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Teaching Strategies: Problem Solving

Janelle Cox

Teaching mathematics to children can be extremely challenging, especially when it comes to problem solving. This is when students really have a hard time. Problem-solving tools are the key to enhance the problem-solving proficiency in students. Using teaching strategies to get students to use the right solving formats is just as important as getting them to get the correct answer. Teach students that there is more than one way to get an answer, and this will help them to expand their thinking. Here are the teaching strategies that your students need in order to help improve their math problem-solving skills.

Teaching Strategies: Finding a Pattern

The finding a pattern strategy is when students look for patterns in order to solve the problem. Students would read the problem, then look for any numbers, items, or series of events that are repeated throughout that problem. Young students usually discover this strategy when they are learning their multiplication tables. They notice that 2 x 4 is the same as 4 x 2, and so on. They also notice the patterns when they look at a hundreds chart. They can see that one column has all zeros, etc.

To teach students the finding a pattern strategy, you can start by putting students into cooperative learning groups. Give each group a word problem to solve, and show them they can use this strategy by completing this steps.

  1. The first step is for students to identify the key pieces of information in the problem.
  2. Next, they must be sure that a pattern exists in the problem.
  3. Students must now try to solve the problem. They can use manipulatives, a table, draw pictures, or use a graphic organizer. You may want each group to use a different manipulative and then have them compare which affected the solution.
  4. Next, students will check their problem and determine if they used the best strategy to solve it.
  5. Finally, each group must explain their answer and the process they went through to get it.

Choosing the Operation Strategy

This strategy involves deciding which mathematical operation students will use (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, or a combination of operations). When choosing a mathematical operation, students will need the ability to understand the literal meaning of the sentence, as well as understand how to express the meaning mathematically. In other words, in order to successfully find a solution to the problem, students will need both their reading and mathematical skills.

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Understanding how to choose an operation can be difficult for many students, especially for students who struggle with reading. The easiest way to teach students how to choose an operation is to teach them to identify key words. Consider writing this chart below on your front board and have students copy it into their problem solving notebooks.

Key Words

Addition – sum, total, in all, combined, together, how many, altogether, perimeter.

Subtraction – left, less, minus, fewer, remains, difference, how much more, how many more.

Multiplication – times, total, area, twice, rate, in all groups.

Division – divided equally, how many each.

To teach students how to use this strategy effectively, give them the following math problem and have them write down in their own words exactly how they would work through the problem. Then, have students take turns reading their answers and how they got their answers.

Example: Brady took $10 to the movie theater with him. He bought a candy bar for $2 and a popcorn for $4. How much did he have left?

Students may write that they added two plus four because it said “$2 and $4” so they thought that it meant to add. So that was $6. Then, they subtracted $6 from $10 because it said the word “How much” and “Left” and that is how they came to answer of $4.

It is also important to encourage students to read the entire problem once through before they choose an operation. This is because sometimes they may think it is one thing, when it’s actually another. The best way for students to practice this is to give them some tricky problems that have too much information in them, and they have to weed out the bad information to find the real information. 

Problem-Solving Tips

The two strategies listed above are just two problem-solving strategies students can use. There are many, many more. In order for students to become great problem solvers, it is suggested that students keep a problem-solving notebook. In this notebook students should keep important information that they can refer to, like the “Key words” mentioned earlier, as well as these tips:

  • Read the problem carefully.
  • Cross out any unnecessary information that is not relevant.
  • Think about what strategy you want to use.
  • Make sure that the strategy makes sense.
  • Read the problem once through and decide if that is the strategy you want to use.
  • Draw a picture or use manipulatives to help you solve the problem.
  • Write in your own words how you solved the problem.

Which teaching strategies do you use to show your students how to problem solve? Do you have any different strategies that work well for your classroom? If so, please share your ideas in the comment section below, we would love to hear from you.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators.