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Math Problem Solving Strategies That Make Students Say “I Get It!”

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

Even students who are quick with math facts can get stuck when it comes to problem solving.

As soon as a concept is translated to a word problem, or a simple mathematical sentence contains an unknown, they’re stumped.

That’s because problem solving requires us to  consciously choose the strategies most appropriate for the problem   at hand . And not all students have this metacognitive ability.

But you can teach these strategies for problem solving.  You just need to know what they are.

We’ve compiled them here divided into four categories:

Strategies for understanding a problem

Strategies for solving the problem, strategies for working out, strategies for checking the solution.

Get to know these strategies and then model them explicitly to your students. Next time they dive into a rich problem, they’ll be filling up their working out paper faster than ever!

Before students can solve a problem, they need to know what it’s asking them. This is often the first hurdle with word problems that don’t specify a particular mathematical operation.

Encourage your students to:

Read and reread the question

They say they’ve read it, but have they  really ? Sometimes students will skip ahead as soon as they’ve noticed one familiar piece of information or give up trying to understand it if the problem doesn’t make sense at first glance.

Teach students to interpret a question by using self-monitoring strategies such as:

  • Rereading a question more slowly if it doesn’t make sense the first time
  • Asking for help
  • Highlighting or underlining important pieces of information.

Identify important and extraneous information

John is collecting money for his friend Ari’s birthday. He starts with $5 of his own, then Marcus gives him another $5. How much does he have now?

As adults looking at the above problem, we can instantly look past the names and the birthday scenario to see a simple addition problem. Students, however, can struggle to determine what’s relevant in the information that’s been given to them.

Teach students to sort and sift the information in a problem to find what’s relevant. A good way to do this is to have them swap out pieces of information to see if the solution changes. If changing names, items or scenarios has no impact on the end result, they’ll realize that it doesn’t need to be a point of focus while solving the problem.

Schema approach

This is a math intervention strategy that can make problem solving easier for all students, regardless of ability.

Compare different word problems of the same type and construct a formula, or mathematical sentence stem, that applies to them all. For example, a simple subtraction problems could be expressed as:

[Number/Quantity A] with [Number/Quantity B] removed becomes [end result].

This is the underlying procedure or  schema  students are being asked to use. Once they have a list of schema for different mathematical operations (addition, multiplication and so on), they can take turns to apply them to an unfamiliar word problem and see which one fits.

Struggling students often believe math is something you either do automatically or don’t do at all. But that’s not true. Help your students understand that they have a choice of problem-solving strategies to use, and if one doesn’t work, they can try another.

Here are four common strategies students can use for problem solving.


Visualizing an abstract problem often makes it easier to solve. Students could draw a picture or simply draw tally marks on a piece of working out paper.

Encourage visualization by modeling it on the whiteboard and providing graphic organizers that have space for students to draw before they write down the final number.

Guess and check

Show students how to make an educated guess and then plug this answer back into the original problem. If it doesn’t work, they can adjust their initial guess higher or lower accordingly.

Find a pattern

To find patterns, show students how to extract and list all the relevant facts in a problem so they can be easily compared. If they find a pattern, they’ll be able to locate the missing piece of information.

Work backward

Working backward is useful if students are tasked with finding an unknown number in a problem or mathematical sentence. For example, if the problem is 8 + x = 12, students can find x by:

  • Starting with 12
  • Taking the 8 from the 12
  • Being left with 4
  • Checking that 4 works when used instead of x

Now students have understood the problem and formulated a strategy, it’s time to put it into practice. But if they just launch in and do it, they might make it harder for themselves. Show them how to work through a problem effectively by:

Documenting working out

Model the process of writing down every step you take to complete a math problem and provide working out paper when students are solving a problem. This will allow students to keep track of their thoughts and pick up errors before they reach a final solution.

Check along the way

Checking work as you go is another crucial self-monitoring strategy for math learners. Model it to them with think aloud questions such as:

  • Does that last step look right?
  • Does this follow on from the step I took before?
  • Have I done any ‘smaller’ sums within the bigger problem that need checking?

Students often make the mistake of thinking that speed is everything in math — so they’ll rush to get an answer down and move on without checking.

But checking is important too. It allows them to pinpoint areas of difficulty as they come up, and it enables them to tackle more complex problems that require multiple checks  before  arriving at a final answer.

Here are some checking strategies you can promote:

Check with a partner

Comparing answers with a peer leads is a more reflective process than just receiving a tick from the teacher. If students have two different answers, encourage them to talk about how they arrived at them and compare working out methods. They’ll figure out exactly where they went wrong, and what they got right.

Reread the problem with your solution

Most of the time, students will be able to tell whether or not their answer is correct by putting it back into the initial problem. If it doesn’t work or it just ‘looks wrong’, it’s time to go back and fix it up.

Fixing mistakes

Show students how to backtrack through their working out to find the exact point where they made a mistake. Emphasize that they can’t do this if they haven’t written down everything in the first place — so a single answer with no working out isn’t as impressive as they might think!

Need more help developing problem solving skills?

Read up on  how to set a problem solving and reasoning activity  or explore Mathseeds and Mathletics, our award winning online math programs. They’ve got over 900 teacher tested problem solving activities between them!


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6 Tips for Teaching Math Problem-Solving Skills

Solving word problems is tougher than computing with numbers, but elementary teachers can guide students to do the deep thinking involved.

Photo of elementary school teacher with students

A growing concern with students is the ability to problem-solve, especially with complex, multistep problems. Data shows that students struggle more when solving word problems than they do with computation , and so problem-solving should be considered separately from computation. Why?

Consider this. When we’re on the way to a new destination and we plug in our location to a map on our phone, it tells us what lane to be in and takes us around any detours or collisions, sometimes even buzzing our watch to remind us to turn. When I experience this as a driver, I don’t have to do the thinking. I can think about what I’m going to cook for dinner, not paying much attention to my surroundings other than to follow those directions. If I were to be asked to go there again, I wouldn’t be able to remember, and I would again seek help.

If we can switch to giving students strategies that require them to think instead of giving them too much support throughout the journey to the answer, we may be able to give them the ability to learn the skills to read a map and have several ways to get there.

Here are six ways we can start letting students do this thinking so that they can go through rigorous problem-solving again and again, paving their own way to the solution. 

1. Link problem-solving to reading

When we can remind students that they already have many comprehension skills and strategies they can easily use in math problem-solving, it can ease the anxiety surrounding the math problem. For example, providing them with strategies to practice, such as visualizing, acting out the problem with math tools like counters or base 10 blocks, drawing a quick sketch of the problem, retelling the story in their own words, etc., can really help them to utilize the skills they already have to make the task less daunting.

