How to Solve It - G. Polya

How to Solve It - G. Polya

How to Solve It, by the famous mathematician G. Polya is a classic math book. We present below some of the excerpts from that book.



1. Helping the student. One of the most important tasks of the teacher is to help his students. This task is not quite easy; it demands time, practice, devotion, and sound principles.

The student should acquire as much experience of independent work as possible. But if he is left alone with his problem without any help or with insufficient help, he may make no progress at all. If the teacher helps too much, nothing is left to the student. The teacher should help, but not too much and not too little, so that the student shall have a reasonable share of the work.

If the student is not able to do much, the teacher should leave him at least some illusion of independent work. In order to do so, the teacher should help the student discreetly, unobtrusively.

The best is, however, to help the student naturally. The teacher should put himself in the student’s place, he should see the student’s case, he should try to understand what is going on in the student’s mind, and ask a question or indicate a step that could have occurred to the student himself.

2. Questions, recommendations, mental operations. Trying to help the student effectively but unobtrusively and naturally, the teacher is led to ask the same questions and to indicate the same steps again and again. Thus, in countless problems, we have to ask the question: What is the unknown? We may vary the words, and ask the same thing in many different ways: What is required? What do you want to find? What are you supposed to seek? The aim of these questions is to focus the student’s attention upon the unknown. Sometimes, we obtain the same effect more naturally with a suggestion: Look at the unknown! Question and suggestion aim at the same effect; they tend to provoke the same mental operation.

It seemed to the author that it might be worth while to collect and to group questions and suggestions which are typically helpful in discussing problems with students. The list we study contains questions and suggestions of this sort, carefully chosen and arranged; they are equally useful to the problem-solver who works by himself. If the reader is sufficiently acquainted with the list and can see, behind the suggestion, the action suggested, he may realize that the list enumerates, indirectly, mental operations typically useful for the solution of problems. These operations are listed in the order in which they are most likely to occur.

3. Generality is an important characteristic of the questions and suggestions contained in our list. Take the questions: What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition? These questions are generally applicable, we can ask them with good effect dealing with all sorts of problems. Their use is not restricted to any subject-matter. Our problem may be algebraic or geometric, mathematical or nonmathematical, theoretical or practical, a serious problem or a mere puzzle; it makes no difference, the questions make sense and might help us to solve the problem.

There is a restriction, in fact, but it has nothing to do with the subject-matter. Certain questions and suggestions of the list are applicable to “problems to find” only, not to “problems to prove.” If we have a problem of the latter kind we must use different questions; see PROBLEMS TO FIND, PROBLEMS TO PROVE.

4. Common sense. The questions and suggestions of our list are general, but, except for their generality, they are natural, simple, obvious, and proceed from plain common sense. Take the suggestion: Look at the unknown! And try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown. This suggestion advises you to do what you would do anyhow, without any advice, if you were seriously concerned with your problem. Are you hungry? You wish to obtain food and you think of familiar ways of obtaining food. Have you a problem of geometric construction? You wish to construct a triangle and you think of familiar ways of constructing a triangle. Have you a problem of any kind? You wish to find a certain unknown, and you think of familiar ways of finding such an unknown, or some similar unknown. If you do so you follow exactly the suggestion we quoted from our list. And you are on the right track, too; the suggestion is a good one, it suggests to you a procedure which is very frequently successful.

All the questions and suggestions of our list are natural, simple, obvious, just plain common sense; but they state plain common sense in general terms. They suggest a certain conduct which comes naturally to any person who is seriously concerned with his problem and has some common sense. But the person who behaves the right way usually does not care to express his behavior in clear words and, possibly, he cannot express it so; our list tries to express it so.

5. Teacher and student. Imitation and practice. There are two aims which the teacher may have in view when addressing to his students a question or a suggestion of the list: First, to help the student to solve the problem at hand. Second, to develop the student’s ability so that he may solve future problems by himself.

Experience shows that the questions and suggestions of our list, appropriately used, very frequently help the student. They have two common characteristics, common sense and generality; As they proceed from plain common sense they very often come naturally; they could have occurred to the student himself. As they are general, they help unobtrusively; they just indicate a general direction and leave plenty for the student to do.

But the two aims we mentioned before are closely connected; if the student succeeds in solving the problem at hand, he adds a little to his ability to solve problems. Then, we should not forget that our questions are general, applicable in many cases. If the same question is repeatedly helpful, the student will scarcely fail to notice it and he will be induced to ask the question by himself in a similar situation. Asking the question repeatedly, he may succeed once in eliciting the right idea. By such a success, he discovers the right way of using the question, and then he has really assimilated it.

The student may absorb a few questions of our list so well that he is finally able to put to himself the right question in the right moment and to perform the corresponding mental operation naturally and vigorously. Such a student has certainly derived the greatest possible profit from our list. What can the teacher do in order to obtain this best possible result?

Solving problems is a practical skill like, let us say, swimming. We acquire any practical skill by imitation and practice. Trying to swim, you imitate what other people do with their hands and feet to keep their heads above water, and, finally, you learn to swim by practicing swimming. Trying to solve problems, you have to observe and to imitate what other people do when solving problems and, finally, you learn to do problems by doing them.

The teacher who wishes to develop his students’ ability to do problems must instill some interest for problems into their minds and give them plenty of opportunity for imitation and practice. If the teacher wishes to develop in his students the mental operations which correspond to the questions and suggestions of our list, he puts these questions and suggestions to the students as often as he can do so naturally. Moreover, when the teacher solves a problem before the class, he should dramatize his ideas a little and he should put to himself the same questions which he uses when helping the students. Thanks to such guidance, the student will eventually discover the right use of these questions and suggestions, and doing so he will acquire something that is more important than the knowledge of any particular mathematical fact.


