There may be no other math skill that conjures up more feelings of fear and anxiety for parents and students alike than the dreaded word problem, which can show up everywhere from elementary school homework to college admissions exams like the SAT and ACT. Maybe it’s because word problems are math in its realest and perhaps most challenging form, asking you to translate a story into a solvable math question. Whether you’re looking for a way to make homework time less stressful or to bank more points on the SAT or ACT math sections, we’re here to share our top tips for solving these pesky problems.
The best way to solve a word problem is to have a plan: a set of steps to follow to identify all of the relevant information, translate the problem into an equation, solve it, and check your answer.
- Understand what the question is asking. Read a word problem carefully so you know exactly what it’s asking you to solve. Restate the problem in your own words and cross out any irrelevant information. Is it a particular type of word problem (e.g. create an expression, formula, distance = rate x time)? Have you solved a similar problem before?
- Identify keywords. Circle relevant numbers and underline keywords, especially words that denote mathematical operations (e.g. sum, difference), actions (e.g. equal, less than), or other information describing the situation (e.g. distance, time, people).
- Visualize. Sometimes the key to unlocking a word problem, especially one that involves multiple steps, is to create a model or diagram that helps visualize it. These visuals organize what you know, what information is missing, and what you need to solve the problem.
- Translate the problem into an equation. Use your circled numbers, key words, and variables representing unknown values to create an equation that answers the question.
- Solve the equation. Make sure to write out each step and calculations, so you can go back and reference the steps you took and check your work. If it’s a multiple choice question, can you pick a number and plug it into an equation in the question or answer choices?
- Check your answer. Your answer should make sense given the information provided in the question. Do you answer what the question asked? Does it seem reasonable? If you’re working on a multiple choice word problem, can you plug in an answer choice?
These are just some general guidelines for solving word problems. If you’re curious about exploring other approaches, there are a lot of problem-solving strategies to choose from, such as the basic Plan-Solve-Check routine and CUBES. Experiment with the options out there to add tools to your problem-solving toolbox and to find the strategies that work best for you.
Mastering a math skill is not that different from fine tuning your baseball fielding skills or perfecting a pirouette. Practice is key. To get better at word problems, pick a reasonable goal and make a plan to incorporate practice into your routine. Don’t forget to review your answers, so you can adjust your study plan (e.g. increasing the difficulty level, focusing more on a specific question type, etc.).
Don’t be afraid of a challenge
It’s tempting to stick within your comfort zone. If you’re a parent helping your child with his math homework, that might mean knowing how to help without hand holding too much. As much as you may want to guide your child to the correct answer, the best way for him to learn and build confidence is to give him a chance to do it himself, even if that means making mistakes. Likewise, if you’re a student who wants to overcome your word problem woes, don’t be afraid to attempt questions that may have put you off in the past. You may find that the more you challenge yourself, the more you’ll be able to find creative solutions to previously daunting problems.
How A+ Can Help
Hopefully, these tips have helped demystify the often inscrutable word problem. If you still have questions, or believe you may benefit from some expert support, A+ Test Prep and Tutoring offers several services that can help you with word problems and other important math skills. For example, our SAT and ACT test prep programs provide students with seven sessions devoted to honing the math skills your student needs to reach his or her score goals. You can also get math support through our Foundations program and academic tutoring services. Our staff and tutors are committed to providing individualized instruction that builds the skills and confidence students need to succeed.
At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.