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What is the most efficient way to approach problem solving?

I currently use trial and error or fitting the question to similar questions I have solved before. Breaking the problem down to the base case helps a lot. Advice I got was that professors are primarily testing if you can identify what the question is asking for.

Know any general strategies?

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Your edits helped, and I added a minor tweak. Hope I didn't break the meaning. – Rory Alsop Apr 17 '13 at 13:21
Thanks for the edit. I'm currently reading Polya's How to solve it. Will update with ideas when done. – Spiritual Intuition Apr 17 '13 at 19:04
  1. Read the question
  2. Read the question again
  3. Keep the pen and paper aside, and visualize the problem in your head
  4. If required, draw a diagram/figure on paper.
  5. Solve it.

If you cannot solve it, try it again. If you still can't do it, visit your TA or professor.

My university has study centers for almost all subjects. Yours might have some too.

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You definitely need to identify what the question is asking for. If you don't do that correctly, you're bound to answer the question incorrectly!

Learn key concepts first, thoroughly, then go through the guided exercises, then try the practice exercises on your own and check your work. Textbooks are very helpful, even though paying attention in lecture may seem easier. If you learn the concepts, you're better off for exams, period.

Google is also your best friend. Google your problems if the book doesn't work. Watch YouTube videos that go through the specific type of problem you need to solve.

The bottom line: if you know what kind of problem you're dealing with, and then you know how to do it, it's only a matter of execution. Execution is certainly the hardest part, but it's a million times easier when you better understand the foundation upon which you're solving your problem.

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