We can break these skills into specific short lessons so students have a bank of strategies to try on their own. Here's an example of an anchor chart that they can use for visualizing . Breaking up comprehension into specific skills can increase student independence and help teachers to be much more targeted in their problem-solving instruction. This allows students to build confidence and break down the barriers between reading and math to see they already have so many strengths that are transferable to all problems.

2. Avoid boxing students into choosing a specific operation

It can be so tempting to tell students to look for certain words that might mean a certain operation. This might even be thoroughly successful in kindergarten and first grade, but just like when our map tells us where to go, that limits students from becoming deep thinkers. It also expires once they get into the upper grades, where those words could be in a problem multiple times, creating more confusion when students are trying to follow a rule that may not exist in every problem.

We can encourage a variety of ways to solve problems instead of choosing the operation first. In first grade, a problem might say, “Joceline has 13 stuffed animals and Jordan has 17. How many more does Jordan have?” Some students might choose to subtract, but a lot of students might just count to find the amount in between. If we tell them that “how many more” means to subtract, we’re taking the thinking out of the problem altogether, allowing them to go on autopilot without truly solving the problem or using their comprehension skills to visualize it. 

3. Revisit ‘representation’

The word “representation” can be misleading. It seems like something to do after the process of solving. When students think they have to go straight to solving, they may not realize that they need a step in between to be able to support their understanding of what’s actually happening in the problem first.

Using an anchor chart like one of these ( lower grade , upper grade ) can help students to choose a representation that most closely matches what they’re visualizing in their mind. Once they sketch it out, it can give them a clearer picture of different ways they could solve the problem.

Think about this problem: “Varush went on a trip with his family to his grandmother’s house. It was 710 miles away. On the way there, three people took turns driving. His mom drove 214 miles. His dad drove 358 miles. His older sister drove the rest. How many miles did his sister drive?”

If we were to show this student the anchor chart, they would probably choose a number line or a strip diagram to help them understand what’s happening.

If we tell students they must always draw base 10 blocks in a place value chart, that doesn’t necessarily match the concept of this problem. When we ask students to match our way of thinking, we rob them of critical thinking practice and sometimes confuse them in the process. 

4. Give time to process

Sometimes as educators, we can feel rushed to get to everyone and everything that’s required. When solving a complex problem, students need time to just sit with a problem and wrestle with it, maybe even leaving it and coming back to it after a period of time.

This might mean we need to give them fewer problems but go deeper with those problems we give them. We can also speed up processing time when we allow for collaboration and talk time with peers on problem-solving tasks. 

5. Ask questions that let Students do the thinking

Questions or prompts during problem-solving should be very open-ended to promote thinking. Telling a student to reread the problem or to think about what tools or resources would help them solve it is a way to get them to try something new but not take over their thinking.

These skills are also transferable across content, and students will be reminded, “Good readers and mathematicians reread.” 

6. Spiral concepts so students frequently use problem-solving skills

When students don’t have to switch gears in between concepts, they’re not truly using deep problem-solving skills. They already kind of know what operation it might be or that it’s something they have at the forefront of their mind from recent learning. Being intentional within their learning stations and assessments about having a variety of rigorous problem-solving skills will refine their critical thinking abilities while building more and more resilience throughout the school year as they retain content learning in the process. 

Problem-solving skills are so abstract, and it can be tough to pinpoint exactly what students need. Sometimes we have to go slow to go fast. Slowing down and helping students have tools when they get stuck and enabling them to be critical thinkers will prepare them for life and allow them multiple ways to get to their own destination.

Study Smarter

17 maths problem solving strategies to boost your learning.

Worded problems getting the best of you? With this list of maths problem-solving strategies , you'll overcome any maths hurdle that comes your way.

student learning data and multiplication worksheets

Friday, 3rd June 2022

  • What are strategies?

Understand the problem

Devise a plan, carry out the plan, look back and reflect, practise makes progress.

Problem-solving is a critical life skill that everyone needs. Whether you're dealing with everyday issues or complex challenges, being able to solve problems effectively can make a big difference to your quality of life.

While there is no one 'right' way to solve a problem, having a toolkit of different techniques that you can draw upon will give you the best chance of success. In this article, we'll explore 17 different math problem-solving strategies you can start using immediately to deepen your learning and improve your skills.

What are maths problem-solving strategies?

Before we get into the strategies themselves, let's take a step back and answer the question: what are these strategies? In simple terms, these are methods we use to solve mathematical problems—essential for anyone learning how to study maths . These can be anything from asking open-ended questions to more complex concepts like the use of algebraic equations.

The beauty of these techniques is they go beyond strictly mathematical application. It's more about understanding a given problem, thinking critically about it and using a variety of methods to find a solution.

Polya's 4-step process for solving problems

We're going to use Polya's 4-step model as the framework for our discussion of problem-solving activities . This was developed by Hungarian mathematician George Polya and outlined in his 1945 book How to Solve It. The steps are as follows:

We'll go into more detail on each of these steps as well as take a look at some specific problem-solving strategies that can be used at each stage.

This may seem like an obvious one, but it's crucial that you take the time to understand what the problem is asking before trying to solve it. Especially with a math word problem , in which the question is often disguised in language, it's easy for children to misinterpret what's being asked.

confident student learning subtraction and counting in her head

Here are some questions you can ask to help you understand the problem:

Do I understand all the words used in the problem?

What am I asked to find or show?

Can I restate the problem in my own words?

Can I think of a picture or diagram that might help me understand the problem?

Is there enough information to enable me to find a solution?

Is there anything I need to find out first in order to find the answer?

What information is extra or irrelevant?

Once you've gone through these questions, you should have a good understanding of what the problem is asking. Now let's take a look at some specific strategies that can be used at this stage.

1. Read the problem aloud

This is a great strategy for younger students who are still learning to read. By reading the problem aloud, they can help to clarify any confusion and better understand what's being asked. Teaching older students to read aloud slowly is also beneficial as it encourages them to internalise each word carefully.

2. Summarise the information

Using dot points or a short sentence, list out all the information given in the problem. You can even underline the keywords to focus on the important information. This will help to organise your thoughts and make it easier to see what's given, what's missing, what's relevant and what isn't.

3. Create a picture or diagram

This is a no-brainer for visual learners. By drawing a picture,let's say with division problems, you can better understand what's being asked and identify any information that's missing. It could be a simple sketch or a more detailed picture, depending on the problem.

4. Act it out

Visualising a scenario can also be helpful. It can enable students to see the problem in a different way and develop a more intuitive understanding of it. This is especially useful for math word problems that are set in a particular context. For example, if a problem is about two friends sharing candy, kids can act out the problem with real candy to help them understand what's happening.

