workplace. It is a trait that is required to solve complex and difficult issues with best possible solutions.

Interviews are a great and one of the surest short ways to find the best of the candidates for jobs and to know about them in detail.

Interviews are considered to be the second stage which a candidate needs to go through and pass in order to get selected or hired for a job. However, the most important factor of an interview is its one to one form of communication. That is, in an interview, a candidate is usually seated directly across the employers and is asked questions about various things that he had claimed in his resume.

With the help of this one to one form of communication, the employers are able to analyze the person from the very depth and then decide if he is or isn’t eligible for the job.

interview questions problem solving skills

It is important for both the interviewer as well as the interviewee to ask appropriate questions which will help both of them understand each other well.

One of the most important parts needed in a potential candidate for any job is problem-solving skills. Since problems are an integral part of life and can be faced by almost anyone in every situation, it is necessary for the candidates to be able to have a good understanding of the problems as well as skills required to solve them.

Employers during the interview process look for candidates with specific skills . One such important skill is a problem solving skill which is very essential to impress them. They are always in search of candidates who can solve problems arising in their organizations, either it can be related to the projects and tasks assigned to them or any other general company issues.

An eligible candidate should be one who can,

Interview Questions to Gauge Problem-solving Abilities:

Interviews are generally scheduled for gauging people with best skills and choosing best candidates. So to assess candidates well, behavior type of questions need to be asked. In this type of question, both critical thinking and problem-solving questions will be included.

Some of the similar types of questions are:

Below is a list of good problem-solving interview questions which an employer should ask an employee to check and determine how advanced are the problem-solving skills of a potential candidate.

How to Measure Problem Solving Skills in an Interview:

The following mentioned are few tips on answering problem-solving questions for interviews and testing problem-solving skills.

1. If you find yourself under a stressful situation which requires you to act quickly what would you do?

Your answer should determine how well are you able to handle stressful situations and not crack under pressure. Since every company has to deal with a lot of pressure, you need to convince the employers that you know how to handle and deal with the situations.

As a person who is unable to work under stress and pressure is considered of not much use in a corporate situation. In a world where a person is expected to always be ready and prepared, a candidate is expected to make sure that he is in tune with himself and is able to deal with the stress as it comes along.

2. Tell us in detail what would you do, if a situation arrives in which you are not able to do effective problem solving and complete your task because you did not have enough information about the project at hand?

Your answer should focus on the fact that you would do anything in your ability to reverse the situation and try to solve the problem created as well as complete your task as quickly as possible with precision. Since no man is perfect, there will be times when you will find yourself in a stressful situation caused by lack of attention or any other factor.

It is necessary to be honest in such situations, accept your mistake and do anything in your power to reverse it. A person who not only is able to deal with stressful situations but is also strong enough to take the blame for his misfortune is someone who is considered to be a gem for the employers.

3. Describe a time in which you were in a position where your problem-solving skills were regularly tested.

For the above-mentioned problem-solving questions for interview, your answer should focus on your positive skills of problem-solving. You should also effectively mention about your analytical skills which will help the employers understand your skills and put you in a positive light.

So make sure that you also give some solid examples of your thoughts and various options that you considered for solving the problem.

4. How well can you manage to complete a task given to you in time half of what is actually required as it is of utmost importance to the company?

Your answer to this question should emphasize your skills of working under stressful situations and also on the ways or steps that you would take to manage the task effectively without compromising on its precision and quality.

Many times in corporate firms, a person is expected to give results in a very stringent time frame. It is important for the firm and its employers to make sure that a candidate is able to deal with such pressures and not crack during times like these.

5. Describe the most stressful work situation you came across and how did you handle it?

This is one of the interview questions to assess analytical skills along with problem-solving skills. Your answer for this should revolve around not only your problem solving and analytical skills but the steps which you really took to reverse the problem.

The firsthand experience of problem-solving and dealing with stressful situations is much appreciated by any employer as it gives a candidate greater chances of bagging the job. A person who has seen in real how a problem can arrive out of anywhere and the way a problem changes the situation is of great importance to the company.

6. How would you manage a project which requires systematic and to the point analysis of every single detail that goes into its proceeding?

Your answer should focus on Systematic analysis and the various ways in which you can be able to make the analysis to the very last detail. Every project done with precision is much needed in any firm and employers first prefer the people who are willing to create such perfect results with little or no scope for mistakes.

A person or candidate who has an eye for detail and precision not only is a good employee but also a great example to the other co-workers in an organization. People who give their best in their work are often chosen first by employers during the hiring process.

7. Give us an example of a situation which you would do differently if given another chance.

This type of problem-solving questions for interviews might probably leave a lot of candidates confused. It is important to be straight forward and if needed even accept ones bad decisions and give a different way of going through with the problem if given a second chance.

Employers believe that people who are passionate about their job and if they go wrong somewhere, they have always the thought in mind that what they would do or could do if given another chance to rectify the mistake. People who are straight forward as well as thoughtful are appreciated by the employers who are hiring.

8. Tell us about the various decisions which are significant to you that you have had to make in your current job.

The response to this question needs to be straight forward and to the point. However, make sure that you are forthcoming but do not in any way divulge confidential information to the employers or the interviewers. As if you accidentally say what you are not supposed to, you might not get the job and also lose your current one too.

People who know what to say, when to say and how to say are the people who are needed and required the most in the corporate field. If a candidate divulges confidential information about his current firm, there are chances that he might spill some information about the firm for which he is interviewing in the future. No employer would take that risk.

9. Do you follow any specific process or steps while solving a problem?

Usually, people who are good at solving problems and dealing with specific situations have a way which is usually defined by which they solve the problems. One needs to be forthcoming about its ways but also be very brief and to the point.

Jargon needs to be avoided. A candidate may also give a couple of examples from the past that he might have come across and used various ways to solve problems.

