Four Steps of Polya's Problem Solving Techniques

In the world of mathematics and algorithms, problem-solving is an art which follows well-defined steps. Such steps do not follow some strict rules and each individual can come up with their steps of solving the problem. But there are some guidelines which can help to solve systematically.

In this direction, mathematician George Polya crafted a legacy that has guided countless individuals through the maze of problem-solving. In his book “How To Solve It,” Polya provided four fundamental steps that serve as a compass for handling mathematical challenges. 

  1. Understand the problem
  2. Devise a Plan
  3. Carry out the Plan
  4. Look Back and Reflect

Let’s look at each one of these steps in detail.

Polya’s First Principle: Understand the Problem

Before starting the journey of problem-solving, a critical step is to understand every critical detail in the problem. According to Polya, this initial phase serves as the foundation for successful solutions.

At first sight, understanding a problem may seem a trivial task for us, but it is often the root cause of failure in problem-solving. The reason is simple: We often understand the problem in a hurry and miss some important details or make some unnecessary assumptions. So, we need to clearly understand the problem by asking these essential questions:

  • Do we understand all the words used in the problem statement? 
  • What are we asked to find or show? What is the unknown? What is the information given? Is there enough information to enable you to find a solution?
  • What is the condition or constraints given in the problem? Separate the various parts of 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?
  • Can you write down the problem in your own words? If required, use suitable notations, symbols, equations, or expressions to convey ideas and encapsulate critical details. This can work as our compass, which can guide us through calculations to reach the solution.
  • After knowing relevant details, visualization becomes a powerful tool. Can you think of a diagram that might help you understand the problem? This can serve as a bridge between the abstract and tangible details and reveal patterns that might not be visible after looking at the problem description.

Just as a painter understands the canvas before using the brush, understanding the problem is the first step towards the correct solution.

Polya’s Second Principle: Devise a Plan

Polya mentions that there are many reasonable ways to solve problems. If we want to learn how to choose the best problem-solving strategy, the most effective way is to solve a variety of problems and observe different steps involved in the thought process and implementation techniques.

During this practice, we can try these strategies:

  • Guess and check
  • Identification of patterns
  • Construction of orderly lists
  • Creation of visual diagrams
  • Elimination of possibilities
  • Solving simplified versions of the problem
  • Using symmetry and models
  • Considering special cases
  • Working backwards
  • Using direct reasoning
  • Using formulas and equations

Here are some critical questions at this stage:

  1. Can you solve a portion of the problem? Consider retaining only a segment of conditions and discarding the rest.
  2. Have you encountered this problem before? Have you encountered a similar problem in a slightly different form with the same or a similar unknown? Look closely at the unknown.
  3. If the proposed problem proves challenging, try to solve related problems first. Can you imagine a more approachable related problem? A more general or specialized version? Could you utilize their solutions, results, or methods?
  4. Can you derive useful insights from the data? Can you think of other data that would help determine the unknown? Did you utilize all the given data? Did you incorporate the entire set of conditions? Have you considered all essential concepts related to the problem?

Polya’s Third Principle: Carry out the Plan

This is the execution phase where we transform the blueprint of our devised strategy into a correct solution. As we proceed, our goal is to put each step into action and move towards the solution.

In general, after identifying the strategy, we need to move forward and persist with the chosen strategy. If it is not working, then we should not hesitate to discard it and try another strategy. All we need is care and patience. Don’t be misled, this is how mathematics is done, even by professionals. There is one important thing: We need to verify the correctness of each step or prove the correctness of the entire solution.

Polya’s Fourth Principle: Look Back and Reflect

In the rush to solve a problem, we often ignore learning from the completed solutions. So according to Polya, we can gain a lot of new insights by taking the time to reflect and look back at what we have done, what worked, and what didn’t. Doing this will enable us to predict what strategy to use to solve future problems.

  • Can you check the result? 
  • Can you check the concepts and theorems used? 
  • Can you derive the solution differently?
  • Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem?

By consistently following the steps, you can observe a lot of interesting insights on your own.


George Polya's problem-solving methods give us a clear way of thinking to get better at math. These methods change the experience of dealing with math problems from something hard to something exciting. By following Polya's ideas, we not only learn how to approach math problems but also learn how to handle the difficult parts of math problems.

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