By Teachers, For Teachers
Students often fear math word problems, and feeling intimidated means they can’t relax and apply what they’ve learned to even the simplest problems. The resulting brain freeze serves to reinforce the idea that word problems are scary and difficult.
Here are a few strategies that will thaw their attitudes, help them overcome their test anxiety and motivate them to look forward to math problems rather than dreading them!
Daily Problem Solving
Implement a problem-solving program in which students solve just one word problem a day. Instead of assigning three or four problems at a time, present a single problem and include class time to debrief and discuss the solution.
Mix It Up
Mix up the types of problems you assign so your students are reviewing a variety of content knowledge and skills over time.
Keep problem solving sessions short at first - no more than 10 to 15 minutes a day. As students begin to enjoy these sessions, occasionally include longer problems that require more persistence.
Make It a Challenge!
Refer to word problems as "puzzlers," "brain teasers," or "stumpers," and present them as fun challenges rather than dreaded math problems.
Solve Problems Together
Alternate cooperative learning strategies with independent work to add an element of fun and to stimulate higher level thinking.
However, even when allowing students to work with others, provide time for them to read and think about the problem independently before discussing it with a partner or team.
Get 'Em Up and Moving
Occasionally combine problem solving with a class-movement activity to energize your students and spark creative thinking.
Try Music-Mix-Math in which students quietly mix around the room until you stop the music, at which time they find a partner and solve the next problem on their math worksheet.
Compute with Calculators
Allow students to use calculators during problem-solving sessions. Being able to use a calculator encourages your students to choose strategies that involve more complex thinking than their limited computation skills might normally allow.
Show, Don’t Tell
Require students to show their work with pictures, symbols, or words, but don't require them to write complete sentence explanations for every problem they solve.
Making students write paragraph explanations every day is a sure way to kill their enthusiasm. Once a week is plenty for written explanations.
Brush Away Mistakes
Have students solve math problems on dry erase boards. It's easy to brush away mistakes and it's easy for you to see their work as you walk around the room monitoring and providing assistance.
Reveal the Answer First
After giving students time to solve a problem, reveal the correct answer yourself rather than calling on different students to find out if they have the right answer.
This step will greatly relieve your students' anxiety. It takes the focus away from finding the answer, and it sets the stage for a great discussion on how to solve the problem.
Demonstrate on the Document Camera
If you have a document camera, ask students volunteers to bring their math papers or dry erase boards up to show the class how they solved the problem.
Be sure they explain the steps they used to arrive at their answers.
Encourage Creative Approaches
After the first student shows how to solve the problem, ask, "How many more ways can we solve this problem?" Keep a class tally of all the different strategies. It's amazing how many different ways kids will dream up when you show that you value "outside of the box" thinking.
This step motivates kids to pay attention during the discussion and it encourages creativity. They quickily figure out that if they want to be called on to share their strategy, they will have to come up with novel methods of solving problems.
I've had great success with the test anxiety lessening strategies above, and other teachers have had similar results when they tried these methods. Many have said that their students now look forward to solving word problems instead of dreading them!
In the same way that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, it seems that a problem a day keeps the brain freeze away!
For more detailed explanations of the 12 strategies above, watch the recording of my recent webinar, Math Problem Solving - Once a Day, the Easy Way. You can find it on the Math Problem Solving page on my Teaching Resources website.
How do you motivate students to enjoy problem solving?