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A General Approach to Problem Solving in Math

A General Approach to Problem Solving in Math 750 422 Teaching Staff

Math strikes fear into the hearts of many.  For the students I have had the privilege of tutoring, word problems in particular have been their greatest obstacle. The methods described below will help you approach these questions with less difficulty.  

The Read, Reread, and Read Again Method

Students who find themselves struggling in math should be reading their word problems a minimum of three times!

  1. Begin by reading the question in its entirety. Try to get a sense of the scenario presented. Teachers often relate problems to the real world because this helps students to determine logical next steps based on their own experiences.
  2. Now, read the question again. This time pay specific attention to what is actually being asked of you. Try to determine which lesson(s) that you’ve had relate to this problem.
  3. Read the question for a third time. Underline/highlight all numbers and key information. This would be a good time to get clarification on any terms you are unfamiliar with.   

Draw and Label a Diagram (if applicable)

Now that you are familiar with the problem, it’s time to create a visual representation. Construct a diagram that’s as large as the space allows, but don’t worry if it’s not to scale. Be sure to label/incorporate all of the information you’ve underlined. If possible, highlight the area that you are solving for. This way you won’t lose sight of the goal.

Forming Your Plan of Attack

At this point, you should have a solid understanding of the problem itself. Although math allows for multiple approaches to problem solving, in most questions there will be a crucial piece of information that is absolutely required to find the solution. Identifying this should give an indication of what method to use or what else specifically needs to be determined. In the latter case, you may be able to work backwards until you find the first step.     

When You’re Stuck  

  • Consider any information from the question that you have yet to use. What theorems relate to it? Does it remind you of a particular method or formula you’ve learned? Typically there’s a reason something has been included in a question.
  • Ask yourself if the problem looks familiar. Look back at your notes from class. If it’s a variation of an old problem, identify the differences. Think about how these differences would change your approach. Now work through your modified approach.  
  • Write down anything you know to be true. Physically seeing all of the facts may give you a new idea.
  • A fresh perspective will help, so take a break and come back to the problem later.

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