Thursday, October 24, 2013

Polya's Problem Solving Technique

Polya's First Principle: Understand the problem

- Do you understand all the words used in stating the problem?
 - What are you asked to find or show?
- Can you restate the problem in your own words?
- Can you think of a picture or diagram that might help you understand the
- Is there enough information to enable you to find a solution?

Polya's Second Principle: Devise a plan

Polya mentions that there are many reasonable ways to solve problems. The skill at choosing an appropriate strategy is best learned by solving many problems. You will find choosing a strategy increasingly easy. Here is a partial list of strategies:

  - Draw a picture
  - Look for a pattern
  - Consider special cases  
  - Solve a simpler problem
 - Make an orderly list
  - Use a formula
  - Solve an equation
  - Guess and check
 - Eliminate possibilities
 - Use symmetry
  - Use a model
  - Work backwards
 - Use direct reasoning
 - Be ingenious

Polya's Third Principle: Carry out the plan

This step is usually easier than devising the plan. In general, all you need is care and patience, given that you have the necessary skills. Persist with the plan that you have chosen. If it continues not to work discard it and choose another. Don't be misled, this is how mathematics is done, even by professionals.

Polya's Fourth Principle: Look back

Polya mentions that much can be gained by taking the time to reflect and look back at what you have done, what worked, and what didn't. Doing this will enable you to predict what strategy to use to solve future problems.

Here is a summary of strategies for attacking problems in mathematics class. This is taken from the book, How To Solve It, by George Polya, 2nd ed., Princeton University Press, 1957, ISBN


- First. You have to understand the problem.
- What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition?
- Is it possible to satisfy the condition? Is the condition sufficient to determine the unknown? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?
- Draw a figure. Introduce suitable notation.
- Separate the various parts of the condition. Can you write them down?


- Second. Find the connection between the data and the unknown. You may be obliged to consider auxiliary problems if an immediate connection cannot be found. You should obtain eventually a plan of the solution.
- Have you seen it before? Or have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form?
- Do you know a related problem? Do you know a theorem that could be useful?
- Look at the unknown! Try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown.
- Here is a problem related to yours and solved before. Could you use it? Could you use its result? Could you use its method? Should you introduce some auxiliary element in order to make its use possible?
- Could you restate the problem? Could you restate it still differently? Go back to definitions.
- If you cannot solve the proposed problem, try to solve first some related problem. Could you imagine a more accessible related problem? A more general problem? A more special problem? An analogous problem? Could you solve a part of the problem? Keep only a part of the condition, drop the other part; how far is the unknown then determined, how can it vary?
Could you derive something useful from the data? Could you think of
other data appropriate to determine the unknown? Could you change the
unknown or data, or both if necessary, so that the new unknown and the
new data are nearer to each other?
- Did you use all the data? Did you use the whole condition? Have you
taken into account all essential notions involved in the problem?


- Third. Carry out your plan.
- Carrying out your plan of the solution, check each step. Can you see clearly
that the step is correct? Can you prove that it is correct?


- Fourth. Examine the solution obtained.
- Can you check the result? Can you check the argument?
- Can you derive the solution differently? Can you see it at a glance?
- Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem?

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