Strategies for STEM Problem Solving

Confused when solving problems in a Chemistry, Math, or Physics course and not sure what to do about it? Here are some tips.

Complete your homework to learn the concept, not the specific problem.

Can you read a problem and understand what kind of question it is asking? Can you identify the formula in the problem? Before solving problems, study the concepts and make sure you understand them. Understanding the concept is crucial for working through the difficult problems you will be faced with! "Memorizing and applying math formulas without understanding them is like repeating Russian words without knowing what they mean. You're not speaking the language. You're only imitating its noises." (Pauk)

Solve the Problem Explain the Process

Write down the equation, problem, or example here.
Then, solve the problem but break it down in steps.


Explain the process and make notes for personal understanding.

Insert a question that you need to discuss with the professor. 

Try to write in a sentence or two the steps of solving the  problem.

Troubleshoot with your professor or a peer tutor. 

Have your professor or a tutor watch you work out a problem instead of showing you how to do it. Your professor will better be able to pinpoint the exact place you get stuck by watching you work through problems.

Use homework as a learning aid.

  • Use your homework as a test of the concepts you have learned in class. Write out your homework in an organized way. This can be useful to you as you are trying to master more challenging problems or review for the test.
  • Before you compute, note what things are given, what relationships are stated or implied, and what is to be found or proved.
  • Find similar example problems in your textbook and use a different textbook or additional study material to work through the concepts/problems.
  • Do problems every day and start your assignment early! Do drill problems only after you're sure you understand the material. Otherwise, it wastes time and causes you to remember incorrect procedures.
  • Make a reference sheet. Extract the key information and formulas so that you can refer to them when necessary. This will also help you to prepare a notecard for the exam, if allowed by the professor.

Analyze how you are preparing for class.

  • Prepare for class by looking through your textbook over the concepts, formulas, graphs, and overall ideas. 
  • Use the examples from class as initial practice problems, and then do your own practice problems to ensure that you can work different problems.
  • Read through a group of problems and see if you can identify their similarities.
  • Prior to attending class, do one or two practice problems on the material that will be taught that day. Generating your own ideas about how to solve a problem (even if wrong) increases your understanding when learning the correct steps. 
  • When numbers are so large, small, or complicated that they interfere with your analysis of the problem, try substituting simpler numbers. This may reveal how to solve the problem.

Use practice tests as a study tool. 

  • Take a practice test in a test-like environment. Use only the resources you will have at the time of the test, and in the time you will be allowed. Don’t look at the answers too quickly. Try to work through the problem yourself first.
  • Use these tests to figure out what kind of information you are missing and which concepts you do not understand. Make a list of concepts to practice more.
  • Go through the practice test and take questions to the TA or professor.
  • Look at the chapter objectives for a potential study guide or practice test.

Cumulative study for greater progress.

Often what you study in the early stages of a course will be the building blocks onto which the weightier knowledge will be laid. Build your knowledge base carefully, and don't skip through any early chapters in your course. Also, be sure to review what you miss on a test to ensure you understand the concepts for future tests. 

Adapted with permission from Jesse Nelson, Academic Success Center Director at Oregon State University |

"All Tools & Worksheets | Math, Chemistry, Physics Strategies | Academic Success Center | Oregon State University.” Accessed November 3, 2015.

Pauk, Walter. How to Study in College. Boston, M.A.: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.