10. Discuss a problem at your current job which you yet have to solve.

The response to this question should highlight the toughest problem that you are working on. You need to show that you understand that some problems are not solved easily and a lot of determination and perseverance is needed to solve these problems.

A candidate with the qualities of determination and perseverance is immediately liked by the employers and can be hired for the job.

Problem Solving Questions Interview:

Problem-solving interview questions are basically asked to test and measure a candidate’s way of solving and providing a solution to complex and unusual issues.

Common examples of problem-solving interview questions

Steps to develop an impressive answer to the problem solving skills questions:

Out of all the questions asked and the answers given one must understand that a candidate needs to be honest in his responses and an employer considerate in his questions. One should not divulge or asked to divulge unnecessary information with the help of these questions.


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Problem solving: the mark of an independent employee

Problem-solving abilities are essential in virtually any graduate role you can think of. Discover how to develop your problem-solving skills and demonstrate them to eagle-eyed recruiters.

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Interviewers will be interested to discover how you'd approach problems that could arise in the workplace.

Problem solving is all about using logic, as well as imagination, to make sense of a situation and come up with an intelligent solution. In fact, the best problem solvers actively anticipate potential future problems and act to prevent them or to mitigate their effects.

Problem-solving abilities are connected to a number of other skills, including:

Identifying a problem is often the kernel for a new business or product idea – and, as such, problem solving is an essential ingredient of entrepreneurialism . It is also a key component of good leadership .

Short on time? Watch our one-minute guide to problem solving


Our targetjobs careers expert gives you a quick guide to showing off your problem-solving skills in a job interview.

Why all graduates require problem-solving skills in the workplace

Some graduate careers revolve around finding solutions – for example, engineering , management consulting , scientific research and technology . Graduates in other careers, meanwhile, will be expected to solve problems that crop up in the course of their jobs: for example, trainee managers should deal with operational problems (such as delays in the supply chain) or resolve conflict between team members.

In fact, the ability to solve problems is an essential part of any employee’s skill set, even if it isn’t specified on the job description.

How to improve your problem-solving skills

Get the insights and skills you need to shape your career journey with Pathways. Learn and practise a selection of simple yet effective reasoning strategies to take your problem solving to the next level.

How will employers assess your problem-solving skills?

Your problem-solving abilities can be assessed in three ways: by asking for examples of times when you previously solved a problem; by presenting you with certain hypothetical situations and asking how you would respond to them; and by seeing how you apply your problem-solving skills to different tests and exercises.

Competency-based application and interview questions about problem solving

You may be asked for an example of when you solved a problem on an application form – for instance, an engineering firm’s application form has previously included the question ‘Please tell us about a time when you have used your technical skills and knowledge to solve a problem’. But these questions are more likely at interview. Typical problem-solving competency-based questions include:

Hypothetical interview questions about problem solving

Interviewers will also be interested to know how you would approach problems that could arise when you are in the workplace. The precise interview questions will vary according to the job, but common ones include:

Problem-solving exercises and tests for graduate jobs

Different tests that employers could set to gauge your problem-solving skills include:

How to develop and demonstrate your problem-solving skills

Here are some tips on how to develop the problem-solving techniques employers look for.

Seek out opportunities to gain problem-solving examples

Dealing with any of the following situations will help you gain problem-solving skills, perhaps without even realising it:

There should also be opportunities for you to develop problem-solving skills through your studies. Many assignments in subjects such as engineering and computer science are explicitly based around solving a problem in a way that, for example, essay topics in English literature aren’t. But, then, English literature students may also encounter academic problems, such as difficulties in tracking down the best source material.

Some professional bodies (for example, those in construction) run competitions for students, which often ask students to suggest solutions for problems facing the industry; entering these can provide good evidence of your problem-solving skills.

Games such as Sudoku and chess can also strengthen your ability to think strategically and creatively.

Practise recruitment exercises beforehand

Any candidate, no matter how high-flying, may be thrown by undertaking an online test or attending an assessment centre for the first time, so do everything you can to practise beforehand. Access our links to free and paid-for practice tests. Contact your careers service and book in for a mock-interview or mock-assessment centre.

Keep in mind this problem-solving technique

If you’re provided with a scenario or a case study during the graduate recruitment process, you could try using the IDEAL model, described by Bransford and Stein in their book Ideal Problem Solver . It breaks down what you need to do to solve a problem into stages:

Give detail in your answers

You will need to explain how you identified the problem, came up with a solution and implemented it. Quantifiable results are good, and obviously the more complex the situation, the more impressive a successful result is. Follow the STAR technique outlined in our article on competency-based interview questions .

If you tackled a problem as part of a team, explain how your role was important in ensuring the positive solution, but also explain how your group worked together. This could be an opportunity to promote your teamworking skills as well.

Related careers advice

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Problem-solving skills: what they are and how to improve yours.

Posted by Glassdoor Team

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Last Updated June 29, 2021

Guide Overview

Problem-solving skills in the workplace.

Problem-solving skills are a valuable trait that most employers seek in candidates. Being able to effectively solve problems is beneficial in nearly any position and can support a person's overall career advancement. Here we explore what problem-solving skills are, the most important skills in the workplace, steps to solve problems, and tips for improving this skill set.

Problem-solving skills defined

Problem-solving skills are skills that allow individuals to efficiently and effectively find solutions to issues. This attribute is a primary skill that employers look for in job candidates and is essential in a variety of careers. This skill is considered to be a soft skill, or an individual strength, as opposed to a learned hard skill. Effective problem-solving involves several skills within the problem-solving category, and each career may require specific problem-solving skills. For example, a marketing professional will need good communication, research, and creativity skills, all of which fall under the problem-solving umbrella.

