Skip to main content

How to Teach Writing Problem-Solution Essays

After over 20 years of teaching college English, the author loves to share tips, teaching plans, and information about the profession.

How to Start

Teaching how to write a problem-solving essay can be difficult. You want students to understand how these essays work, and you need to also help them look at the different types of argument strategies that will convince their audience their solution is the best one. I always tell students to start looking for topics by thinking about what things they would like to see changed.


Lesson 1: Choosing a Topic

Introduction: I like to use one of these Scooter videos at the bottom to get students thinking about the fact that problems are both big and small. They can get students engaged in the topic and also generate ideas of real life irritations which can make good problem solution papers.

Brainstorming Problems:

The main goal of this lesson is for the students to start thinking about problems they might want to write about in their essay.

Step One: Have students list groups or organizations that they are a part of. Next, have them make a list of problems they have seen in those groups or organizations. I tell them that they can find problems by thinking "that irritates me" or "that could be done better."

Step Two: Have students share their brainstorming lists in small groups of 2-4.

Step Three: Have the groups share their lists out loud and write them on the board. Discuss how some problems are similar and how some problems may have a solution but that solution may not be effective.

Lesson 2: Examine Cause and Effect in Solving Problems

Take a current problem that is in the news. Write it on the board. Have students list the causes and effects of the problem (you can have them do this individually and then share with a class or just do this in a discussion). Notice that causes and effects are sometimes intertwined and that one problem may have several causes and multiple effects. I use this to talk about the fact that often we can do a proposal which deals with a different cause or narrows our proposal by dealing only with a smaller aspect of a problem, which makes it more possible to actually write an effective proposal. Next, I have the students practice finding causes and effects.

Step One: Have the students take the list of problems you have brainstormed in lesson one, or use ones the students have done in their pre-writing.

Step Two: Have students take one of these problems and write out a vivid description of it (this helps them to flesh out the problem and discover some of the causes and effects).

Step Three: Have them share their description with a partner. Then have the partners work together to decide on causes and effects for their problem.

Step Four: Have some of these shared aloud in class.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Lesson 3: Finding Solutions

Many different ways exist to solve problems. The goal of this lesson is to help students understand that just as one topic can produce many different problems, causes and effects, there can be many possible solution ideas. Give students the "Ways we solve problems" list below. Take the topic you discussed in lesson 2 or a new topic, and using the "Solutions" list brainstorm possible solutions for that problem. You might start with solutions that have already been tried, and then move to creative solutions.

Step One: Divide into groups of 3-4. Assign each group a problem discussed previously or have them pick one of the problems listed. Each group will work together to prepare a report for the class which covers the following:

  • What is the problem? Describe it in detail.
  • What solutions have been tried?
  • What new solutions could be suggested?

Step Two: Have groups report to class.

Lesson 4: Analyze a Student Paper

Using your textbook, or my Problem Solving Paper Writing Guide (see link below) and either one of the sample essays above or one in your textbook, discuss the elements of a problem-solution paper.

Discuss the three types of argument strategies: Classical, Rogerian, and Toulmin. Take an essay in your book and have students analyze it using these questions.

Note: Usually, I do this lesson twice, the first time, they read an essay outside of class and then I do a lecture on the types of argument strategies. Then they do a group lesson of analyzing the essay they read using the worksheet below. The second time, I divide them into small groups and assign each group a different short essay to read, analyze and then report to the class (or you could also assign all of the groups the same essay).

Step One: Divide students into groups. Have them use the questions below to analyze how the author of the essay has used the different arguing strategies in their problem solution essay.

1. Where is the problem stated? What type of evidence?

2. Where does the paper appeal to:

  • Emotion?
  • Reason?
  • Character?

3. In your opinion, which of these appeals is the strongest?

4. The three main types of rhetorical strategies are classical, Rogerian and Toulmin. Find the places in the essay where the writer uses the rhetorical methods below to convince the audience. Mark them on the essay. and explain on a separate sheet of paper. Which method is the main type of this essay? Where and how does the writer:

  • state claim/problem? What kind? Definition, cause/effect, value or policy? (all)
  • explain the proposal? (all)
  • establish common ground with the audience? (Rogerian)
  • empathize or agree with the opposition? (Rogerian)-show willingness to compromise? (Rogerian)
  • narrow the argument or use qualifiers to limit the scope of claim? (Toulmin)
  • explains how data, evidence, and logic supports the claim (Toulmin)
  • admit limitations of the proposal? (Toulmin)
  • argues and gives reasons for agreeing (classical)
  • refute opposition? (classical)

Step Two: Have the groups report to the class about their analysis. They can analyze which argument strategies they saw most in their essay. Discuss what was most effective in each essay and whether they felt there was something which the essay needed to add to be more effective.

Prewriting Homework

After you have done the above lessons, or concurrently, you can have students do the homework pre-writing exercises in my Problem Solving Writing Guide. These six exercises should give them all of the information and guidance they need to write their paper successfully. I've found that since I started teaching this method, my student's papers are much more thoughtful and their solutions are more practical. In fact, a number of my students have taken their papers and presented them (or the ideas in them) to an audience that can solve the problem. In several cases, these ideas have been implemented! Here are some examples of problems my students have solved:

  1. Campus waste from dining halls: Campus Kitchens has been created to donate the excess food to the Salvation Army and other places.
  2. Recycling: Bins have been distributed across our campus to make recycling easier and more natural.
  3. Dorm Visiting Hours: Hours have been changed to give students more time.
  4. Food in Dining Halls: Students have lobbied for better and healthier options, for nutritional information to be posted and for gluten-free and vegetarian options.

Do You Have a Good Teaching Technique?

I'm always learning from my readers and would love to hear your ideas for teaching Problem Solution Essays. Please share in the comments!

Related Articles