Student Thinking #4


One thing I’ve found interesting in student thinking is how students decide what operation a story problem calls for.  When I was asking one student why he had decided one problem was a multiplication problem, it was because one of the items in the problem had units of something per something.  Despite having worked to not connect specific words to specific operations, and stressing that you need to think about what the problem is asking, he still saw the word “per” and automatically assumed the problem was asking for multiplication (it was really a division problem).  This was even with a specific set of notes, with a very similar problem, where we went step by step and solved it as a division problem.

It makes me wonder if there is a way to teach students how to look at story problems that allows them to move away from latching onto specific words and helps them to be more successful solving the problems.  We’ve attempted having them write their own stories, in the hope that if they are writing a story using that operation, it would make it easier to identify that operation in a problem they are given.  It seems to help some students, but other students still have difficulty in identifying the correct operation.  I know it was something that even I had problems with up until college, when engineering courses present you with only story problems.  I feel like there has to be a more efficient way, rather than hoping that constant exposure will make all the pieces click into place.


3 thoughts on “Student Thinking #4

  1. It is good that you are helping students not rely on specific words to translate word problems. Too often students look for tricks that can help them automatically do a certain procedure without having to really think about the underlying concepts. As teachers, I think we are sometimes to blame as we need them to get through a certain section or chapter and resort to quick fixes. You have to choose your battles and sometimes planting a seed instead of growing the whole tree is what you need to do with the time you have. That said, how can you help them develop understanding with these word problems? What are some strategies that can help them make sense of a bunch of words and translate that into math?

    • I’ve tried working backwards, where we have the number sentence and now have to write a problem to go with it. Having students share and ensuring that there were a variety I thought might be helpful, since students would see that there are a variety of ways to write a problem describing the same thing. I’ve modeled looking at what the question is asking, as that can be an important clue to the correct operation. Perhaps there are other strategies that I’m just not seeing that would be beneficial.

  2. That’s a good question, because with math, we memorize, or we make different associations with certain words and what to look for. Then, once we see a certain word our brain jumps to the association we have made, and connects it with that. Its like Abby and I were talking about in Literacy, when they are learning math, x means to multiple. But when they get into higher math, the x then represents a variable. So how did they go into the transition, or how are they able to tell multiply away from a variable.

    But story problems do seem to cause problems with students. Identifying what you will be doing with the information presented is difficult and often times its because there is to much information that is not needed. Having students pick apart the story problems I feel help because they can “throw the junk away” and keep what they need. That might help them decide what is next.

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