Problem Solving – The 4 Step Approach


In order to excel at all examinations, particularly those perceived to be ‘tough’, having a methodological approach towards solving problems will pay you rich dividends both in terms of speed in solving problems as well as ongoing clarity of what you are doing.

The 4 Step methodology is a tried and tested methodology which, if applied properly, will enable you to improve your chances of success considerably. We outline it below for your benefit.

Step 1 :

Understand The Problem

  • Write down what you have been given (Call it inputs if you will)
  • Write down what you have to find out (Call this the output from the input)
  • If you see inconsistent units, the unit conversion should be done here itself.
  • State all the values of constants and assignation of variables.
  • Any figures that depict the problem should also be included here for, if a problem requires visualization in order to be solved, then one cannot proceed with a solution until the problem is clearly visualized.

Step 2 :

Plan Your Approach

  • In this step, you describe the path to be taken to solve the question
  • It includes any formulae / law / theorems / reaction mechnisms / special properties that will play a role in the solution
  • For some problems this may be a single line like “We will use Newton’s law of gravitation to determine the force between the two bodies”.
  • For others, this step can be quite extensive.

Step 3 :

Carry out your Plan

  • This step is the actual ‘number crunching’ where you work out step 2.
  • The length of this will depend on
    • how easy or difficult the mathematical simplification is
    • how many stages a reaction might involve
    • on the number of concepts that the solution requires (obviously)

Step 4 :

Look Back

  • This is where you actually check your working to see if what you have obtained as a solution is reasonable
    • If you haven’t reached one of the four alternatives, it isn’t reasonable!
  • You also need to check that your working in step 3 is correct.
    • If not, you may have reached the wrong alternative
  • It is important to understand that errors can happen in any (and possibly all) of the first three steps.
    • Step 1 Errors
      • You could have visualized the problem incorrectly
      • or failed to convert units
      • or misread a word
      • or misunderstood what the question is asking for.
    • Step 2 Errors
      • You may be using a theorem where it is not applicable
      • You may have remembered a formula incorrectly
      • or used an inapplicable reaction or reaction mechanism
      • or have reached some conclusion about a ‘property’ that really is not justified.
    • Step 3 Errors
      • You could have done the mathematical manipulations incorrectly
      • or missed a stage in a series of reactions.
  • In short, step 4 is a review process which you must drill yourself to undertake even if you feel sure about the answer


To summarize, the methodology involves


  • Putting down what is given and what is desired (Aim and Apparatus in terms of laboratory terminology)
  • What your methodology is going to be (Procedure)
  • Working out basis the methodology (Following Procedure)
  • Reviewing your answer (Observations and Conclusions)

In theory, this is a very simple process

The Four Step Method in Practice

In our experience, most of the errors occur in Steps 1 and 2.

For most problems there is not more than one way to solve it. For the tougher problems too, there are only a handful of approaches that can be used. But there are numerous ways of going wrong depending on the misunderstandings specific to the student.

The methodology inculcates in students the discipline of adopting this method through its ‘Online Forum’ where students can raise their doubts about any problem they are solving and where the teachers interact with the student to clarify the student’s own misconceptions.

If we give you the full solution to a problem, you will find us using it almost without exception


For it to be successfully used, students have to assimilate this process into themselves as their approach to solving every problem till it becomes ‘muscle memory’

Once you do this, we promise you that you will be amazed at your results.

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