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1. (of a method of teaching) allowing pupils to learn things for themselves
a. Maths Science Philosophy using or obtained by exploration of possibilities rather than by following set rules
b. Computing denoting a rule of thumb for solving a problem without the exhaustive application of an algorithm



(1) Heuristic methods of solving problems are usually contrasted to formal methods of solution, which are based on exact mathematical models. Heuristic methods, or heuristics, require less time than do methods involving an exhaustive, undirected search of all possible alternatives. Solutions obtained by heuristic methods are generally not optimal; they merely belong to the set of permissible solutions. The employment of heuristic methods does not always lead to the achievement of the goal set. In psychological and cybernetic literature, the term “heuristic” is sometimes applied to any method aimed at reducing the checking of alternatives or to inductive methods of problem solving.

(2) With respect to the organization of the process of productive creative thought, the term “heuristic” is sometimes applied to the mechanisms innate in man by means of which procedures for the solution of problems are engendered. Examples are mechanisms used to establish relations between elements of a problem situation, to eliminate unpromising approaches, and to form refutations with counterexamples. Such mechanisms, which in their aggregate define the metatheory of the solution of problems involving creative thought, are universal in character and independent of the specific problem being solved.

(3) Heuristic programming is a special method of programming for computers. In ordinary programming the programmer expresses a prepared mathematical method of solution in a form comprehensible to the computer. In heuristic programming, however, he attempts to formalize the intuitively understood method of problem solving that he believes a human being would use in solving problems similar to the one at hand. Like heuristic methods, heuristic programs do not necessarily ensure that the goal set will be attained or that the result will be optimal.

(4) The branch of the science of thought that studies heuristic mechanisms or procedures is known as heuristic. Its main subject is creative activity (seeCREATIVITY), and its principal problems involve models for decision-making in nonstandard problem situations, for seeking that which is new to a person or society, and for structuring descriptions of the external world through classifications like the periodic table of the elements or C. Linnaeus’ system for plants and animals. The science of heuristic draws on psychology, the theory of artificial intelligence, structural linguistics, and information theory.

(5) The term “heuristic” is sometimes applied, particularly in the Soviet literature, to a special method of teaching (Socratic method) or of group solution of problems. Heuristic teaching, in this sense, consists in asking the students leading questions and providing the students with suggestive examples. This method of instruction dates back to Socrates. In the group method of solving difficult problems known as brainstorming, creative thought is stimulated through freewheeling discussion. When a group member suggests an idea for a solution, the other members supply leading questions, examples, and counterexamples.


Poiya, D. Matematika i pravdopodobnye rassuzhdeniia, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1975 (Translated from English.)
Pospelov, D. A., and V. N. Pushkin. Myshlenie i avtomaty. Moscow, 1972.
Pushkin, V. N. Evristika—nauka o tvorcheskom myshlenii. Moscow, 1967.
Upravlenie, informatsiia, intellekt (collection of articles). Moscow, 1976.



A rule of thumb, simplification, or educated guess that reduces or limits the search for solutions in domains that are difficult and poorly understood. Unlike algorithms, heuristics do not guarantee optimal, or even feasible, solutions and are often used with no theoretical guarantee.




A method of problem solving using exploration and trial and error methods. Heuristic program design provides a framework for solving a problem in contrast with a fixed set of rules (algorithmic) that cannot vary.