Math word problems can be painful. And not just in the “I’m emotionally tired” kind of painful. We’re talking about the “my head hurts, I’m exhausted, that took too much work, I don’t know what’s next, I’m emotionally tired” kind of painful.
Don’t let math word problems give you a headache. Use these simple steps to solve every math word problem with ease (well – as much ease as you can have when solving math problems. We get it – it’s never totally easy. It’s math…).
1. Get acquainted with the math word problem
There is an interesting difference between math word problems and simply solving an equation: math word problems don’t give you the equation.
Instead, they give you headaches. So much of math is about solving equations properly. If you don’t have the equation, it’s hard to solve it.
That means you have a few steps before you can actually solve your math word problem. But before we try to break it down, it’s best to just try to figure out what this problem is about – generally speaking. Just get to know the problem. Read through it once or twice. You don’t have to figure everything out at this point – just give the problem a nice handshake. You won’t solve it until you are at least familiar with the situation.
2. Answer 3 questions about the specific math word problem:
After you know a bit about the problem before you, we’re going to ask three questions about it. You can ask these three questions of any word problem, in any type of math. It’s a simple process, but it will break down all the important elements of any math problem.
a) For what am I looking?
This is the biggest question. It shapes your entire time answering the question. Take the following situation for example:
A plane leaves Toronto, Ontario (Canada), heads to Newark, New Jersey, and then heads to Seattle, Washington. Along the way to Seattle, a storm forces the plane to head north in order to get around it. The plane ends up crossing the Canadian border, but then has some engine trouble. When the plane is at 30,000 feet, an engine fails, and the plane has to attempt an emergency landing. Unfortunately, the plane crashes… and it does so directly on the Canada-United States border. Where will they bury the survivors?
We’ll let you think about that question for a few minutes. You can see the answer at the bottom of this post if you’re curious. But I recommend rechecking the most important detail before you guess: “For what I am looking?”
Don’t get lost in details. Get the question right before anything else. You must know what your math word problem is asking.
If you don’t know what you are looking for, you’ll end up missing it every time.
b) What do I need in order to find the answer?
After you know what you’re being asked, you can then think about what it will take to get that answered. You should have some idea at this point of the equation that will be needed to find a solution.
Specifically, we’re talking about equations here and the most important variables.
If you know what you are looking for and you can then name the pieces you need to find, even the most difficult problems become extremely manageable.
For a simple example, let’s say you’ve been given a question and you realize you are being asked how tall a ladder you’ll need to paint a wall (I know, weird problem – but just go with it).
After discovering what’s being asked of you – the length of the ladder – you realize that the Pythagorean Theorem is what you’ll need to solve it. This means our final question needed to solve this math word problem will be super easy.
c) What do I already have?
You know the question. You know what you need in order to solve it. Now you can simply fill in the equation with what you have already been given.
Don’t get lost in unimportant details. Math word problems are notorious for giving you too many details. That’s why this step is the last of the three questions.
Some students try to figure out what all they have first. They read the problem, write out all the details they have been given, and then expect to solve it from there. Instead, they often experience detail-overload.
But you will save yourself an enormous amount of time if you know you are looking to answer first. Knowing the question is more important than knowing what details you have. Only when you know the question you are answering and what you need in order to answer it can you then find the right details to answer it correctly.
3. Plug and chug
You can probably guess this step. You know the right question. You know the right equation. You’ve found the needed details.
Plug and chug. Simply enter your values into your equation, and crank out the right answer by solving the problem.
Don’t forget to label you answer, too! If you know what you’re looking for, your answer should be in the right units. But it’s always wise to double check.
Let us know what you think! Is this how you solve math word problems?
(Looking for the answer to the Canada-United States question? Well, the answer is nowhere. You don’t bury survivors)