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Five Ways to Help Students Make Sense of Math Problems

Elsbeth Hott  |  February 28, 2019
When you think of your high school math class, what word comes to mind?

For me, it’s parabolas. Not what you thought I’d say, huh?

Parabolas were the bane of my existence in pre-calculus. I didn’t understand them, couldn’t do them, and every time I was sure I typed the correct equation into my TI-80 graphing calculator, I inevitably ended up with an error message. This resulted in me begging the guy that sat behind me to do my homework until we got out of the parabola chapter (as a math specialist, I do not endorse this behavior).

Why? Why were parabolas so difficult for me? I mean, I passed algebra and trigonometry without anyone else doing my homework. Why couldn’t I get this? My theory, I had no conceptual understanding of what a parabola even was. My teacher taught me equations and how to plug numbers in, but I never knew why I was doing what I was doing, or how it connected to what I already knew within the realm of mathematics. I couldn’t make sense of it because my teacher focused on “plug and chug” rather than sense-making.

In elementary school, we don’t often see students struggling with parabolas. But we do often see students struggling with word problems, probably for the same reason. They struggle to make sense of what they read — sound familiar? How can we help our students make sense of word problems?

Here are five things you can incorporate into teaching students math to help develop sense-makers:
  1. Encourage students to visualize the word problem as they read it.
  2. Have students retell the action in the story.
  3. To help students process the information in a word problem, ask them sense-making questions before they begin solving. For example, “according to this problem, did she eat more or less than 13 fruit snacks?”
  4. Get out the manipulatives and encourage students to directly model what is happening in the story — act it out!
  5. Avoid relying on key words, such as “more always means add.”