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Math Help: Problem Solving Steps

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 2/16/2012

You can memorize formulas all you want, but if you don't know the basic steps involved in solving math problems, you're going to keep making mistakes. Follow these problem solving steps and increase your ability to solve difficult math word problems.

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    Sound Familiar?

    I stared at the Math test in front of me. I raised my hand, "Mr. Hardmath, I'm feeling sick. Can I go to the nurse?"

    "No," he replied.

    "Darn!" I thought. "I just wasted 15 seconds. I know--I'll pee my pants. That'll get me out of this horrible math test ." I let her rip and waited for a puddle to gather underneath my chair. I raised my hand again, "Excuse me, Mr. Hardmath, I just urinated."

    "Well, finish your test, and I'll let you go change." He didn't flinch. Two more minutes passed. My thighs chaffed. I smelled like urine. I made a skull-like design on my scantron, turned it in, and held my head in shame as an entire row of students plugged their noses as I walked by. An expressionless Mr. Hardmath suggested I change my pants and come by after school for a tutorial in math problem solving steps and a case of Depends.

    Here are the math problem solving steps he shared with me (I've yet to need the Depends).

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    Hardmath Makes Math Easy

    Hardmath despensing wisdom courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

    Mr. Hardmath began by telling me that story problem math tests are reading tests with numbers and specialized math vocabulary. I wanted to begin by telling Mr. Hardmath to shut up and give me the easy answers. I didn't tell him anything, but he did tell me the steps.

    1. Read the question - I felt like saying, "no s*%$," but refrained. Is there a soul alive who doesn't know you should read the question first? He then explained that when reading the question the first time, there's no need to figure out anything. Just read the question to familiarize yourself with it. "It's like a first date," he creepily remarked. "Except you're probably not going to stick your tongue down it's throat when you're through."
    2. Identify important information - This involves reading the question again. "Reading the question twice?" I thought. "That will take at least 9.6 additional seconds. On a 20 question quiz, that's an additional (I'm going to allow you to figure out how many additional minutes that will take (answer at the bottom)) minutes. Well, I suppose it's better than spending an additional 180 days in this stupid math class."
    3. Write down important information. "You could try to remember the important information, if you want to miss the question," said Hardmath as he roared voluminously. I humored him with a courtesy chuckle. I then vowed to list all important information beginning with exactly what the question was asking--solve for x, compute the area of a rectangle, graph a parabola, find the slope of a line, for example. Draw pictures, if applicable. List all the information the problem gives you. Cross out unnecessary information.
    4. Choose a strategy and/or select the appropriate formula - Some problems call for a simple linear equation. Some require algebraic manipulations. Some necessitate the application of a mathematical formulas. Others require prayer.
    5. Solve the problem - "Most people do this step first," said Mr. Hardmath. "That's because they're stupid." I ignored Hardmath's insult. He was, after all, taking time after school away from his 13 cats to teach me these steps. At this point you have all the information you need; you have it organized; you have a strategy.
    6. Check your work - This means--gasp--reading the question yet again and making sure you've used the right information and strategy.
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    Answer

    3.2 minutes