6. Four phases. Trying to find the solution, we may repeatedly change our point of view, our way of looking at the problem. We have to shift our position again and again. Our conception of the problem is likely to be rather incomplete when we start the work; our outlook is different when we have made some progress; it is again different when we have almost obtained the solution.

In order to group conveniently the questions and suggestions of our list, we shall distinguish four phases of the work. First, we have to understand the problem; we have to see clearly what is required. Second, we have to see how the various items are connected, how the unknown is linked to the data, in order to obtain the idea of the solution, to make a plan. Third, we carry out our plan. Fourth, we look back at the completed solution, we review and discuss it.

Each of these phases has its importance. It may happen that a student hits upon an exceptionally bright idea and jumping all preparations blurts out with the solution. Such lucky ideas, of course, are most desirable, but something very undesirable and unfortunate may result if the student leaves out any of the four phases without having a good idea. The worst may happen if the student embarks upon computations or constructions without having understood the problem. It is generally useless to carry out details without having seen the main connection, or having made a sort of plan. Many mistakes can be avoided if, carrying out his plan, the student checks each step. Some of the best effects may be lost if the student fails to reexamine and to reconsider the completed solution.

7. Understanding the problem. It is foolish to answer a question that you do not understand. It is sad to work for an end that you do not desire. Such foolish and sad things often happen, in and out of school, but the teacher should try to prevent them from happening in his class. The student should understand the problem. But he should not only understand it, he should also desire its solution. If the student is lacking in understanding or in interest, it is not always his fault; the problem should be well chosen, not too difficult and not too easy, natural and interesting, and some time should be allowed for natural and interesting presentation.

First of all, the verbal statement of the problem must be understood. The teacher can check this, up to a certain extent; he asks the student to repeat the statement, and the student should be able to state the problem fluently. The student should also be able to point out the principal parts of the problem, the unknown, the data, the condition. Hence, the teacher can seldom afford to miss the questions: What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition?

The student should consider the principal parts of the problem attentively, repeatedly, and from various sides. If there is a figure connected with the problem he should draw a figure and point out on it the unknown and the data. If it is necessary to give names to these objects he should introduce suitable notation; devoting some attention to the appropriate choice of signs, he is obliged to consider the objects for which the signs have to be chosen. There is another question which may be useful in this preparatory stage provided that we do not expect a definitive answer but just a provisional answer, a guess: Is it possible to satisfy the condition?

(In the exposition of Part II [p. 33] “Understanding the problem” is subdivided into two stages: “Getting acquainted” and “Working for better understanding.”)

8. Example. Let us illustrate some of the points explained in the foregoing section. We take the following simple problem: Find the diagonal of a rectangular parallelepiped of which the length, the width, and the height are known.

In order to discuss this problem profitably, the students must be familiar with the theorem of Pythagoras, and with some of its applications in plane geometry, but they may have very little systematic knowledge in solid geometry. The teacher may rely here upon the student’s unsophisticated familiarity with spatial relations.

The teacher can make the problem interesting by making it concrete. The classroom is a rectangular parallelepiped whose dimensions could be measured, and can be estimated; the students have to find, to “measure indirectly,” the diagonal of the classroom. The teacher points out the length, the width, and the height of the classroom, indicates the diagonal with a gesture, and enlivens his figure, drawn on the blackboard, by referring repeatedly to the classroom.

The dialogue between the teacher and the students may start as follows:

“What is the unknown?”

“The length of the diagonal of a parallelepiped.”

“What are the data?”

“The length, the width, and the height of the parallelepiped.”

“Introduce suitable notation. Which letter should denote the unknown?”


“Which letters would you choose for the length, the width, and the height?”

“a, b, c.”

“What is the condition, linking a, b, c, and x?”

“x is the diagonal of the parallelepiped of which a, b, and c are the length, the width, and the height.”

“Is it a reasonable problem? I mean, is the condition sufficient to determine the unknown?

“Yes, it is. If we know a, b, c, we know the parallelepiped. If the parallelepiped is determined, the diagonal is determined.”

9. Devising a plan. We have a plan when we know, or know at least in outline, which calculations, computations, or constructions we have to perform in order to obtain the unknown. The way from understanding the problem to conceiving a plan may be long and tortuous. In fact, the main achievement in the solution of a problem is to conceive the idea of a plan. This idea may emerge gradually. Or, after apparently unsuccessful trials and a period of hesitation, it may occur suddenly, in a flash, as a “bright idea.” The best that the teacher can do for the student is to procure for him, by unobtrusive help, a bright idea. The questions and suggestions we are going to discuss tend to provoke such an idea.

In order to be able to see the student’s position, the teacher should think of his own experience, of his difficulties and successes in solving problems.

We know, of course, that it is hard to have a good idea if we have little knowledge of the subject, and impossible to have it if we have no knowledge. Good ideas are based on past experience and formerly acquired knowledge. Mere remembering is not enough for a good idea, but we cannot have any good idea without recollecting some pertinent facts; materials alone are not enough for constructing a house but we cannot construct a house without collecting the necessary materials. The materials necessary for solving a mathematical problem are certain relevant items of our formerly acquired mathematical knowledge, as formerly solved problems, or formerly proved theorems. Thus, it is often appropriate to start the work with the question: Do you know a related problem?

The difficulty is that there are usually too many problems which are somewhat related to our present problem, that is, have some point in common with it. How can we choose the one, or the few, which are really useful? There is a suggestion that puts our finger on an essential common point: Look at the unknown! And try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown.

If we succeed in recalling a formerly solved problem which is closely related to our present problem, we are lucky. We should try to deserve such luck; we may deserve it by exploiting it. Here is a problem related to yours and solved before. Could you use it?