Teaching Problem Solving Strategies in Math class is my least favourite thing, and for good reason.
Studies have shown that when students find math word problems too difficult they just shut down mentally. They become so anxious that they won’t even attempt to solve the problem, which makes trying to teach problem solving strategies extremely difficult. Have you see this with your kids? Try our FREE Problem solving thinkboard at the end of this post!
Researchers have found that if the struggle is too intense for students they can develop math anxiety and begin to believe that they are ‘too dumb’ to even have a go at math. This anxiety then builds and can cause students to develop a fixed mindset about mathematics, believing that they are “not a Math Person!”
This fixed mindset belief is frustrating for teachers because they know their students have been taught many ways to solve math problems, like, ‘highlight key words’, ‘guess and check’, and ‘make a table’.
But for students to use these ‘solution’ focussed strategies they also need to be taught a series of steps to follow that they can use to help them decipher, decode and understand the word problem.
5 Problem Solving Hurdles
Solving word problems is a multi-step process which needs a higher order level of thinking (see more on Blooms here). Students find this multi-step approach more challenging and difficult to do because they are focussed on getting to the ‘right’ answer, quickly! They love recalling facts or following rote procedures with speed.
This approach alone is not enough and the main reason why kids struggle with math word problems. Problem solving needs a different approach and requires students to accept that a different strategy is need if they are to be successful at problem solving. Successful problem solving strategies involve:
- thinking things through
- testing ideas
- trying out a solution
- taking a risk
- making mistakes
To help students to become successful problem solvers they need to be explicitly taught a series of problem solving strategies that complement the problem solving solutions.
Australian educator Dr Anne Newman’s research (1977) into successful problem solving found that students progress through 5 hurdles during problem solving, and when teaching numeracy, teachers need to incorporate these steps into their planning so that for students can become successful problem solvers!
Teaching Problem Solving Strategies Using Newman’s Prompts
Dr Anne Newman, an Australian Researcher, devised the Newman Error Analysis or NEA process. This helps teachers identify where the student is having difficulties when solving math problems, which they can then fix.
Newman also developed a set of prompts to help fix the difficulties that teachers can use when teaching problem solving strategies. They are simple prompts to implement that will help students become successful! Try using Newman’s analysis and these 5 prompts to help you with teaching problem solving strategies to your students.
Newmans Error Analysis
Here are the 5 areas where students have difficulty with problem solving:
- Hurdle 1: Reading – Even good readers often find it being able to read and decode mathematical texts, words, and graphics
- Hurdle 2: Comprehension – Students may not understand the meaning of the words and graphics in a mathematical context. They may confuse everyday meanings of words and substitute this for mathematical contexts. Students need to know what’s important and what’s irrelevant detail. This is so much more complicated than just highlighting the key words! If you are able to highlight what is important it doesn’t mean you know why it’s important or what you need to do with that information. What if you think everything is important? This will prevent them from building an understanding of what the question is asking them to do.
- Hurdle 3: Transformation – Students find it difficult to work out how to transform the words of a problem into an appropriate mathematical strategy to solve the problem. They need to know a range of George Polya’s strategies to do this, some include:
- Draw a picture
- Guess & Check
- Act it out – use materials
- Write a number sentence
- Find a pattern
- Make an orderly list
- Eliminate the possibilities
- Work backwards
- Hurdle 4: Processing Skills – Most teachers are excellent at teaching math skills such as multiplication, addition, division and subtraction and students are quite able to follow the process of these skills. The problem is that more often than not they do not know when to apply these skills? Most students do not know which operational process is required to solve a problem.
- Hurdle 5: Encoding – Arriving at a solution and testing that the answer works
5 Problem Solving ‘Prompts’ for Success
Dr Anne Newman came up with a way to analyse the errors students made and a set of prompts that you can use during these 5 stages and to help you when teaching problem solving strategies. They will help you to identify where students are having difficulties and provide the appropriate level of scaffolding to help them progress through their difficulties and be successful!
Try using the following prompts with the students during problem solving:
- “Read the question to yourself. If you don’t know a word leave it out or use another word.”
- “Tell me what the question is asking you to do.”
- “Tell me how you are going to find the answer?
- “Show me what you are going to do to get the answer. Talk aloud as you do it so I can understand your thinking.”
- “Write your answer, does it make sense? Have you answered what was being asked?”
Problem Solving Thinkboards
We found a number of problem solving acronyms to help students develop their problem solving skills. We have created a set of Think-boards and posters that incorporates Newman’s prompts and 3 acronyms: S.O.L.V.E it!, R.i.D.E, & F.i.S.H. Use these problem Solving Strategies & A Growth Mindset to help your students become ‘Good Mathematicians’.
Watch the video to see how the S.O.L.V.E it! strategy works…
Take a look at our Best Selling Problem Solving Kit: Includes Problem Solving Strategies, Classroom Posters, Flip Book & think-boards.
Click Image FREE Problem Solving Thinkboard!
Think Board In The Classroom
The A Plus Teacher has been a Primary School Numeracy Curriculum Leader and Coach for 16 years and now advisors A Plus Teaching Resources about Teaching Numeracy
The A+ Team is Passionate About helping educators to save time so that they can concentrate on the most important job in the world… Teaching! The Team Creates Time Saving, Tried & Tested, Hands-on, Teaching Resources, Ideas, Organisers, Checklists, Printables, Posters, & Games!