Important problem-solving skills

The following are a few of the most important problem-solving skills in the workplace:

Decision-making skills

Decision-making skills are an important component of problem-solving as most problems require decisions to be made in order to address and resolve the issue. Good decision-making skills help professionals quickly choose between two or more alternatives after evaluating the pros and cons of each. Essential skills that fall under this skill category include intuition, reasoning, creativity, and organization.

Communication skills

In order to be an effective problem solver, you must be able to successfully communicate the problem to others as well as your recommendations for a solution. Proper communication can ensure solutions are effectively carried out and that everyone is on the same page regarding an issue. Good communication skills necessary to solve problems include active listening, verbal communication, written communication, receiving and giving feedback, and respect.


Collaboration skills are essential to solving problems as they allow you to work well with others towards a common goal. Nearly all workplace settings require some level of collaboration, making it an essential skill to have for every professional. Good collaboration skills ensure that communication is open, problems are addressed in a cooperative manner, and group goals are placed ahead of personal goals. Important collaboration skills to have in terms of problem-solving include emotional intelligence, curiosity, conflict resolution, respect, and sensitivity.

Open mindedness

Being open minded is another important component of strong problem-solving skills, as you must be able to look at things from different angles and consider alternatives when necessary. Open mindedness is essentially the willingness to look at things from a different perspective and consider new ideas. Characteristics of an open-minded person include curiosity, acceptance, eagerness to learn, and awareness.

Analytical skills

Nearly all problem-solving requires some level of analysis, whether it be simply analyzing the current situation to form a solution or the analysis of data and research related to the problem. Analytical skills allow an individual to better understand an issue and come up with effective solutions based on evidence and facts. Analytical skills that come in handing during the problem-solving process include critical thinking, research, data analysis, troubleshooting, and forecasting.

Problem-solving steps

The following are the primary steps used in the problem-solving process:

Tips for improving problem-solving skills

There are several ways you can work to improve your ability to solve problems, including:

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What Are Problem-Solving Skills? (Definition, Examples, And How To List On A Resume)

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Types of Problem-Solving Skills

How to improve your problem-solving skills, example answers to problem-solving interview questions, how to show off problem-solving skills on a resume, example resume and cover letter with problem-solving skills, more about problem-solving skills, problem solving skills faqs.

Summary. Problem-solving skills include analysis, creativity, prioritization, organization, and troubleshooting. To solve a problem, you need to use a variety of skills based on the needs of the situation. Most jobs essentially boil down to identifying and solving problems consistently and effectively. That’s why employers value problem-solving skills in job candidates for just about every role. We’ll cover problem-solving methods, ways to improve your problem-solving skills, and examples of showcasing your problem-solving skills during your job search . Key Takeaways: If you can show off your problem-solving skills on your resume , in your cover letter , and during a job interview, you’ll be one step closer to landing a job. Companies rely on employees who can handle unexpected challenges, identify persistent issues, and offer workable solutions in a positive way. It is important to improve problem solving skill because this is a skill that can be cultivated and nurtured so you can become better at dealing with problems over time. What Are Problem Solving Skills?

Problem-solving skills are skills that help you identify and solve problems effectively and efficiently . Your ability to solve problems is one of the main ways that hiring managers and recruiters assess candidates, as those with excellent problem-solving skills are more likely to autonomously carry out their responsibilities.

A true problem solver can look at a situation, find the cause of the problem (or causes, because there are often many issues at play), and then come up with a reasonable solution that effectively fixes the problem or at least remedies most of it.

The ability to solve problems is considered a soft skill , meaning that it’s more of a personality trait than a skill you’ve learned at school, on the job, or through technical training.

That being said, your proficiency with various hard skills will have a direct bearing on your ability to solve problems. For example, it doesn’t matter if you’re a great problem-solver; if you have no experience with astrophysics, you probably won’t be hired as a space station technician .

Problem-solving is considered a skill on its own, but it’s supported by many other skills that can help you be a better problem solver. These skills fall into a few different categories of problem-solving skills.

Problem recognition and analysis. The first step is to recognize that there is a problem and discover what it is or what the root cause of it is.

You can’t begin to solve a problem unless you’re aware of it. Sometimes you’ll see the problem yourself and other times you’ll be told about the problem. Both methods of discovery are very important, but they can require some different skills. The following can be an important part of the process:

Active listening

Data analysis

Historical analysis


Create possible solutions. You know what the problem is, and you might even know the why of it, but then what? Your next step is the come up with some solutions.

Most of the time, the first solution you come up with won’t be the right one. Don’t fall victim to knee-jerk reactions; try some of the following methods to give you solution options.




Topic knowledge/understanding

Process flow

Evaluation of solution options. Now that you have a lot of solution options, it’s time to weed through them and start casting some aside. There might be some ridiculous ones, bad ones, and ones you know could never be implemented. Throw them away and focus on the potentially winning ideas.

This step is probably the one where a true, natural problem solver will shine. They intuitively can put together mental scenarios and try out solutions to see their plusses and minuses. If you’re still working on your skill set — try listing the pros and cons on a sheet of paper.


Evaluating and weighing

Solution implementation. This is your “take action” step. Once you’ve decided which way to go, it’s time to head down that path and see if you were right. This step takes a lot of people and management skills to make it work for you.







Project management

Evaluation of the solution. Was it a good solution? Did your plan work or did it fail miserably? Sometimes the evaluation step takes a lot of work and review to accurately determine effectiveness. The following skills might be essential for a thorough evaluation.

Customer service

Feedback responses


You now have a ton of skills in front of you. Some of them you have naturally and some — not so much. If you want to solve a problem, and you want to be known for doing that well and consistently, then it’s time to sharpen those skills.