5. Use keyword analysis

What does this word tell me? Which operations do I need to use? Keyword analysis involves asking questions about the words in a problem in order to work out what needs to be done. There are certain key words that can hint at what operation you need to use.

How many more?

How many left?

Equal parts

Once you understand the problem, it's time to start thinking about how you're going to solve it. This is where having a plan is vital. By taking the time to think about your approach, you can save yourself a lot of time and frustration later on.

young student learning to recognise multiplication and number patterns

There are many methods that can be used to figure out a pathway forward, but the key is choosing an appropriate one that will work for the specific problem you're trying to solve. Not all students understand what it means to plan a problem so we've outlined some popular problem-solving techniques during this stage.

6. Look for a pattern

Sometimes, the best way to solve a problem is to look for a pattern. This could be a number, a shape pattern or even just a general trend that you can see in the information given. Once you've found it, you can use it to help you solve the problem.

7. Guess and check

While not the most efficient method, guess and check can be helpful when you're struggling to think of an answer or when you're dealing with multiple possible solutions. To do this, you simply make a guess at the answer and then check to see if it works. If it doesn't, you make another systematic guess and keep going until you find a solution that works.

8. Working backwards

Regressive reasoning, or working backwards, involves starting with a potential answer and working your way back to figure out how you would get there. This is often used when trying to solve problems that have multiple steps. By starting with the end in mind, you can work out what each previous step would need to be in order to arrive at the answer.

9. Use a formula

There will be some problems where a specific formula needs to be used in order to solve it. Let's say we're calculating the cost of flooring panels in a rectangular room (6m x 9m) and we know that the panels cost $15 per sq. metre.

installation of floor for area maths problem

There is no mention of the word 'area', and yet that is exactly what we need to calculate. The problem requires us to use the formula for the area of a rectangle (A = l x w) in order to find the total cost of the flooring panels.

10. Eliminate the possibilities

When there are a lot of possibilities, one approach could be to start by eliminating the answers that don't work. This can be done by using a process of elimination or by plugging in different values to see what works and what doesn't.

11. Use direct reasoning

Direct reasoning, also known as top-down or forward reasoning, involves starting with what you know and then using that information to try and solve the problem . This is often used when there is a lot of information given in the problem.

By breaking the problem down into smaller chunks, you can start to see how the different pieces fit together and eventually work out a solution.

12. Solve a simpler problem

One of the most effective methods for solving a difficult problem is to start by solving a simpler version of it. For example, in order to solve a 4-step linear equation with variables on both sides, you could start by solving a 2-step one. Or if you're struggling with the addition of algebraic fractions, go back to solving regular fraction addition first.

Once you've mastered the easier problem, you can then apply the same knowledge to the challenging one and see if it works.

13. Solve an equation

Another common problem-solving technique is setting up and solving an equation. For instance, let's say we need to find a number. We know that after it was doubled, subtracted from 32, and then divided by 4, it gave us an answer of 6. One method could be to assign this number a variable, set up an equation, and solve the equation by 'backtracking and balancing the equation'.

Now that you have a plan, it's time to implement it. This is where you'll put your problem-solving skills to the test and see if your solution actually works. There are a few things to keep in mind as you execute your plan:

14. Be systematic

When trying different methods or strategies, it's important to be systematic in your approach. This means trying one problem-solving strategy at a time and not moving on until you've exhausted all possibilities with that particular approach.

student practising word problems at home

15. Check your work

Once you think you've found a solution, it's important to check your work to make sure that it actually works. This could involve plugging in different values or doing a test run to see if your solution works in all cases.

16. Be flexible

If your initial plan isn't working, don't be afraid to change it. There is no one 'right' way to solve a problem, so feel free to try different things, seek help from different resources and continue until you find a more efficient strategy or one that works.

17. Don't give up

It's important to persevere when trying to solve a difficult problem. Just because you can't see a solution right away doesn't mean that there isn't one. If you get stuck, take a break and come back to the problem later with fresh eyes. You might be surprised at what you're able to see after taking some time away from it.

Once you've solved the problem, take a step back and reflect on the process that you went through. Most middle school students forget this fundamental step. This will help you to understand what worked well and what could be improved upon next time.

learning about data and statistics at home

Whether you do this after a math test or after an individual problem, here are some questions to ask yourself:

What was the most challenging part of the problem?

Was one method more effective than another?

Would you do something differently next time?

What have you learned from this experience?

By taking the time to reflect on your process you'll be able to improve upon it in future and become an even better problem solver. Make sure you write down any insights so that you can refer back to them later.

There is never only one way to solve math problems. But the best way to become a better problem solver is to practise, practise, practise! The more you do it, the better you'll become at identifying different strategies, and the more confident you'll feel when faced with a challenging problem.

The list we've covered is by no means exhaustive, but it's a good starting point for you to begin your journey. When you get stuck, remember to keep an open mind. Experiment with different approaches. Different word problems. Be prepared to go back and try something new. And most importantly, don't forget to have fun!

The essence and beauty of mathematics lies in its freedom. So while these strategies provide nice frameworks, the best work is done by those who are comfortable with exploration outside the rules, and of course, failure! So go forth, make mistakes and learn from them. After all, that's how we improve our problem-solving skills and ability.

Lastly, don't be afraid to ask for help. If you're struggling to solve math word problems, there's no shame in seeking assistance from a certified Melbourne maths tutor . In every lesson at Math Minds, our expert teachers encourage students to think creatively, confidently and courageously.

If you're looking for a mentor who can guide you through these methods, introduce you to other problem-solving activities and help you to understand Mathematics in a deeper way - get in touch with our team today. Sign up for your free online maths assessment and discover a world of new possibilities.

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Maneuvering the Middle

Student-Centered Math Lessons

Math Problem Solving Strategies

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

How many times have you been teaching a concept that students are feeling confident in, only for them to completely shut down when faced with a word problem?  For me, the answer is too many to count.  Word problems require problem solving strategies. And more than anything, word problems require decoding, eliminating extra information, and opportunities for students to solve for something that the question is not asking for .  There are so many places for students to make errors! Let’s talk about some problem solving strategies that can help guide and encourage students!

Problem solving strategies are a must teach skill. Today I analyze strategies that I have tried and introduce the strategy I plan to use this school year. |

1. C.U.B.E.S.

C.U.B.E.S stands for circle the important numbers, underline the question, box the words that are keywords, eliminate extra information, and solve by showing work.  

  • Why I like it: Gives students a very specific ‘what to do.’
  • Why I don’t like it: With all of the annotating of the problem, I’m not sure that students are actually reading the problem.  None of the steps emphasize reading the problem but maybe that is a given.

