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The Psychology of Problem Solving

reviewed by William Altman - 2004

coverTitle: The Psychology of Problem Solving
Author(s): Janet E. Davidson and Robert J. Sternberg (Editors)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521797411, Pages: 194, Year: 2003
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Problem solving is the basis of how we frame our questions, choose strategies with which to seek answers, and determine ways in which to share our findings. Problem solving determines what we decide to teach, how we teach it, and how we discover when it has been learned. Moreover, as the editors point out, it is central to daily life. In The Psychology of Problem Solving, Janet E. Davidson and Robert J. Sternberg have gathered an outstanding group of researchers to provide a look at the history and the current state of problem solving research. The richness of the discussion throughout the various chapters, and the sheer quantity of information used to illustrate each point of view are impressive. As Kenneth Kotovsky points out in the final chapter, several themes organize the thinking of the various authors, and echo from chapter to chapter.  Among the most important themes are the representation of problems, the nature of expertise, and the comparison of the problem solving processes of experts and novices.


The book is organized into four parts: an introduction to problem solving research, a discussion of the abilities and skills of individuals that seem relevant to problem solving, an explanation of the roles of emotions, motivations, and strategies, and a final, integrative chapter.


We are introduced to the nature of problem solving and the processes of recognizing, defining, and representing problems by Jean E. Pretz, Adam J. Naples, and Robert J. Sternberg in chapter one. This provides an excellent foundation for the rest of the book, and prepares the reader with a concise but thorough summary of what researchers have discovered, and what they have yet to learn about problem solving.


In chapter two, K. Anders Ericsson argues persuasively that problem solving cannot be studied through the use of standard laboratory experiments on naive individuals. Rather, he suggests that we should concentrate on how people become expert problem solvers and how experts solve real problems. Beginning with a review of the early problem solving literature, Ericsson quickly moves on to demonstrate how more productive studies may be conducted and what has been learned so far in domains as diverse as playing chess, playing music, and typing. In his discussion, we revisit the ideas of representation and planning, and are introduced to the effects of motivation and deliberate practice, which are addressed in detail in later chapters.


Part two of the book begins in chapter three, in which Dorit Wenke and Peter A. Frensch examine the literature linking problem solving with intelligence, concluding that “There exists, thus far, no convincing empirical evidence that would support a causal relationship between any intellectual ability, on the one hand, and complex, implicit or explicit, problem solving competence, on the other hand.” (p. 121). They further conclude that there is good evidence linking the ability to solve complex problems with appropriate knowledge of the task at hand and the strategies available, echoing Ericsson’s conclusions in the previous chapter.


Todd I. Lubart and Christophe Mouchiroud discuss the processes of creative problem solving, as well as the interplay of motivational and environmental factors in chapter four. They posit the existence of a continuum between creative and non-creative problem solving, much in the way that Liam Hudson (1966) proposed that productive creative problem solving required the use of both divergent and convergent modes of thinking. Lubart and Mouchiroud also note that “All problem solving is not creative problem solving,” (p. 142) and that as Getzels and Jackson (1962) found, many teachers tend to place a greater value on non-creative approaches to problem solving, fostering an environment where curiosity is discouraged.


In chapter five, Janet E. Davidson discusses four major approaches to insight as it pertains to problem solving, noting that in fact, for insight to occur, a great deal of prior knowledge must be retrieved and applied to the problem at hand. In addition, it appears that insight helps in solving problems by providing a restructuring of the mental representations of a problem.


The role of working memory in problem solving is considered by David Z. Hambrick and Randall W. Engle in chapter six. This chapter is mostly speculative, as the authors note, because the research on working memory has been limited primarily to laboratory testing, and not to real problem solving applications. In their review of the literature, however, Hambrick and Engle are persuasive in saying that “...additional research concerning the interplay of working memory capacity will prove particularly informative about the importance of working memory in problem solving.” (p. 201).


Text representation in problem solving is the focus of chapter seven. Shannon Whitten and Arthur C. Graesser connect the earlier discussions of prior knowledge and problem representation to the qualities required of a problem solver dealing with printed information. In reading, the problem solver must represent not only the problem to be solved, but also the information provided through the texts used in solving it. To this end, Whitten and Graesser discuss different levels of text representations, the nature of how text is represented, and how these representations are accessed and used by the individual.


