5 Strategies to Help Struggling Students Master Problem Solving

Trisha shared this blog with us and it has great lessons for many classroom situations.  Her setting was upper elementary math, but the strategies she shares can be helpful for all of us who struggle getting our students to be comfortable approaching rigorous problem-solving situations.

Process MUST Be > The Answer
If students in your class are eager to provide the right “answer”, it’s time to restructure your problem solving block. Build investment around the problem solving process by making the answer less important. Stop giving praise for the right answer and start giving praise for the process. What you will find is once students master the process and can explain it, they’ve also learned to check their work and find mistakes that are often missed when they race to the finish line. You can do this by having students solve the problem and then write down the steps they took to get there, or assign partners and have students turn to their neighbor and walk through their steps. This gives students the opportunity to find their own mistakes, check for errors along the way without disengaging when they realize they got the wrong answer.

Strategies and Techniques Are Not The Same Thing:
“Guess and check” is typically a type of problem that students encounter and should say to themselves, “I am going to need to try a few different numbers to figure out my answer.” “Making a table” and “drawing a picture” are techniques that students use to organize information they are solving for. I often find that teachers give students little structure for solving problems which often leads to confusion and disengagement. You should require students to use a technique or multiple techniques when solving problems. Especially for students who struggle with math, structure provides the space for students who have no idea where to begin to feel successful. When students can identify what “type” of problem they are solving and what technique they are going to use to organize the information, problem solving becomes a part of math class that is the most engaging. When reviewing problems, I often would show 3 different techniques to solve.

Chunk Problem Solving Strategies
Rather than present a new “type” of problem every day, spend an entire week on one “strategy” to give students time to master it. For example, spend a week solving typical “guess and check” problems, before moving on to typical “work backwards” problems. Once students master the strategy, add the word problems to homework or on to the warm-up.

Use Easy #s To Teach The Process
When teaching a new strategy that will require a great deal of computation, use friendly numbers (5s and 2s) to teach the process. I’ve often found that my most struggling students would disengage with the process because they didn’t know their multiplication facts. In order to make sure they knew how to solve the problems, I would use “easier” numbers earlier in the week to ensure they understood the process. This way, as they developed their multiplication facts, I knew they understood how to solve the problems.

Teach Vocabulary
For anybody who teaches English Language Learners, if you don’t integrate vocabulary into your problem solving block, you will have a very difficult time getting students to understand what they are reading. I had my students make one-two vocabulary cards, three times per week for words like: double, triple, dozen, above, below, pentagon, hexagon, denominator etc. By the end of the year, students had upwards of 80-100 words on index cards in a zip lock bag in their backpacks. Every day, students would spend 2-4 minutes of class time quizzing each other on the words. When the words would come up in a problem, I would highlight them, stop and discuss what they mean. Taking time out for vocabulary will increase understanding and ultimately gains in the long run.

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