Are your students struggling to understand, work through and correctly solve word problems? Does the method you are currently using fall short of actually finishing the problem or only get your students to understand parts of the problem but not actually how to solve it.
This was the problem that I was facing with my students.
There are many problem-solving strategies out there but I found that they simply dealt with comprehending the problem. Sort of like a finding Waldo within a word problem. But one of the biggest problems was not finding the information but in communicating ideas and making a plan on how to solve the problem. I needed more than simply circle….underline…and box some words inside a word problem.
Circle the Question
This is a key step was defining what the actual problem was and what it was asking a student to do. This step was still important to me as I wanted students to understand what the question was asking them to do.
Hunt for the Clues
Unlike previous strategies I had used, I didn’t want students just to look for specific things within the story I wanted them to pull them out and list these out. Moving beyond keyword hunts and other shortcut strategies. I didn’t want students to just memorize the patterns that most problems follow but I wanted them to think critically about the facts that were presented inside the question.
This is also important as you begin to add irrelevant details to the questions being asked.
When real life problems are presented they are ways so nicely organized in a way that can be easily solved by looking for key words on a nice neat package.
Now this is where most solutions finish.
Assemble An Action Plan
One of the biggest difficulties is not identifying the first two steps but that students don’t know how to choose a strategy or make an action plan. In this stage, students combine two things:
First, they need to ask themselves a few questions:
- How will the facts help me answer the question
- What do I not know
- What do I need to do first…second…etc
- Which strategy do I need to use
I often find students get easily overwhelmed thinking they need to do everything at once. I often ask them “If you had a pool party would you grab a sandwich and jump in the pool at the same time?” This idea grosses them out. This works for this example. Students need to realize that there be multiple steps to solving a problem and that they should do these things one at a time.
It is important for them to make a plan of action to solve the problem one step at a time.
Solve the Problem
Another decision they need to make is how they will solve it.
Clearly and explicitly showing students different ways to solve problems is important to help them better understand strategies to use when solving problems.
- Students will choose what operation to use
- Students will also have to decide which strategy or algorithm they will use.
- Finally, students will need to show
This is also the time where the dreaded debate with students on showing work. This year I am not using the phrase “show your work” instead I am using “make your thinking visible”. I am finding that this is helping students to realize that I want all of the great math being done in their heads somehow represented or explained on paper.
Explain Your Answer
Finally, students will summarize what they have done and answer the word problem by explaining what their answer is in the context of the problem. This is a statement of their answer using the keywords from the question. I use this strategy regularly in my classroom with students to remind them of the steps they can follow when solving a problem. Want to try it for yourself? Try it here