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

2. R.U.N.S.

R.U.N.S. stands for read the problem, underline the question, name the problem type, and write a strategy sentence. 

  • Why I like it: Students are forced to think about what type of problem it is (factoring, division, etc) and then come up with a plan to solve it using a strategy sentence.  This is a great strategy to teach when you are tackling various types of problems.
  • Why I don’t like it: Though I love the opportunity for students to write in math, writing a strategy statement for every problem can eat up a lot of time.

math problem solving strategies for elementary students


U.P.S. Check stands for understand, plan, solve, and check.

  • Why I like it: I love that there is a check step in this problem solving strategy.  Students having to defend the reasonableness of their answer is essential for students’ number sense.
  • Why I don’t like it: It can be a little vague and doesn’t give concrete ‘what to dos.’ Checking that students completed the ‘understand’ step can be hard to see.

Problem solving strategies are a must teach skill. Today I analyze strategies that I have tried and introduce the strategy I plan to use this school year.  |

4. Maneuvering the Middle Strategy AKA K.N.O.W.S.

Here is the strategy that I adopted a few years ago.  It doesn’t have a name yet nor an acronym, (so can it even be considered a strategy…?)

UPDATE: IT DOES HAVE A NAME! Thanks to our lovely readers, Wendi and Natalie!

  • Know: This will help students find the important information.
  • Need to Know: This will force students to reread the question and write down what they are trying to solve for.
  • Organize:   I think this would be a great place for teachers to emphasize drawing a model or picture.
  • Work: Students show their calculations here.
  • Solution: This is where students will ask themselves if the answer is reasonable and whether it answered the question.

Problem solving strategies are a must teach skill. Today I analyze strategies that I have tried and introduce the strategy I plan to use this school year. |

Ideas for Promoting Showing Your Work

  • White boards are a helpful resource that make (extra) writing engaging!
  • Celebrating when students show their work. Create a bulletin board that says ***I showed my work*** with student exemplars.
  • Take a picture that shows your expectation for how work should look and post it on the board like Marissa did here.

Show Work Digitally

Many teachers are facing how to have students show their work or their problem solving strategy when tasked with submitting work online. Platforms like Kami make this possible. Go Formative has a feature where students can use their mouse to “draw” their work. 

If you want to spend your energy teaching student problem solving instead of writing and finding math problems, look no further than our All Access membership . Click the button to learn more. 

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

Students who plan succeed at a higher rate than students who do not plan.   Do you have a go to problem solving strategy that you teach your students? 

Problem solving strategies are a must teach skill. Today I analyze strategies that I have tried and introduce the strategy I plan to use this school year. |

Editor’s Note: Maneuvering the Middle has been publishing blog posts for nearly 8 years! This post was originally published in September of 2017. It has been revamped for relevancy and accuracy.

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

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Reader Interactions


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October 4, 2017 at 7:55 pm

As a reading specialist, I love your strategy. It’s flexible, “portable” for any problem, and DOES get kids to read and understand the problem by 1) summarizing what they know and 2) asking a question for what they don’t yet know — two key comprehension strategies! How about: “Make a Plan for the Problem”? That’s the core of your rationale for using it, and I bet you’re already saying this all the time in class. Kids will get it even more because it’s a statement, not an acronym to remember. This is coming to my reading class tomorrow with word problems — thank you!

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October 4, 2017 at 8:59 pm

Hi Nora! I have never thought about this as a reading strategy, genius! Please let me know how it goes. I would love to hear more!

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December 15, 2017 at 7:57 am

Hi! I am a middle school teacher in New York state and my district is “gung ho” on CUBES. I completely agree with you that kids are not really reading the problem when using CUBES and only circling and boxing stuff then “doing something” with it without regard for whether or not they are doing the right thing (just a shot in the dark!). I have adopted what I call a “no fear word problems” procedure because several of my students told me they are scared of word problems and I thought, “let’s take the scary out of it then by figuring out how to dissect it and attack it! Our class strategy is nearly identical to your strategy:

1. Pre-Read the problem (do so at your normal reading speed just so you basically know what it says) 2. Active Read: Make a short list of: DK (what I Definitely Know), TK (what I Think I Know and should do), and WK (what I Want to Know– what is the question?) 3. Draw and Solve 4. State the answer in a complete sentence.

This procedure keep kids for “surfacely” reading and just trying something that doesn’t make sense with the context and implications of the word problem. I adapted some of it from Harvey Silver strategies (from Strategic Teacher) and incorporated the “Read-Draw-Write” component of the Eureka Math program. One thing that Harvey Silver says is, “Unlike other problems in math, word problems combine quantitative problem solving with inferential reading, and this combination can bring out the impulsive side in students.” (The Strategic Teacher, page 90, Silver, et al.; 2007). I found that CUBES perpetuates the impulsive side of middle school students, especially when the math seems particularly difficult. Math word problems are packed full of words and every word means something to about the intent and the mathematics in the problem, especially in middle school and high school. Reading has to be done both at the literal and inferential levels to actually correctly determine what needs to be done and execute the proper mathematics. So far this method is going really well with my students and they are experiencing higher levels of confidence and greater success in solving.

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October 5, 2017 at 6:27 am

Hi! Another teacher and I came up with a strategy we call RUBY a few years ago. We modeled this very closely after close reading strategies that are language arts department was using, but tailored it to math. R-Read the problem (I tell kids to do this without a pencil in hand otherwise they are tempted to start underlining and circling before they read) U-Underline key words and circle important numbers B-Box the questions (I always have student’s box their answer so we figured this was a way for them to relate the question and answer) Y-You ask yourself: Did you answer the question? Does your answer make sense (mathematically)

I have anchor charts that we have made for classrooms and interactive notebooks if you would like them let me me know….

October 5, 2017 at 9:46 am

Great idea! Thanks so much for sharing with our readers!

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October 8, 2017 at 6:51 pm

LOVE this idea! Will definitely use it this year! Thank you!

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December 18, 2019 at 7:48 am

I would love an anchor chart for RUBY

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October 15, 2017 at 11:05 am

I will definitely use this concept in my Pre-Algebra classes this year; I especially like the graphic organizer to help students organize their thought process in solving the problems too.