Develop industry knowledge. Whether it’s broad-based industry knowledge, on-the-job training , or very specific knowledge about a small sector — knowing all that you can and feeling very confident in your knowledge goes a long way to learning how to solve problems.

Be a part of a solution. Step up and become involved in the problem-solving process. Don’t lead — but follow. Watch an expert solve the problem and, if you pay attention, you’ll learn how to solve a problem, too. Pay attention to the steps and the skills that a person uses.

Practice solving problems. Do some role-playing with a mentor , a professor , co-workers, other students — just start throwing problems out there and coming up with solutions and then detail how those solutions may play out.

Go a step further, find some real-world problems and create your solutions, then find out what they did to solve the problem in actuality.

Identify your weaknesses. If you could easily point out a few of your weaknesses in the list of skills above, then those are the areas you need to focus on improving. How you do it is incredibly varied, so find a method that works for you.

Solve some problems — for real. If the opportunity arises, step in and use your problem-solving skills. You’ll never really know how good (or bad) you are at it until you fail.

That’s right, failing will teach you so much more than succeeding will. You’ll learn how to go back and readdress the problem, find out where you went wrong, learn more from listening even better. Failure will be your best teacher ; it might not make you feel good, but it’ll make you a better problem-solver in the long run.

Once you’ve impressed a hiring manager with top-notch problem-solving skills on your resume and cover letter , you’ll need to continue selling yourself as a problem-solver in the job interview.

There are three main ways that employers can assess your problem-solving skills during an interview:

By asking questions that relate to your past experiences solving problems

Posing hypothetical problems for you to solve

By administering problem-solving tests and exercises

The third method varies wildly depending on what job you’re applying for, so we won’t attempt to cover all the possible problem-solving tests and exercises that may be a part of your application process.

Luckily, interview questions focused on problem-solving are pretty well-known, and most can be answered using the STAR method . STAR stands for situation, task, action, result, and it’s a great way to organize your answers to behavioral interview questions .

Let’s take a look at how to answer some common interview questions built to assess your problem-solving capabilities:

At my current job as an operations analyst at XYZ Inc., my boss set a quarterly goal to cut contractor spending by 25% while maintaining the same level of production and moving more processes in-house. It turned out that achieving this goal required hiring an additional 6 full-time employees, which got stalled due to the pandemic. I suggested that we widen our net and hire remote employees after our initial applicant pool had no solid candidates. I ran the analysis on overhead costs and found that if even 4 of the 6 employees were remote, we’d save 16% annually compared to the contractors’ rates. In the end, all 6 employees we hired were fully remote, and we cut costs by 26% while production rose by a modest amount.
I try to step back and gather research as my first step. For instance, I had a client who needed a graphic designer to work with Crello, which I had never seen before, let alone used. After getting the project details straight, I began meticulously studying the program the YouTube tutorials, and the quick course Crello provides. I also reached out to coworkers who had worked on projects for this same client in the past. Once I felt comfortable with the software, I started work immediately. It was a slower process because I had to be more methodical in my approach, but by putting in some extra hours, I turned in the project ahead of schedule. The client was thrilled with my work and was shocked to hear me joke afterward that it was my first time using Crello.
As a digital marketer , website traffic and conversion rates are my ultimate metrics. However, I also track less visible metrics that can illuminate the story behind the results. For instance, using Google Analytics, I found that 78% of our referral traffic was coming from one affiliate, but that these referrals were only accounting for 5% of our conversions. Another affiliate, who only accounted for about 10% of our referral traffic, was responsible for upwards of 30% of our conversions. I investigated further and found that the second, more effective affiliate was essentially qualifying our leads for us before sending them our way, which made it easier for us to close. I figured out exactly how they were sending us better customers, and reached out to the first, more prolific but less effective affiliate with my understanding of the results. They were able to change their pages that were referring us traffic, and our conversions from that source tripled in just a month. It showed me the importance of digging below the “big picture” metrics to see the mechanics of how revenue was really being generated through digital marketing.

You can bring up your problem-solving skills in your resume summary statement , in your work experience , and under your education section , if you’re a recent graduate. The key is to include items on your resume that speak direclty to your ability to solve problems and generate results.

If you can, quantify your problem-solving accomplishments on your your resume . Hiring managers and recruiters are always more impressed with results that include numbers because they provide much-needed context.

This sample resume for a Customer Service Representative will give you an idea of how you can work problem solving into your resume.

Michelle Beattle 111 Millennial Parkway Chicago, IL 60007 (555) 987-6543 [email protected] Professional Summary Qualified Customer Services Representative with 3 years in a high-pressure customer service environment. Professional, personable, and a true problem solver. Work History ABC Store — Customer Service Representative 01/2015 — 12/2017 Managed in-person and phone relations with customers coming in to pick up purchases, return purchased products, helped find and order items not on store shelves, and explained details and care of merchandise. Became a key player in the customer service department and was promoted to team lead. XYZ Store — Customer Service Representative/Night Manager 01/2018 — 03/2020, released due to Covid-19 layoffs Worked as the night manager of the customer service department and filled in daytime hours when needed. Streamlined a process of moving customers to the right department through an app to ease the burden on the phone lines and reduce customer wait time by 50%. Was working on additional wait time problems when the Covid-19 pandemic caused our stores to close permanently. Education Chicago Tech 2014-2016 Earned an Associate’s Degree in Principles of Customer Care Skills Strong customer service skills Excellent customer complaint resolution Stock record management Order fulfillment New product information Cash register skills and proficiency Leader in problem solving initiatives

You can see how the resume gives you a chance to point out your problem-solving skills and to show where you used them a few times. Your cover letter is your chance to introduce yourself and list a few things that make you stand out from the crowd.