Chapter eight opens the third part of the book with a discussion of the role of motivation in developing expertise as a problem solver. According to Barry J. Zimmerman and Magda Campillo, major motivators include outcome expectations, level of self-efficacy, intrinsic task interest, and learning goal orientations in both formal and informal problem solving contexts. They present a cyclical process of trial, evaluation, and adaptation, in which expert problem solvers learn to keep themselves on task, critique their own performance, and adjust their behaviors accordingly. In practical terms, they suggest that if we wish to help students become expert problem solvers, we must address these motivations and train the students to foster self regulation, monitoring their own progress toward their chosen goals.


Norbert Schwartz and Ian Skurnik highlight research on the relationship of mood to information processing in chapter nine. The mood of a problem solver may affect whether she is able to perceive a problem, whether or not she believes that particular goals are attainable, her choice of strategies, and the effectiveness of monitoring of her progress in solving the problem. In addition, different moods seem to enhance or depress particular styles of problem solving, and may determine what information may be retrieved from memory. The authors conclude by noting that while mood studies have been useful, studies of the influence of specific emotions on problem solving should be much more revealing.


In chapter ten, Keith E. Stanovich takes a very different approach to prior knowledge from the authors of the previous chapters, noting that it often interferes with problem solving, as it becomes a bias or “default” for various values in our computational processing. Specifically, he discusses four major bias problems in our problem solving:  1) automatic contextualization, the use of prior knowledge and context which undermine logical thinking; 2) the tendency to “socialize” abstract problems by using our social beliefs out of context; 3) seeing intentional design in random events; and 4) using narrative modes of thought, filling in details that aren’t really there in order to complete a “story.” Stanovich gives excellent examples of how these natural biases might have worked to our advantage in a pre-industrial society, and how they may be maladaptive in a technological, logic-oriented society, which requires problem solvers to decontextualize or decouple problems from the environment. This is especially true in educational environments, where problems are often highly artificial and not connected to the “real world” in any meaningful way. In reading this chapter, I am strongly reminded of how forcefully Stanislaw Lem (1983) illustrated these points in the novel His Master’s Voice, which explores how such cognitive defaults might interfere with scientists’ abilities to properly represent or solve a particularly novel problem.


Stanovich’s analysis leads directly to Miriam Bassok’s discussion of transfer in chapter eleven. Echoing the earlier chapters on the nature of representation and expert approaches to problem solving, she notes that when solving a new problem, a novice may use an approach which succeeded for another problem that shared many of its textual or literal attributes, while a more expert problem solver would first determine which parts of the problem were relevant, and then seek solutions among problems similar in form, with little regard for the surface features of the problems. Thus, expert problem solvers would have greater success by transferring appropriate strategies. Novices would suffer as negative transfer prevented them from arriving at a reasonable way in which to attack their problems.


Part four, the final chapter, attempts to synthesize the preceding information. Kenneth Kotovsky presents a set of various dichotomies (e.g. ill-defined vs. well-defined, creative vs. non-creative, expert vs. novice) which have appeared throughout the work. He then expands this to include the dichotomy of studying the problem solver vs. studying the environments in which problems occurs. As he points out, although the study of problem solving is itself ill-defined, much productive research has come from such an orientation.


The Psychology of Problem Solving is an excellent look at both the history of problem solving research and the current state of the field. Its strength is found not only in the breadth and depth of material presented, but also in the attention given to prevailing weaknesses in problem solving research, and in delineating prospective areas in which fruitful inquiries might be undertaken. Researchers interested in problem solving will find it extremely valuable as a resource for understanding how their research fits into the larger frame of ongoing investigation, and uninitiated readers will find it an extremely accessible overview of the field. It would, in fact, be an excellent book for use in a college course on this subject. I recommend it highly.




Getzels, J. W. & Jackson, P. W. (1962). Creativity and intelligence. NY: Wiley.


Hudson, L. (1966). Contrary imaginations. London: Methuen.


Lem, S. (1983). His master’s voice.  (M. Kandel, Trans.). San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. (Original work published in 1968)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 944-948
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11227, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:49:33 PM

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About the Author
  • William Altman
    Broome Community College
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM ALTMAN is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Services at Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York. He earned his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Measurement from Cornell University in 1999.
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