HOW TO DO WORD PROBLEMS



In order to solve word problems, there are several things that you must be prepared to do. Among these are the following: read critically, read slowly, read completely, pick out main ideas, and most of all give yourself a chance.

Many students believe that solving word problems is beyond them. This is simply not true. With dedication to the use of proper and effective problem solving methods, you can and will be successful. The level of success depends on your effort and your degree of preparation. Make sure that you do not commit yourself to failure before you have even read the problem. Give it the "old college try."

The points mentioned in the first paragraph are entry skills that must be worked on early and reinforced constantly. When you read critically, you have to figure out what is really the point of the story. The point could be that there are two trains heading in different directions rather than in the same direction. The point may be that the you want to know Juan's salary instead of Julie's. As you search for the important components of the problem, remember that you are not in a race. Take your time. Looking over key information and heading straight for the numbers only leads to wrong answers. Make sure that you do not skip over anything in the problem. You are dreaming if you expect to have the answer to the problem as soon as you get to the question mark. It won't happen, trust me. Often, it is a great idea to leave your pencil alone until you have read through the problem at least once. All of your language skills will come into play here. Try to find main ideas, verbs, and subjects here. Doing algebra well comes from knowing language structure.

Here is a list of steps that can be put to use and modified by you to solve word problems. Remember that these are suggestions and can be amended as you see fit. The steps are not exactly the same as what's in your book, but they work just as well.

1. Read the problem - SLOWLY!!!!!!!!

Trying to solve it on the first go around will lead to difficulties. Leave your pencil on the desk and just read, like you would your favorite book or magazine.

2. Re-read the problem.

Now you may pick up your pencil and begin to underline parts of the problem or make notes.

3. Pick out key TERMS, WORDS, and NUMBERS.

Look for the things that will help you effectively and efficiently solve the problem. TERMS are words that generally tell you what to do. For instance, "sum" means "add." WORDS that have importance do not usually tell you what to do, but what to do it to. Examples of important words might include names, places, geometric figures, units of measure, and even directions. In this course, almost every NUMBER is important. There will be times when a number is there just to throw you off. Make sure you read the question to decide which numbers are important.

4. Make a chart, picture, table, or graph AND LABEL IT.

For some problems and for some people, this step is optional. In most cases, however, it is a highly valuable step. Many of us need to put the important information into a nice neat package or to see what is really going on. Once you have this piece done, you no longer should need the original problem as it was stated. If you do not draw it, you will almost always miss it. This is especially true with geometric figures and moving objects.

5. Form appropriate relationships.

This does not mean that you find a study buddy or a spouse. This means that you will now need to find a formula that you can use for this situation or create an equation that will get the job done. This part is where the language skills come into play. Make sure that "verbs" are represented by "=" and you pick variables that easily identify your subjects. Do not use "x" for width, use "w." Remember who has to remember what the "x" stood for. Translation skills are needed here to go from English to Algebra (Mathematics). Play close attention to word order and word meanings. It is not a good idea to memorize every problem in the book. Your instructor can always change a number, a sign or the word order and create an entirely different problem. Stay calm and use your found information.

6. Solve the equation(s).

Now that you have a useable equation or formula. Substitute (plug in) what you know and solve for what you do not know. Use whatever techniques you know to find your solution(s).

7. Solve the problem.

Read the problem one last time. Make sure that you give the answer to the question that you had been asked to do. Please, do not make up your own problem to solve. Do not give Philip's age when the question wants Raquel's age. If the question wants two things, find both answers.

8. Check your work and solution.

It is a good idea to check to make sure that your steps and thinking were appropriate. Also, make sure that your answer makes sense based on the given information. By the way, don't make a right answer wrong by giving more information than was asked.

Following these steps and modifying them as the problems and situations warrant will get you on the right track to success.