Michelle Beattle 111 Millennial Parkway Chicago, IL 60007 (555) 987-6543 [email protected] Dear Mary McDonald, I am writing in response to your ad on Zippia for a Customer Service Representative . Thank you for taking the time to consider me for this position. Many people believe that a job in customer service is simply listening to people complain all day. I see the job as much more than that. It’s an opportunity to help people solve problems, make their experience with your company more enjoyable, and turn them into life-long advocates of your brand. Through my years of experience and my educational background at Chicago Tech, where I earned an Associate’s Degree in the Principles of Customer Care, I have learned that the customers are the lifeline of the business and without good customer service representatives, a business will falter. I see it as my mission to make each and every customer I come in contact with a fan. I have more than five years of experience in the Customer Services industry and had advanced my role at my last job to Night Manager. I am eager to again prove myself as a hard worker, a dedicated people person, and a problem solver that can be relied upon. I have built a professional reputation as an employee that respects all other employees and customers, as a manager who gets the job done and finds solutions when necessary, and a worker who dives in to learn all she can about the business. Most of my customers have been very satisfied with my resolution ideas and have returned to do business with us again. I believe my expertise would make me a great match for LMNO Store. I have enclosed my resume for your review, and I would appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you to further discuss my qualifications. Thank you again for your time and consideration. Sincerely, Michelle Beattle

You’ve no doubt noticed that many of the skills listed in the problem-solving process are repeated. This is because having these abilities or talents is so important to the entire course of getting a problem solved.

In fact, they’re worthy of a little more attention. Many of them are similar, so we’ll pull them together and discuss how they’re important and how they work together.

Communication, active listening, and customer service skills. No matter where you are in the process of problem-solving, you need to be able to show that you’re listening and engaged and really hearing what the problem is or what a solution may be.

Obviously, the other part of this is being able to communicate effectively so people understand what you’re saying without confusion. Rolled into this are customer service skills , which really are all about listening and responding appropriately — it’s the ultimate in interpersonal communications.

Analysis (data and historical), research, and topic knowledge/understanding. This is how you intellectually grasp the issue and approach it. This can come from studying the topic and the process or it can come from knowledge you’ve gained after years in the business. But the best solutions come from people who thoroughly understand the problem.

Creativity, brainstorming, troubleshooting, and flexibility. All of you creative thinkers will like this area because it’s when your brain is at its best.

Coming up with ideas, collaborating with others, leaping over hurdles, and then being able to change courses immediately, if need be, are all essential. If you’re not creative by nature, then having a team of diverse thinkers can help you in this area.

Dependability, believability, trustworthiness, and follow-through. Think about it, these are all traits a person needs to have to make change happen and to make you comfortable taking that next step with them. Someone who is shifty and shady and never follows through, well, you’re simply not going to do what they ask, are you?

Leadership, teambuilding, decision-making, and project management. These are the skills that someone who is in charge is brimming with. These are the leaders you enjoy working for because you know they’re doing what they can to keep everything in working order. These skills can be learned but they’re often innate.

Prioritizing, prediction, forecasting, evaluating and weighing, and process flow. If you love flow charts, data analysis, prediction modeling, and all of that part of the equation, then you might have some great problem-solving abilities.

These are all great skills because they can help you weed out bad ideas, see flaws, and save massive amounts of time in trial and error.

What is a good example of problem-solving skills?

Good examples of porblem-solving skills include research, analysis, creativity, communciation, and decision-making. Each of these skills build off one another to contribute to the problem solving process. Research and analysis allow you to identify a problem.

Creativity and analysis help you consider different solutions. Meanwhile, communication and decision-making are key to working with others to solve a problem on a large scale.

What are 3 key attributes of a good problem solver?

3 key attributes of a good problem solver are persistence, intellegince, and empathy. Persistence is crucial to remain motivated to work through challenges. Inellegince is needed to make smart, informed choices. Empathy is crucial to maintain positive relationships with others as well as yourself.

What can I say instead of problem-solving skills?

Instead of saying problem-solving skills, you can say the following:

Critical thinker



Using different words is helpful, especially when writing your resume and cover letter.

What is problem-solving in the workplace?

Problem-solving in the workplace is the ability to work through any sort of challenge, conflict, or unexpected situation and still achieve business goals. Though it varies by profession, roblem-solving in the workplace is very important for almost any job, because probelms are inevitable. You need to have the appropriate level of problem-solving skills if you want to succeed in your career, whatever it may be.

Department of Labor – Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

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Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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Problem-solving interview questions and answers

Use these sample problem-solving interview questions to discover how candidates approach complex situations and if they can provide effective solutions.

Christina Pavlou

Christina Pavlou


Are you a candidate?

problem-solving interview questions

Why you should ask candidates problem-solving interview questions

Employees will face challenges in their job. Before you decide on your next hire, use your interview process to evaluate how candidates approach difficult situations .

Problem-solving interview questions show how candidates:

Identify candidates who are results-oriented with interview questions that assess problem-solving skills. Look for analytical and spherical thinkers with the potential for technical problem solving. Potential hires who recognize a problem, or predict one could potentially occur, will stand out. Candidates should also demonstrate how they would fix the issue, and prevent it from occurring again.

These sample problem-solving interview questions apply to all positions, regardless of industry or seniority level. You can use the following questions to gauge your candidates’ way of thinking in difficult situations:

Examples of problem-solving interview questions

Tips to assess problem-solving skills in interviews

Related Interview Questions

Related Topics

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How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills (and Show Them Off in Your Job Hunt)

Hot jobs on the muse.

group of colleagues sitting around a table at the office having a discussion

Problem-solving skills are critical for any career path—no matter where you work or what job you have, you’ll face problems big and small all the time. If you want to succeed in your career, being able to effectively navigate (and solve!) those problems is a must. And if you’re on the job hunt, showcasing your problem-solving skills can help you land your dream gig.

