Math Word Problems – why are they so hard for so many students?

I’m working with a range of students, boys and girls, young adults in their early teens and adult learners, my age and up, those who want to improve their grade from a B to an A, and those who want to “just pass the course”.  However, I am repeatedly faced with an unresolved question – what make math word problems a category so many of them fear and dislike?

On the surface, these questions can be technically easy. Some can be solved by a single equation and most, when compared to the other questions on a given exam or worksheet , involve less calculations and mathematical manipulation. So why then are they considered harder?

My thinking on this question is still evolving – I think the answer is complex. However, I’ve been able to identify two reoccurring themes.

One theme is the lack of skills to translate the information in the question – which is stated in words and sentences and in English to the mathematical language of expressions, equations, constants, and variables. These are skills that can be developed and I work hard with my students to do exactly that – create a “Dictionary” that enables them to read English and write Math, pick clues from the way the problem is written, and move back and forth between the two languages.

The second theme has more profound implications. The way math is taught in the US (at least in Montgomery County Maryland – where most of my students obtained their mathematical education) seem to curtail imaginative thinking for these students. The student reads the problem and then either comes up with a way to solve it or gives up. This approach is detrimental and prevents the student from succeeding solving problems they nether seen before. To overcome this obstacle I work with my students on what I call “friendly encounters”. I tell the students that when they come across a problem they have no idea how to solve they should engage with it. This can be done by rephrasing the problem in simpler terms, drawing a diagram, plugging in numbers (miniature deduction process), and other techniques.

Over time, I would like to think, my students develop their own paths to successfully engage word problems. However, I am feeling sorry for the many other students out there who are reluctant to solve word problems due to lack of proper guidance and hope the information and insight I shared with them here will help them better cope with this type of Math problems.


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