3.1 Use a Problem-Solving Strategy

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Approach word problems with a positive attitude
  • Use a problem-solving strategy for word problems
  • Solve number problems

Approach Word Problems with a Positive Attitude

“If you think you can… or think you can’t… you’re right.”—Henry Ford

The world is full of word problems! Will my income qualify me to rent that apartment? How much punch do I need to make for the party? What size diamond can I afford to buy my girlfriend? Should I fly or drive to my family reunion?

How much money do I need to fill the car with gas? How much tip should I leave at a restaurant? How many socks should I pack for vacation? What size turkey do I need to buy for Thanksgiving dinner, and then what time do I need to put it in the oven? If my sister and I buy our mother a present, how much does each of us pay?

Now that we can solve equations, we are ready to apply our new skills to word problems. Do you know anyone who has had negative experiences in the past with word problems? Have you ever had thoughts like the student below?

A student is shown with thought bubbles saying “I don’t know whether to add, subtract, multiply, or divide!,” “I don’t understand word problems!,” “My teachers never explained this!,” “If I just skip all the word problems, I can probably still pass the class,” and “I just can’t do this!”

Figure 3.2 Negative thoughts can be barriers to success.

When we feel we have no control, and continue repeating negative thoughts, we set up barriers to success. We need to calm our fears and change our negative feelings.

Start with a fresh slate and begin to think positive thoughts. If we take control and believe we can be successful, we will be able to master word problems! Read the positive thoughts in Figure 3.3 and say them out loud.

A student is shown with thought bubbles saying “While word problems were hard in the past, I think I can try them now,” “I am better prepared now. I think I will begin to understand word problems,” “I think I can! I think I can!,” and “It may take time, but I can begin to solve word problems.”

Figure 3.3 Thinking positive thoughts is a first step towards success.

Think of something, outside of school, that you can do now but couldn’t do 3 years ago. Is it driving a car? Snowboarding? Cooking a gourmet meal? Speaking a new language? Your past experiences with word problems happened when you were younger—now you’re older and ready to succeed!

Use a Problem-Solving Strategy for Word Problems

We have reviewed translating English phrases into algebraic expressions, using some basic mathematical vocabulary and symbols. We have also translated English sentences into algebraic equations and solved some word problems. The word problems applied math to everyday situations. We restated the situation in one sentence, assigned a variable, and then wrote an equation to solve the problem. This method works as long as the situation is familiar and the math is not too complicated.

Now, we’ll expand our strategy so we can use it to successfully solve any word problem. We’ll list the strategy here, and then we’ll use it to solve some problems. We summarize below an effective strategy for problem solving.

Self Check

ⓐ After completing the exercises, use this checklist to evaluate your mastery of the objectives of this section.This is a table that has four rows and four columns. In the first row, which is a header row, the cells read from left to right “I can…,” “Confidently,” “With some help,” and “No-I don’t get it!” The first column below “I can…” reads “approach word problems with a positive attitude,” use a problem solving strategy for word problems,” and “solve number problems.” The rest of the cells are blank

ⓑ If most of your checks were:

…confidently. Congratulations! You have achieved your goals in this section! Reflect on the study skills you used so that you can continue to use them. What did you do to become confident of your ability to do these things? Be specific!

…with some help. This must be addressed quickly as topics you do not master become potholes in your road to success. Math is sequential—every topic builds upon previous work. It is important to make sure you have a strong foundation before you move on. Whom can you ask for help? Your fellow classmates and instructor are good resources. Is there a place on campus where math tutors are available? Can your study skills be improved?

…no—I don’t get it! This is critical and you must not ignore it. You need to get help immediately or you will quickly be overwhelmed. See your instructor as soon as possible to discuss your situation. Together you can come up with a plan to get you the help you need.