But what, exactly, are problem-solving skills? What can you do to improve them? And if you’re looking for a new position, how can you show off your problem-solving skills during your job search to help you land an awesome job?

Consider this your guide to all things problem-solving. Let’s get started.

What Are Problem-Solving Skills and Why Are They Important?

“Problem-solving skills are skills that allow you to identify and define a situation that needs changing,” says Doug Noll , an attorney and adjunct faculty member at the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University’s Caruso School of Law, where he teaches graduate-level classes in decision-making and problem-solving. Once you identify what needs changing, problem-solving skills also enable you to “identify the best outcomes, define potential processes for achieving the best outcomes, and evaluate how the process achieved (or failed to achieve) the desired outcome,” he says. “Every job imaginable involves problem-solving.”

Being able to effectively solve problems can help you succeed and impress, regardless of what kind of job you have or career you plan to pursue. “A person who sorts out problems and makes decisions—or at least brings potential solutions to the table—is seen as someone who can get things done,” says organizational consultant Irial O’Farrell , author of the upcoming book The Manager’s Dilemma: How to Empower Your Team’s Problem Solving . “This makes managers’ lives easier—and managers notice people who make their lives easier, who get things done, and who don’t have to be told [what to do] the whole time. In turn, opportunities are put their way, enhancing their career.”

And the further you progress in your career, the more important those skills become, Noll says. “As you rise in an organization, the problems become more complex, ambiguous, uncertain, and risky. Only people able to solve these types of problems are promoted.” So as you hone your problem-solving skills, you become more valuable to any organization—and will be able to climb the ladder more easily as a result.

The 6 Steps of Problem-Solving—and the Skills You Need for Each One

Problem-solving is a process. And, like any process, there are certain steps you need to take in order to get to the finish line:

Step #1: Identify and Assess the Problem

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is. So “the first step is to recognize that an issue—or potential issue—exists,” O’Farrell says. In order to do that, you’ll need “a certain amount of knowledge or awareness of what should be happening as compared to what is actually happening.”

Once you recognize there’s a problem, you’ll need to evaluate its potential impact. “Is this going to affect three people or 203 people? Is this going to cost us $10 or $100,000? How material is this issue?” O’Farrell says. “Being able to evaluate the size, impact, and costs [of a problem] is a key skill here.”

When you understand the scope of the problem, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re dealing with—and will be able to come up with appropriate, relevant solutions as a result.

Skills needed during this step of the problem-solving process include:

Step #2: Get to the Source of the Problem

Once you know what the problem is (and what its potential impact might be), it’s time to figure out where the problem is coming from or why it’s happening—as identifying the source of the problem will give you key insights into how to fix it.

“Often we notice a problem because of its symptoms, rather than its root cause. As a result, it is common to focus on resolving the symptoms, rather than what is causing the symptoms,” O’Farrell says. But “by understanding the root causes, a better, longer-term solution can be identified.”

There are a variety of techniques to help you dig deeper and understand what’s causing the problem at hand. For example, a 5 Whys analysis could help you uncover the root cause of a problem by having you ask “Why?” five times in a row, with each “Why?” building off the previous answer. Or you might try the fishbone diagram —also known as a cause-and-effect analysis—which encourages looking at the different categories that could be causing a problem and brainstorming potential root causes within each of those categories.

During this stage of the problem-solving process, curiosity is key; you’ll need it to explore all the different factors that could be contributing to the problem.

Step #3: Brainstorm Potential Solutions

Once you’ve identified the problem (and the root of the problem), “the next step is to brainstorm potential options that will resolve it,” O’Farrell says.

How much brainstorming you’ll need to do will depend on the problem you’re dealing with. “If it’s a fairly small, straightforward issue, then identifying a few options might be sufficient,” O’Farrell says. Especially for a bigger issue, “Taking some time to think beyond the obvious might lead to a better and longer-term solution.”

The size and scope of the problem will also determine who needs to be involved in this step. In some cases, you may be able to brainstorm solutions yourself. But if you’re dealing with a larger, more complex issue, getting more people involved (and choosing the right people, i.e. those best equipped to handle the problem) is important. You’ll need to be able to judge what kind of problem it is and who to bring in to help and lead a productive brainstorming session.

One of the most important skills you’ll draw on at this stage is creativity. The more creative you are during your brainstorm, the more (and better) potential solutions you’ll be able to come up with—and the more likely one of those solutions will be the solution you’re looking for.

Skills you might need during this step of the problem-solving process include:

Step #4: Evaluate Solutions

Once you have a list of potential solutions from your brainstorming session, the next step is to examine each one carefully and narrow down your list so only the best solutions remain.

In order to succeed during this stage of the problem-solving process, you’ll need to be able to dig into each potential solution and evaluate how viable it is. You may make a pros and cons list for each potential solution, talk through the benefits and drawbacks with your team, and then narrow down your options to the solutions that have the most potential upsides.

All the work you put into the problem-solving process up to this point will also come in handy as you’re evaluating which of your potential solutions might ultimately be the most effective. “Having a strong understanding of what the issue is, why it’s an issue, and what is causing it helps in being able to determine if each of the solutions will sort the issue out,” O’Farrell says.

Step #5: Choose the Best Solution

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential solutions—and weighed the pros and cons of each—it’s time for you (or your supervisor or another decision-maker) to choose one.

“Depending on the type and impact of the issue and your role and authority, you may be the one making the decision or you may be presenting the issue and potential solutions to your boss,” O’Farrell says.

Knowing who should make the call is a key part of this step; if the problem is complex or will have a major impact on your organization that goes beyond your level of responsibility, it’s probably best to bring potential solutions to your boss and/or other stakeholders—and give them the final say.