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April 20, 2018 at 7:36 am

I love the process you’ve come up with, and think it definitely balances the benefits of simplicity and thoroughness. At the risk of sounding nitpicky, I want to point out that the examples you provide are all ‘processes’ rather than strategies. For the most part, they are all based on the Polya’s, the Hungarian mathematician, 4-step approach to problem solving (Understand/Plan/Solve/Reflect). It’s a process because it defines the steps we take to approach any word problem without getting into the specific mathematical ‘strategy’ we will use to solve it. Step 2 of the process is where they choose the best strategy (guess and check, draw a picture, make a table, etc) for the given problem. We should start by teaching the strategies one at a time by choosing problems that fit that strategy. Eventually, once they have added multiple strategies to their toolkit, we can present them with problems and let them choose the right strategy.

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June 22, 2018 at 12:19 pm

That’s brilliant! Thank you for sharing!

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May 31, 2018 at 12:15 pm

Mrs. Brack is setting up her second Christmas tree. Her tree consists of 30% red and 70% gold ornaments. If there are 40 red ornaments, then how many ornaments are on the tree? What is the answer to this question?

June 22, 2018 at 10:46 am

Whoops! I guess the answer would not result in a whole number (133.333…) Thanks for catching that error.

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July 28, 2018 at 6:53 pm

I used to teach elementary math and now I run my own learning center, and we teach a lot of middle school math. The strategy you outlined sounds a little like the strategy I use, called KFCS (like the fast-food restaurant). K stands for “What do I know,” F stands for “What do I need to Find,” C stands for “Come up with a plan” [which includes 2 parts: the operation (+, -, x, and /) and the problem-solving strategy], and lastly, the S stands for “solve the problem” (which includes all the work that is involved in solving the problem and the answer statement). I find the same struggles with being consistent with modeling clearly all of the parts of the strategy as well, but I’ve found that the more the student practices the strategy, the more intrinsic it becomes for them; of course, it takes a lot more for those students who struggle with understanding word problems. I did create a worksheet to make it easier for the students to follow the steps as well. If you’d like a copy, please let me know, and I will be glad to send it.

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February 3, 2019 at 3:56 pm

This is a supportive and encouraging site. Several of the comments and post are spot on! Especially, the “What I like/don’t like” comparisons.

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March 7, 2019 at 6:59 am

Have you named your unnamed strategy yet? I’ve been using this strategy for years. I think you should call it K.N.O.W.S. K – Know N – Need OW – (Organise) Plan and Work S – Solution

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September 2, 2019 at 11:18 am

Going off of your idea, Natalie, how about the following?

K now N eed to find out O rganize (a plan – may involve a picture, a graphic organizer…) W ork S ee if you’re right (does it make sense, is the math done correctly…)

I love the K & N steps…so much more tangible than just “Read” or even “Understand,” as I’ve been seeing is most common in the processes I’ve been researching. I like separating the “Work” and “See” steps. I feel like just “Solve” May lead to forgetting the checking step.

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March 16, 2020 at 4:44 pm

I’m doing this one. Love it. Thank you!!

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September 17, 2019 at 7:14 am

Hi, I wanted to tell you how amazing and kind you are to share with all of us. I especially like your word problem graphic organizer that you created yourself! I am adopting it this week. We have a meeting with all administrators to discuss algebra. I am going to share with all the people at the meeting.

I had filled out the paperwork for the number line. Is it supposed to go to my email address? Thank you again. I am going to read everything you ahve given to us. Have a wonderful Tuesday!

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

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Guiding Curiosity, Igniting Imagination!

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

4 Math Word Problem Solving Strategies

Solving Math Word Problems

5 Strategies to Learn to Solve Math Word Problems

A critical step in math fluency is the ability to solve math word problems. The funny thing about solving math word problems is that it isn’t just about math. Students need to have strong reading skills as well as the growth mindset needed for problem-solving. Strong problem solving skills need to be taught as well. In this article, let’s go over some strategies to help students improve their math problem solving skills when it comes to math word problems. These skills are great for students of all levels but especially important for students that struggle with math anxiety or students with animosity toward math.

Signs of Students Struggling with Math Word Problems

It is important to look at the root cause of what is causing the student to struggle with math problems. If you are in a tutoring situation, you can check your students reading level to see if that is contributing to the issue. You can also support the student in understanding math keywords and key phrases that they might need unpacked. Next, students might need to slow their thinking down and be taught to tackle the word problem bit by bit.

How to Help Students Solve Math Word Problems

Focus on math keywords and mathematical key phrases.

The first step in helping students with math word problems is focusing on keywords and phrases. For example, the words combined or increased by can mean addition. If you teach keywords and phrases they should watch out for students will gain the cues needed to go about solving a word problem. It might be a good idea to have them underline or highlight these words.

Cross out Extra Information

Along with highlighting important keywords students should also try to decipher the important from unimportant information. To help emphasize what is important in the problem, ask your students to cross out the unimportant distracting information.  This way, it will allow them to focus on what they can use to solve the problem.

Encourage Asking Questions

As you give them time to read, allow them to have time to ask questions on what they just read. Asking questions will help them understand what to focus on and what to ignore. Once they get through that, they can figure out the right math questions and add another item under their problem-solving strategies.

Draw the Problem

A fun way to help your students understand the problem is through letting them draw it on graph paper. For example, if a math problem asks a student to count the number of fruits that Farmer John has, ask them to draw each fruit while counting them. This is a great strategy for visual learners.

Check Back Once They Answer

Once they figured out the answer to the math problem, ask them to recheck their answer. Checking their answer is a good habit for learning and one that should be encouraged but students need to be taught how to check their answer. So the first step would be to review the word problem to make sure that they are solving the correct problem. Then to make sure that they set it up right. This is important because sometimes students will check their equation but will not reread the word problem and make sure that the equation is set up right. So always have them do this first! Once students believe that they have read and set up the correct equation, they should be taught to check their work and redo the problem, I also like to teach them to use the opposite to double check, for example if their equation is 2+3=5, I will show them how to take 5 which is the whole and check their work backwards 5-3 and that should equal 2. This is an important step and solidifies mathematical thinking in children.

Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are a great way to remember all of the types of math strategy in this post. The following are ones that I have heard of and wanted to share:

Solving Math Word Problems

CUBES Word Problem Strategy

Cubes is a mnemonic to remember the following steps in solving math word problems:

C: Circle the numbers

U: Underline the question

B: Box in the key words

E: Eliminate the information

S: Solve the problem & show your work

RISE Word Problem Strategy

Rise is another way to explain the steps needed to solve problems:

R: Read and reread

I: Illustrate what is being asked

S: Solve by writing your equation or number sentences

E: Explain your thinking

RISE Math Word Problem Strategy

COINS Word Problem Strategy

C: Comprehend the questions

O: Observe the data

I: Illustrate the problem

N: Write the number sentence (equation)

Understand -Plan – Solve – Check Word Problem Strategy

This is a simple step solution to show students the big picture. I think this along with one of the mnemonic devices helps students with better understanding of the approach.

