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IDEAL Problem Solver by Bransford & Stein: Notes

Val's Notes


Book The ideal problem solver : a guide for improving thinking, learning, and creativity /
Author: Bransford, John.; Stein, Barry S.
Publication: New York, NY : W.H. Freeman, 1984

VM: I had to inter-library loan this item to read the original content.  This is highly cited throughout literature, so I wanted to have a good grasp on what it covered.  Here are my notes and commentary:

Chapter 1

The reason you should learn the IDEAL method is so you don't need to avoid problems.  The more know about and practice problem solving, the easier it gets.  It is learnable skill. It also prompts you to look for problems and solutions instead of just doing things the same old way.

Chapter 2

Improvement of problem solving skills.  

Model for analyzing the processes that underlie effective problem solving.

IDEAL Model for improving problem solving (Verbatim copy of Fig 2.1; p.12)

I = Identifying the problem.

D = Define and represent the problem.

E = Explore possible strategies.

A = Act on the strategies.

L = Look back and evaluate the effects of your activities.



I = Identifying that there is a problem that, once described as a problem, may be solved or improved.

D = Define and represent the problem. Draw it instead of trying to imagine it.

E = Explore possible strategies & alternative approaches or viewpoints. 

General strategies:
Break problem down into small simple problems.

Working a problem backwards.
Build scale model
Try simulation experiment, with smaller or simpler sets.

A = Act on the strategies. Try, then reflect or recall. Actively try learning strategy.

L = Look back and evaluate the effects of your activities. Look at results of learning strategy used: Does it work to allow full recall?

"Many students make the mistake of assuming that they have "learned" adequately if the information seems to make sense as they read it in a textbook or hear it in a lecture."   (p. 23"

use or practice, recall, or paraphrase - in order to evaluate effectiveness of learning.  

Math: Do example problems before looking at solution to practice concepts.  Look at solution to see where you went wrong (or not). 

Don't let the test be the first time you evaluate your understanding of material

Problem identification and definition.

Proof of concept - act/look/evaluate.

To find an answer to a problem, you can dig deeper, or dig somewhere else.  

Question assumptions about limits  The old - think outside the box- strategy.


Chapter 3

When memorizing, know what you need to remember  Definitions?  Concepts? Graphs?  Dates?  each teacher has different priorities...ask them what to focus on

Ways to solve problem of learning new information.

Techniques for improving memory.

Short term meomory

Long term memory

Remembering people's names

Studying for an essay test.



Using cues to retrieve information.  For example, you can remember IDEAL first and that will help you reconstruct the idea of how to solve problems.

Some strategies for remembering information:

Make a story full of memorable images. 

Funny obnoxious "vivid images" or "mental pictures" are more memorable.
(Ex: random words in a list, passwords, people's names. Banana vomit haunts me.)

Rehearse over and over - over learn.  
(Ex: Memorizing a phone number 867-5309)

Rehearse words in groups - chunking.
(Ex: Memorizing a part in a play, poems, pledges, short stories.)

Organize words into conceptual categories - Look for unifying relationships.
(Recall, order not important. Ex: Shopping list, points in an essay.)

Look for similarities and coincidences in the words themselves.
(Ex: How many words have e's, or 2 syllables, or have pun-ishing homonyms)

The feet that use the manual transmission car pedals are, from left to right:
C(Left-foot)utch, the B(Right-foot)ake, and the Accelerato(Right-foot)

Does order mimic alphabetical order?
The manual transmission car pedals are, from left to right, the
Clutch, the Brake, and the Accelerator)   

Use Acronyms

Acronym- easily remembered word: FACE

Acrostic- easily remembered phrase:  Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

Don't waste time studying what you already know

Image - Name Strategy:

What is unique about the person?  What is unique about their name?

Find a relationship between the two.

Other Pairing Strategies:

method of loci: arranging words to be remembered in association with familiar location or path.

Peg-word method: arranging words to be remembered in association with number order or alphabet letter order.

Chapter 4

Ways to solve problem of learning new information.

Strategies to comprehend new information.

more difficult than

Strategies to memorize new information.


Learning with understanding - comprehending new information.

Knowledge of CORE CONCEPTS in a field SIMPLIFIES problem solving. 

Ways to approach a problem of learning information that seems to be arbitrary:

Over-learn:  rehearse the facts until they are mastered.  2+2=4

Find relationships between images or words that are memorable: story telling, silmilarieties, vivid images, pegging, etc.

When a concept seems unclear, learn more about it.

Memory- can be of seemingly arbitrary words or numbers: ROTE (Ex. Facts and relationships) appearance

Comprehension - is understanding significance or relationships or function

Novices often forced to memorize information until they learn enough (related concepts and context) to understand it.

The mere memorization of information rarely provides useful conceptual tools that enable one to solve new problems later on. (p. 61,69)

Taking notes will not necessarily lead to effective recall prompts.

How do you know when you understand material?
Self-test by trying to explain material to another person.That will expose gaps in understanding.

Recall answers or solve problems out of order to be sure you know which concepts to apply and why.

Look at mistakes made as soon as possible, and learn where you went wrong.

Uses of information require more or less precision in understanding, depending on context. (A pilot must know more about an airplane than a passenger.)

Chapter 5

Evaluation basics:
evaluate factual claims
look for flaws in logic
question assumptions that form the basis of the argument

Correlation does not necessarily prove cause and effect.

Chapter 6

Importance of being able to criticize ideas and generate alternatives.

Strategies for effective criticism.

Strategies for formulating creative solutions.

Finding/understanding implicit assumptions that hamper brainstorming.

Strategies for making implicit assumptions explicit.

"The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a creative mnd to spot wrong questions."
Emphasis added. - Anthony Jay, (p.93)

Making implicit assumptions explicit:
look for inconsistencies
question assumptions
make predictions
analyze worst case
get feedback & criticism from others

Increase generation of novel ideas:
break down problem into smaller parts
analyze properties on a simpler level
use analogies
use brainstorming
give it a rest, sleep on it
don't be in a hurry, let ideas incubate: ​talk to others, read, keep the problem in the back of your mind
try to communicate your ideas as clearly as possible, preferably in writing.
attempting to write or teach an idea can function as a discovery technique

Chapter 7

Strategies for Effective Communication


With whom


What we are trying to accomplish (goal)


Evaluating communication fro effectiveness:

Identify and Define: Have you given audience basis to understand different points of view about a topic? Different problem definitions can lead to different solutions. Did you Explore pros and cons of different strategies? Did you take Action and then Look at consequences?

Did you organize your content into main points that are easy to identify and remeber?

Did you use analogies and background information to put facts into context?

Did you make sure your facts were accurate and did you avoid making assumptions?Always check for logical fallacies and inconsistencies. 

Did you include information that is novel and useful, instead of just regurgitating what everyone already knows?

After you communicate, get feedback and evaluate your strategies.  Look for effects, and learn from your mistakes.  (p. 117)

Identify and Define what (problem) you want to communicate, with respect to your audience and your goals. Explore strategies for communicating your ideas.Act - based on your strategies. Look at effects.

Chapter 8

Summaries of Useful  Attitudes and Strategies: Anybody can use the IDEAL system to improve their problem solving skills.

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