Step #6: Implement the Decision and Reflect on the Outcome

Choosing a solution in and of itself doesn’t fix anything. You need to actually implement that solution—and do it well. That means developing a plan and coordinating with other key players in your organization to put that plan into action—which requires a host of skills (such as communication, collaboration, and project management).

Before you can hang up your problem-solving hat, you’ll also need to “go back and evaluate if the solution sorted out the issue” or if it caused any unintended consequences, O’Farrell says.

For example, let’s say your organization has a problem with taking too long to address customer service requests—and you rolled out a new ticket management system in order to deal with the issue. Once you implement that new system, you’ll want to follow up to make sure it’s allowing your customer service reps to deal with requests faster and hasn’t caused any new, different, or unexpected issues (for example, tickets getting lost in the queue or customers being less satisfied with the quality of support they received).

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

Clearly, solving problems is a complex process—and it’s a process you need to nail if you want to grow in your career. But how can you improve your problem-solving skills so they can help you thrive in your career?

How to Show Off Your Problem-Solving Skills During the Job Search

Recruiters and hiring managers are looking for people with problem-solving skills who can help them, their team, and their company achieve their goals even in the face of obstacles and setbacks. So if you want to stand out, nail the interview, and score the job, you’ll need to showcase your problem-solving skills throughout your job search.

Here are a few ways to show off your problem-solving skills:

On a Resume

You can show potential employers that you’re a problem solver right on your resume. As you write your bullets for each past job and other experiences, “Incorporate one main challenge that you had to overcome, and give a brief synopsis of how you approached it, what the solution was and, most importantly, what the positive outcome was,” O’Farrell says.

For example, let’s say you’re a marketing manager and you had to figure out a way to launch a new product with a minimal budget. Under your current role, you might include a bullet point that says:

O’Farrell also recommends using action verbs (like “ analyze,” “evaluate,” or “identify”) to call out your problem-solving skills on a resume.

In a Cover Letter

In your cover letter, you’ll have more room and flexibility to showcase your problem-solving skills—and you should definitely take advantage of the opportunity.

Noll suggests using your cover letter to tell a quick story (think two to three sentences) about when and how you’ve solved a relevant problem. In your story, you want to include:

Another strategy is to highlight how you would use your problem-solving skills within the context of the role you’re applying for. “I’d recommend reviewing the job description and identifying what types of problems you might have to deal with in the role,” O’Farrell says. Then you can speak directly to how you might approach them.

For example, let’s say you’re applying for an executive assistant position that requires extensive scheduling and calendar management for an exec who is often traveling for business. In that situation, you might explain how you’d solve the problem of scheduling while the exec is out of office (for example, by developing an appointment approval system that allows the exec to approve all appointment requests remotely, with a plan for how to notify the exec of appointment requests that need immediate attention).

During Interviews

The interview process offers the best opportunity for your problem-solving skills to shine, so you’ll want to come prepared.

“In preparation for the interview, select two to three situations where you used your problem-solving skills,” O’Farrell says. That way, when the interviewer asks you for examples of problems you’ve faced in your career—and how you solved them—you’ll have relevant stories ready. If you’re not sure how to tell your story effectively, the STAR method (which breaks down your story into four parts: S ituation, T ask, A ction, and R esult) can be helpful.

As a potential candidate, it’s also important to ask how you’ll need to use your skills on the job, Noll says. So you might ask the interviewers to share some of the issues or problems they’re hoping to solve by filling this position.

And if they turn around and ask you how you’d solve those problems? Don’t panic! If you have a story of a similar problem you’ve solved in the past, this is a great opportunity to share it. Otherwise, just talk through how you would approach it. Remember, the interviewers don’t expect you to come up with detailed solutions for problems their company is facing on the spot; they just want to get a sense of how you would begin to think about those problems if you were hired.

how to assess problem solving skills

How to Improve Problem Solving Skills

Last Updated: October 14, 2022 References Approved

This article was co-authored by Erin Conlon, PCC, JD . Erin Conlon is an Executive Life Coach, the Founder of Erin Conlon Coaching, and the host of the podcast "This is Not Advice." She specializes in aiding leaders and executives to thrive in their career and personal lives. In addition to her private coaching practice, she teaches and trains coaches and develops and revises training materials to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. She holds a BA in Communications and History and a JD from The University of Michigan. Erin is a Professional Certified Coach with The International Coaching Federation. There are 15 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, 96% of readers who voted found the article helpful, earning it our reader-approved status. This article has been viewed 212,449 times.

The ability to solve problems applies to more than just mathematics homework. Analytical thinking and problem-solving skills are a part of many jobs, ranging from accounting and computer programming to detective work and even creative occupations like art, acting, and writing. While individual problems vary, there are certain general approaches to problem-solving like the one first proposed by mathematician George Polya in 1945. [1] X Research source By following his principles of understanding the problem, devising a plan, carrying out the plan, and looking back, you can improve your problem-solving and tackle any issue systematically.

Define the problem clearly.

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State your objective.

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Gather information systematically.

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Analyze information.

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Generate possible solutions.

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Evaluate the solutions and choose.

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Implement a solution.

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Review and evaluate the outcome.

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Adjust if necessary.

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Do regular mental exercises.

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Play video games.

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Take up a hobby.

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About This Article

Erin Conlon, PCC, JD

To improve your problem-solving skills, start by clearly defining the problem and your objective or goal. Next, gather as much information as you can about the problem and organize the data by rewording, condensing, or summarizing it. Then, analyze the information you've gathered, looking for important links, patterns, and relationships in the data. Finally, brainstorm possible solutions, evaluate the solutions, and choose one to implement. For tips on implementing solutions successfully, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Why Schools Need to Change Yes, We Can Define, Teach, and Assess Critical Thinking Skills

how to assess problem solving skills

Jeff Heyck-Williams (He, His, Him) Director of the Two Rivers Learning Institute in Washington, DC

critical thinking

Today’s learners face an uncertain present and a rapidly changing future that demand far different skills and knowledge than were needed in the 20th century. We also know so much more about enabling deep, powerful learning than we ever did before. Our collective future depends on how well young people prepare for the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century life.