Understand: What is the question asking? Do you understand all the words?

Plan: What would be a reasonable answer? In this stage students are formulating their approach to the word problem. 

Solve: What strategies will I use to solve this problem? Am I showing my thinking? Here students use the strategies outlined in this post to attack the problem.

Check: Students will ask themselves if they answered the question and if their answer makes sense. 

Understand -Plan - Solve - Check Word Problem Strategy

If you need word problems to use with your classroom, you can check out my word problems resource below.

Math Word Problems

Teaching students how to approach and solve math word problems is an important skill. Solving word problems is the closest math skill that resembles math in the real world. Encouraging students to slow their thinking, examine and analyze the word problem and encourage the habit of answer checking will give your students the learning skills that can be applied not only to math but to all learning. I also wrote a blog post on a specific type of math word problem called cognitively guided instruction you can read information on that too. It is just a different way that math problems are written and worth understanding to teach problem solving, click here to read .

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10 Strategies for Problem Solving in Math

Jessica Kaminski

8 minutes read

November 20, 2023

strategies for problem solving in math

When faced with problem-solving, children often get stuck. Word puzzles and math questions with an unknown variable, like x, usually confuse them. Therefore, this article discusses math strategies and how your students may use them since instructors often have to lead students through this problem-solving maze.

What Are Problem Solving Strategies in Math?

If you want to fix a problem, you need a solid plan. Math strategies for problem solving are ways of tackling math in a way that guarantees better outcomes. These strategies simplify math for kids so that less time is spent figuring out the problem. Both those new to mathematics and those more knowledgeable about the subject may benefit from these methods.

There are several methods to apply problem-solving procedures in math, and each strategy is different. While none of these methods failsafe, they may help your student become a better problem solver, particularly when paired with practice and examples. The more math problems kids tackle, the more math problem solving skills they acquire, and practice is the key.

Strategies for Problem-solving in Math

Even if a student is not a math wiz, a suitable solution to mathematical problems in math may help them discover answers. There is no one best method for helping students solve arithmetic problems, but the following ten approaches have shown to be very effective.

Understand the Problem

Understanding the nature of math problems is a prerequisite to solving them. They need to specify what kind of issue it is ( fraction problem , word problem, quadratic equation, etc.). Searching for keywords in the math problem, revisiting similar questions, or consulting the internet are all great ways to strengthen their grasp of the material. This step keeps the pupil on track.

Math for Kids

Guess and Check

One of the time-intensive strategies for resolving mathematical problems is the guess and check method. In this approach, students keep guessing until they get the answer right.

After assuming how to solve a math issue, students should reintroduce that assumption to check for correctness. While the approach may appear cumbersome, it is typically successful in revealing patterns in a child’s thought process.

Work It Out

Encourage pupils to record their thinking process as they go through a math problem. Since this technique requires an initial comprehension of the topic, it serves as a self-monitoring method for mathematics students. If they immediately start solving the problem, they risk making mistakes.

Students may keep track of their ideas and fix their math problems as they go along using this method. A youngster may still need you to explain their methods of solving the arithmetic questions on the extra page. This confirmation stage etches the steps they took to solve the problem in their minds.

Work Backwards

In mathematics, a fresh perspective is sometimes the key to a successful solution. Young people need to know that the ability to recreate math problems is valuable in many professional fields, including project management and engineering.

Students may better prepare for difficulties in real-world circumstances by using the “Work Backwards” technique. The end product may be used as a start-off point to identify the underlying issue.

In most cases, a visual representation of a math problem may help youngsters understand it better. Some of the most helpful math tactics for kids include having them play out the issue and picture how to solve it.

One way to visualize a workout is to use a blank piece of paper to draw a picture or make tally marks. Students might also use a marker and a whiteboard to draw as they demonstrate the technique before writing it down.

Find a Pattern

Kids who use pattern recognition techniques can better grasp math concepts and retain formulae. The most remarkable technique for problem solving in mathematics is to help students see patterns in math problems by instructing them how to extract and list relevant details. This method may be used by students when learning shapes and other topics that need repetition.

Students may use this strategy to spot patterns and fill in the blanks. Over time, this strategy will help kids answer math problems quickly.

When faced with a math word problem, it might be helpful to ask, “What are some possible solutions to this issue?” It encourages you to give the problem more thought, develop creative solutions, and prevent you from being stuck in a rut. So, tell the pupils to think about the math problems and not just go with the first solution that comes to mind.

Draw a Picture or Diagram

Drawing a picture of a math problem can help kids understand how to solve it, just like picturing it can help them see it. Shapes or numbers could be used to show the forms to keep things easy. Kids might learn how to use dots or letters to show the parts of a pattern or graph if you teach them.

Charts and graphs can be useful even when math isn’t involved. Kids can draw pictures of the ideas they read about to help them remember them after they’ve learned them. The plan for how to solve the mathematical problem will help kids understand what the problem is and how to solve it.

Trial and Error Method

The trial and error method may be one of the most common problem solving strategies for kids to figure out how to solve problems. But how well this strategy is used will determine how well it works. Students have a hard time figuring out math questions if they don’t have clear formulas or instructions.

They have a better chance of getting the correct answer, though, if they first make a list of possible answers based on rules they already know and then try each one. Don’t be too quick to tell kids they shouldn’t learn by making mistakes.

Review Answers with Peers

It’s fun to work on your math skills with friends by reviewing the answers to math questions together. If different students have different ideas about how to solve the same problem, get them to share their thoughts with the class.

During class time, kids’ ways of working might be compared. Then, students can make their points stronger by fixing these problems.

Check out the Printable Math Worksheets for Your Kids!

There are different ways to solve problems that can affect how fast and well students do on math tests. That’s why they need to learn the best ways to do things. If students follow the steps in this piece, they will have better experiences with solving math questions.

Jessica is a a seasoned math tutor with over a decade of experience in the field. With a BSc and Master's degree in Mathematics, she enjoys nurturing math geniuses, regardless of their age, grade, and skills. Apart from tutoring, Jessica blogs at Brighterly . She also has experience in child psychology, homeschooling and curriculum consultation for schools and EdTech websites.

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Problem Solving Strategies

What are problem solving strategies.

Strategies are things that Pólya would have us choose in his second stage of problem solving and use in his third stage ( What is Problem Solving? ). In actual fact he called them heuristics . They are a collection of general approaches that might work for a number of problems. 

There are a number of common strategies that students of primary age can use to help them solve problems. We discuss below several that will be of value for problems on this website and in books on problem solving. 

