Problem-solution essays are a common essay type, especially for short essays such as subject exams or IELTS. The page gives information on what they are, how to structure this type of essay, and gives an example problem-solution essay on the topic of obesity and fitness levels.
What are problem-solution essays?
Problem-solution essays consider the problems of a particular situation, and give solutions to those problems. They are in some ways similar to cause and effect essays, especially in terms of structure (see below). Problem-solution essays are actually a sub-type of another type of essay, which has the following four components:
The 'situation' may be included in the essay prompt, in which case it will not be needed in the main body. If it is needed, it can often be included in the introduction, especially for short essays, as with the example essay below. The 'evaluation' may be included as part of the conclusion (also as in the example below), or omitted altogether, especially for short essays. For these reasons, problem-solution essays are more common than situation-problem-solution-evaluation essays (or SPSE essays).
There are two main ways to structure a problem-solution essay. These are similar to the ways to structure cause and effect essays, namely using a block or a chain structure. For the block structure, all of the problems are listed first, and all of the solutions are listed afterwards. For the chain structure, each problem is followed immediately by the solution to that problem. Both types of structure have their merits. The former is generally clearer, especially for shorter essays, while the latter ensures that any solutions you present relate directly to the problems you have given.
The two types of structure, block and chain, are shown in the diagram below. This is for a short essay, which includes the 'situation' in the introduction and 'evaluation' in the conclusion. A longer essay, for example one of around 1,000 words, with citations, would probably have these two sections as separate paragraphs in the main body.
Below is a problem-solution essay on the topic of obesity and poor fitness. It uses the block structure. Click on the different areas (in the shaded boxes) to highlight the different structural aspects in this essay, i.e. Situation, Problem, Solution, Evaluation. This will highlight not simply the paragraphs, but also (for problems and solutions) the thesis statement and summary, as these repeat the problems and solutions contained in the main body.
Consumption of processed and convenience foods and our dependence on the car have led to an increase in obesity and reduction in the fitness level of the adult population. In some countries, especially industrialized ones, the number of obese people can amount to one third of the population. This is significant as obesity and poor fitness lead to a decrease in life expectancy, and it is therefore important for individuals and governments to work together to tackle this issue and improve their citizens' diet and fitness.
Obesity and poor fitness decrease life expectancy. Overweight people are more likely to have serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, which can result in premature death. It is well known that regular exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, which means that those with poor fitness levels are at an increased risk of suffering from those problems.
Changes by individuals to their diet and their physical activity can increase life expectancy. There is a reliance today on the consumption of processed foods, which have a high fat and sugar content. By preparing their own foods, and consuming more fruit and vegetables, people could ensure that their diets are healthier and more balanced, which could lead to a reduction in obesity levels. In order to improve fitness levels, people could choose to walk or cycle to work or to the shops rather than taking the car. They could also choose to walk up stairs instead of taking the lift. These simple changes could lead to a significant improvement in fitness levels.
Governments could also implement initiatives to improve their citizens' eating and exercise habits. This could be done through education, for example by adding classes to the curriculum about healthy diet and lifestyles. Governments could also do more to encourage their citizens to walk or cycle instead of taking the car, for instance by building more cycle lanes or increasing vehicle taxes. While some might argue that increased taxes are a negative way to solve the problem, it is no different from the high taxes imposed on cigarettes to reduce cigarette consumption.
In short, obesity and poor fitness are a significant problem in modern life, leading to lower life expectancy. Individuals and governments can work together to tackle this problem and so improve diet and fitness. Of the solutions suggested, those made by individuals themselves are likely to have more impact, though it is clear that a concerted effort with the government is essential for success. With obesity levels in industrialized and industrializing countries continuing to rise, it is essential that we take action now to deal with this problem.
Below is a checklist for the main body of an essay. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.
Basic Proposal Structure
(Based on the "Basic Features" section in the Proposing a Solution Chapter of The St. Martin's Guide to Writing.
The Basic Features
I: Introduction: Define Problem, State Solution
II: Examine Problem Further (if needed)
III: Explain Alternative Solutions (ones that have been tried but failed)
IV. Present Your Solution in Detail + Benefits
V. Conclusion: Restate severity of Problem + benefits
The Basic Features with Elaboration
a. Leads to thesis sentence/question at end of first or second paragraph.
b. Thesis statement defines solution for reader, or, hints at a solution but doesn't come right out with it. Instead, it defines problem and foreshadows a statement of solution later in essay.
A: Introduction to thesis statement
Should define problem, in one or two paragraphs, by specific methods:
1. Specific example of problem; specific case.
2. Historical example of problem; background on evolution of problem.
3. Show people being affected by problem.
4. Pose your solution/thesis at end of first or second paragraph.
II: Further Examination of Problem (Maybe)
1. Examine problem thoroughly in current social context. Purpose: to show reader the severity/magnitude of the problem; relate it to specific, real events. One or two paragraphs should suffice.
2. Examine problem thoroughly in a historical context; this relates back to introduction but expands the magnitude of essay.
3. Last sentence of each paragraph should cue the topic/subject of the next paragraph. What should be cued? Either further detailed discussion of problem, or begin to explain alternative solutions that have not worked.
III: Examine Alternative Solutions
1. Analyze first alternative solution; explain its full process, in detail, and its results.
2. Refutation: Diminish the effectiveness of the alternative solution by pointing out its weaknesses. A paragraph should suffice for detailed elaboration on each weakness of solution.
3. Repeat steps one and two above, depending on the number of alternative solutions you've decided to address.
IV. Your Solution
1. Define your own solution, in detail, in a step-by-step manner, in two or three paragraphs. The number of paragraphs depends on how many points your solution entails. Remember, you are directing the reader to take action.
2. In two or three paragraphs, explain to reader the benefits of each point of your solutions, relating to feasibility and the positive impact your solution will have on society.
3. It's also an option to integrate alternative solutions into your own solution, pointing out how your solution (steps of action) would be more likely than the alternative solution's to solve the problem.
1. Restate severity of problem; negative benefits of alternative solutions, then;
2. Restate benefits of solution and leave reader with overall statement of the positive effect your solution will have.
A Note on Transitions:
Make sure that the last sentence of each paragraph cues the topic sentence of the next paragraph; the reverse is also true.
Each sentence is an idea, thus each subsequent idea (sentence) should follow logically from the last. Each idea grows until there is a reasonable conclusion, which will be the resolution/conclusion of the paragraph.
In the essay, no sentences are wasted. Each sentence must be logically connected to the sentence before and after it.