Critical thinking is a thing. We can define it; we can teach it; and we can assess it.

While the idea of teaching critical thinking has been bandied around in education circles since at least the time of John Dewey, it has taken greater prominence in the education debates with the advent of the term “21st century skills” and discussions of deeper learning. There is increasing agreement among education reformers that critical thinking is an essential ingredient for long-term success for all of our students.

However, there are still those in the education establishment and in the media who argue that critical thinking isn’t really a thing, or that these skills aren’t well defined and, even if they could be defined, they can’t be taught or assessed.

To those naysayers, I have to disagree. Critical thinking is a thing. We can define it; we can teach it; and we can assess it. In fact, as part of a multi-year Assessment for Learning Project , Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., has done just that.

Before I dive into what we have done, I want to acknowledge that some of the criticism has merit.

First, there are those that argue that critical thinking can only exist when students have a vast fund of knowledge. Meaning that a student cannot think critically if they don’t have something substantive about which to think. I agree. Students do need a robust foundation of core content knowledge to effectively think critically. Schools still have a responsibility for building students’ content knowledge.

However, I would argue that students don’t need to wait to think critically until after they have mastered some arbitrary amount of knowledge. They can start building critical thinking skills when they walk in the door. All students come to school with experience and knowledge which they can immediately think critically about. In fact, some of the thinking that they learn to do helps augment and solidify the discipline-specific academic knowledge that they are learning.

The second criticism is that critical thinking skills are always highly contextual. In this argument, the critics make the point that the types of thinking that students do in history is categorically different from the types of thinking students do in science or math. Thus, the idea of teaching broadly defined, content-neutral critical thinking skills is impossible. I agree that there are domain-specific thinking skills that students should learn in each discipline. However, I also believe that there are several generalizable skills that elementary school students can learn that have broad applicability to their academic and social lives. That is what we have done at Two Rivers.

Defining Critical Thinking Skills

We began this work by first defining what we mean by critical thinking. After a review of the literature and looking at the practice at other schools, we identified five constructs that encompass a set of broadly applicable skills: schema development and activation; effective reasoning; creativity and innovation; problem solving; and decision making.

critical thinking competency

We then created rubrics to provide a concrete vision of what each of these constructs look like in practice. Working with the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE) , we refined these rubrics to capture clear and discrete skills.

For example, we defined effective reasoning as the skill of creating an evidence-based claim: students need to construct a claim, identify relevant support, link their support to their claim, and identify possible questions or counter claims. Rubrics provide an explicit vision of the skill of effective reasoning for students and teachers. By breaking the rubrics down for different grade bands, we have been able not only to describe what reasoning is but also to delineate how the skills develop in students from preschool through 8th grade.

reasoning rubric

Before moving on, I want to freely acknowledge that in narrowly defining reasoning as the construction of evidence-based claims we have disregarded some elements of reasoning that students can and should learn. For example, the difference between constructing claims through deductive versus inductive means is not highlighted in our definition. However, by privileging a definition that has broad applicability across disciplines, we are able to gain traction in developing the roots of critical thinking. In this case, to formulate well-supported claims or arguments.

Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

The definitions of critical thinking constructs were only useful to us in as much as they translated into practical skills that teachers could teach and students could learn and use. Consequently, we have found that to teach a set of cognitive skills, we needed thinking routines that defined the regular application of these critical thinking and problem-solving skills across domains. Building on Harvard’s Project Zero Visible Thinking work, we have named routines aligned with each of our constructs.

For example, with the construct of effective reasoning, we aligned the Claim-Support-Question thinking routine to our rubric. Teachers then were able to teach students that whenever they were making an argument, the norm in the class was to use the routine in constructing their claim and support. The flexibility of the routine has allowed us to apply it from preschool through 8th grade and across disciplines from science to economics and from math to literacy.

argumentative writing

Kathryn Mancino, a 5th grade teacher at Two Rivers, has deliberately taught three of our thinking routines to students using the anchor charts above. Her charts name the components of each routine and has a place for students to record when they’ve used it and what they have figured out about the routine. By using this structure with a chart that can be added to throughout the year, students see the routines as broadly applicable across disciplines and are able to refine their application over time.

Assessing Critical Thinking Skills

By defining specific constructs of critical thinking and building thinking routines that support their implementation in classrooms, we have operated under the assumption that students are developing skills that they will be able to transfer to other settings. However, we recognized both the importance and the challenge of gathering reliable data to confirm this.

With this in mind, we have developed a series of short performance tasks around novel discipline-neutral contexts in which students can apply the constructs of thinking. Through these tasks, we have been able to provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate their ability to transfer the types of thinking beyond the original classroom setting. Once again, we have worked with SCALE to define tasks where students easily access the content but where the cognitive lift requires them to demonstrate their thinking abilities.

These assessments demonstrate that it is possible to capture meaningful data on students’ critical thinking abilities. They are not intended to be high stakes accountability measures. Instead, they are designed to give students, teachers, and school leaders discrete formative data on hard to measure skills.

While it is clearly difficult, and we have not solved all of the challenges to scaling assessments of critical thinking, we can define, teach, and assess these skills . In fact, knowing how important they are for the economy of the future and our democracy, it is essential that we do.

Jeff Heyck-Williams (He, His, Him)

Director of the two rivers learning institute.

Jeff Heyck-Williams is the director of the Two Rivers Learning Institute and a founder of Two Rivers Public Charter School. He has led work around creating school-wide cultures of mathematics, developing assessments of critical thinking and problem-solving, and supporting project-based learning.

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