Common Problem Solving Strategies

  • Guess (includes guess and check, guess and improve)
  • Act It Out (act it out and use equipment)
  • Draw (this includes drawing pictures and diagrams)
  • Make a List (includes making a table)
  • Think (includes using skills you know already)

We have provided a copymaster for these strategies so that you can make posters and display them in your classroom. It consists of a page per strategy with space provided to insert the name of any problem that you come across that uses that particular strategy (Act it out, Draw, Guess, Make a List). This kind of poster provides good revision for students. 

An In-Depth Look At Strategies                  

We now look at each of the following strategies and discuss them in some depth. You will see that each strategy we have in our list includes two or more subcategories.

  • Guess and check is one of the simplest strategies. Anyone can guess an answer. If they can also check that the guess fits the conditions of the problem, then they have mastered guess and check. This is a strategy that would certainly work on the Farmyard problem described below but it could take a lot of time and a lot of computation. Because it is so simple, you may have difficulty weaning some students away from guess and check. As problems get more difficult, other strategies become more important and more effective. However, sometimes when students are completely stuck, guessing and checking will provide a useful way to start to explore a problem. Hopefully that exploration will lead to a more efficient strategy and then to a solution.
  • Guess and improve is slightly more sophisticated than guess and check. The idea is that you use your first incorrect guess to make an improved next guess. You can see it in action in the Farmyard problem. In relatively straightforward problems like that, it is often fairly easy to see how to improve the last guess. In some problems though, where there are more variables, it may not be clear at first which way to change the guessing.  
  • Young students especially, enjoy using Act it Out . Students themselves take the role of things in the problem. In the Farmyard problem, the students might take the role of the animals though it is unlikely that you would have 87 students in your class! But if there are not enough students you might be able to include a teddy or two. This is an effective strategy for demonstration purposes in front of the whole class. On the other hand, it can also be cumbersome when used by groups, especially if a largish number of students is involved.  Sometimes the students acting out the problem may get less out of the exercise than the students watching. This is because the participants are so engrossed in the mechanics of what they are doing that they don’t see the underlying mathematics. 
  • Use Equipment is a strategy related to Act it Out. Generally speaking, any object that can be used in some way to represent the situation the students are trying to solve, is equipment. One of the difficulties with using equipment is keeping track of the solution. The students need to be encouraged to keep track of their working as they manipulate the equipment. Some students need to be encouraged and helped to use equipment. Many students seem to prefer to draw. This may be because it gives them a better representation of the problem in hand. Since there are problems where using equipment is a better strategy than drawing, you should encourage students' use of equipment by modelling its use yourself from time to time.  
  • It is fairly clear that a picture has to be used in the strategy Draw a Picture . But the picture need not be too elaborate. It should only contain enough detail to help solve the problem. Hence a rough circle with two marks is quite sufficient for chickens and a blob plus four marks will do a pig. All students should be encouraged to use this strategy at some point because it helps them ‘see’ the problem and it can develop into quite a sophisticated strategy later.
  • It’s hard to know where Drawing a Picture ends and Drawing a Diagram begins. You might think of a diagram as anything that you can draw which isn’t a picture. But where do you draw the line between a picture and a diagram? As you can see with the chickens and pigs, discussed above, regular picture drawing develops into drawing a diagram. Venn diagrams and tree diagrams are particular types of diagrams that we use so often they have been given names in their own right.  
  • There are a number of ways of using Make a Table . These range from tables of numbers to help solve problems like the Farmyard, to the sort of tables with ticks and crosses that are often used in logic problems. Tables can also be an efficient way of finding number patterns.
  • When an Organised List is being used, it should be arranged in such a way that there is some natural order implicit in its construction. For example, shopping lists are generally not organised. They usually grow haphazardly as you think of each item. A little thought might make them organised. Putting all the meat together, all the vegetables together, and all the drinks together, could do this for you. Even more organisation could be forced by putting all the meat items in alphabetical order, and so on. Someone we know lists the items on her list in the order that they appear on her route through the supermarket.  
  • Being systematic may mean making a table or an organised list but it can also mean keeping your working in some order so that it is easy to follow when you have to go back over it. It means that you should work logically as you go along and make sure you don’t miss any steps in an argument. And it also means following an idea for a while to see where it leads, rather than jumping about all over the place chasing lots of possible ideas.
  • It is very important to keep track of your work. We have seen several groups of students acting out a problem and having trouble at the end simply because they had not kept track of what they were doing. So keeping track is particularly important with Act it Out and Using Equipment. But it is important in many other situations too. Students have to know where they have been and where they are going or they will get hopelessly muddled. This begins to be more significant as the problems get more difficult and involve more and more steps.
  • In many ways looking for patterns is what mathematics is all about. We want to know how things are connected and how things work and this is made easier if we can find patterns. Patterns make things easier because they tell us how a group of objects acts in the same way. Once we see a pattern we have much more control over what we are doing.
  • Using symmetry helps us to reduce the difficulty level of a problem. Playing Noughts and crosses, for instance, you will have realised that there are three and not nine ways to put the first symbol down. This immediately reduces the number of possibilities for the game and makes it easier to analyse. This sort of argument comes up all the time and should be grabbed with glee when you see it.
  • Finally working backwards is a standard strategy that only seems to have restricted use. However, it’s a powerful tool when it can be used. In the kind of problems we will be using in this web-site, it will be most often of value when we are looking at games. It frequently turns out to be worth looking at what happens at the end of a game and then work backward to the beginning, in order to see what moves are best.
  • Then we come to use known skills .  This isn't usually listed in most lists of problem solving strategies but as we have gone through the problems in this web site, we have found it to be quite common.  The trick here is to see which skills that you know can be applied to the problem in hand. One example of this type is Fertiliser (Measurement, level 4).  In this problem, the problem solver has to know the formula for the area of a rectangle to be able to use the data of the problem.  This strategy is related to the first step of problem solving when the problem solver thinks 'have I seen a problem like this before?'  Being able to relate a word problem to some previously acquired skill is not easy but it is extremely important.

Uses of Strategies                                           

Different strategies have different uses. We’ll illustrate this by means of a problem.

The Farmyard Problem : In the farmyard there are some pigs and some chickens. In fact there are 87 animals and 266 legs. How many pigs are there in the farmyard?

Some strategies help you to understand a problem. Let’s kick off with one of those. Guess and check . Let’s guess that there are 80 pigs. If there are they will account for 320 legs. Clearly we’ve over-guessed the number of pigs. So maybe there are only 60 pigs. Now 60 pigs would have 240 legs. That would leave us with 16 legs to be found from the chickens. It takes 8 chickens to produce 16 legs. But 60 pigs plus 8 chickens is only 68 animals so we have landed nearly 20 animals short.

Obviously we haven’t solved the problem yet but we have now come to grips with some of the important aspects of the problem. We know that there are 87 animals and so the number of pigs plus the number of chickens must add up to 87. We also know that we have to use the fact that pigs have four legs and chickens two, and that there have to be 266 legs altogether.

Some strategies are methods of solution in themselves. For instance, take Guess and Improve . Supposed we guessed 60 pigs for a total of 240 legs. Now 60 pigs imply 27 chickens, and that gives another 54 legs. Altogether then we’d have 294 legs at this point.

Unfortunately we know that there are only 266 legs. So we’ve guessed too high. As pigs have more legs than hens, we need to reduce the guess of 60 pigs. How about reducing the number of pigs to 50? That means 37 chickens and so 200 + 74 = 274 legs.

We’re still too high. Now 40 pigs and 47 hens gives 160 + 94 = 254 legs. We’ve now got too few legs so we need to guess more pigs.

You should be able to see now how to oscillate backwards and forwards until you hit on the right number of pigs. So guess and improve is a method of solution that you can use on a number of problems.

Some strategies can give you an idea of how you might tackle a problem. Making a Table illustrates this point. We’ll put a few values in and see what happens.

From the table we can see that every time we change the number of pigs by one, we change the number of legs by two. This means that in our last guess in the table, we are five pigs away from the right answer. Then there have to be 46 pigs.

Some strategies help us to see general patterns so that we can make conjectures. Some strategies help us to see how to justify conjectures. And some strategies do other jobs. We’ll develop these ideas on the uses of strategies as this web-site grows.

What Strategies Can Be Used At What Levels

In the work we have done over the last few years, it seems that students are able to tackle and use more strategies as they continue with problem solving. They are also able to use them to a deeper level. We have observed the following strategies being used in the stated Levels.

Levels 1 and 2

  • Draw a Picture
  • Use Equipment
  • Guess and Check

Levels 3 and 4

  • Draw a Diagram
  • Guess and Improve
  • Make a Table
  • Make an Organised List

It is important to say here that the research has not been exhaustive. Possibly younger students can effectively use other strategies. However, we feel confident that most students at a given Curriculum Level can use the strategies listed at that Level above. As problem solving becomes more common in primary schools, we would expect some of the more difficult strategies to come into use at lower Levels.

Strategies can develop in at least two ways. First students' ability to use strategies develops with experience and practice. We mentioned that above. Second, strategies themselves can become more abstract and complex. It’s this development that we want to discuss here with a few examples.

Not all students may follow this development precisely. Some students may skip various stages. Further, when a completely novel problem presents itself, students may revert to an earlier stage of a strategy during the solution of the problem.

Draw: Earlier on we talked about drawing a picture and drawing a diagram. Students often start out by giving a very precise representation of the problem in hand. As they see that it is not necessary to add all the detail or colour, their pictures become more symbolic and only the essential features are retained. Hence we get a blob for a pig’s body and four short lines for its legs. Then students seem to realise that relationships between objects can be demonstrated by line drawings. The objects may be reduced to dots or letters. More precise diagrams may be required in geometrical problems but diagrams are useful in a great many problems with no geometrical content.

The simple "draw a picture" eventually develops into a wide variety of drawings that enable students, and adults, to solve a vast array of problems.

Guess: Moving from guess and check to guess and improve, is an obvious development of a simple strategy. Guess and check may work well in some problems but guess and improve is a simple development of guess and check.

But guess and check can develop into a sophisticated procedure that 5-year-old students couldn’t begin to recognise. At a higher level, but still in the primary school, students are able to guess patterns from data they have been given or they produce themselves. If they are to be sure that their guess is correct, then they have to justify the pattern in some way. This is just another way of checking.

All research mathematicians use guess and check. Their guesses are called "conjectures". Their checks are "proofs". A checked guess becomes a "theorem". Problem solving is very close to mathematical research. The way that research mathematicians work is precisely the Pólya four stage method ( What is Problem Solving? ). The only difference between problem solving and research is that in school, someone (the teacher) knows the solution to the problem. In research no one knows the solution, so checking solutions becomes more important.

So you see that a very simple strategy like guess and check can develop to a very deep level.

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Luminous Learning

Math and Special Education Blog

8 problem solving strategies for the math classroom.

Posted by Colleen Uscianowski · February 25, 2014

Luminous Learning Tuesday Teaching Tip: Math Problem Solving Handout for Special Education Students

Would you draw a picture, make a list  possible number pairs that have the ratio 5:3, or guess and check? 

Explicit strategy instruction should be an integral part of your math classroom, whether you're teaching kindergarten or 12th grade.

Teach students that they can choose from a list of strategies to solve a problem, and often there isn't one correct way of finding a solution.

Demonstrate how you solve a word problem by thinking aloud as you choose and execute a strategy.

Ask students if they would solve the problem differently and praise students for coming up with unique ways of arriving at an answer.

Here are some problem-solving strategies I've taught my students:

Below is a helpful chart to remind students of the many problem-solving strategies they can use when solving word problems. This useful handout is a great addition to students' strategy binders, math notebooks, or math journals.  

math problem solving strategies

How do you teach problem-solving in your classroom? Feel free to share advice and tips below!    

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math problem solving strategies for elementary students

Strategies for Solving Word Problems – Math

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

It’s one thing to solve a math equation when all of the numbers are given to you but with word problems, when you start adding reading to the mix, that’s when it gets especially tricky.

The simple addition of those words ramps up the difficulty (and sometimes the math anxiety) by about 100!

How can you help your students become confident word problem solvers? By teaching your students to solve word problems in a step by step, organized way, you will give them the tools they need to solve word problems in a much more effective way.

Here are the seven strategies I use to help students solve word problems.

1. read the entire word problem.

Before students look for keywords and try to figure out what to do, they need to slow down a bit and read the whole word problem once (and even better, twice). This helps kids get the bigger picture to be able to understand it a little better too.

2. Think About the Word Problem

Students need to ask themselves three questions every time they are faced with a word problem. These questions will help them to set up a plan for solving the problem.

Here are the questions:

A. what exactly is the question.

What is the problem asking? Often times, curriculum writers include extra information in the problem for seemingly no good reason, except maybe to train kids to ignore that extraneous information (grrrr!). Students need to be able to stay focused, ignore those extra details, and find out what the real question is in a particular problem.

B. What do I need in order to find the answer?

Students need to narrow it down, even more, to figure out what is needed to solve the problem, whether it’s adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, or some combination of those. They’ll need a general idea of which information will be used (or not used) and what they’ll be doing.

This is where key words become very helpful. When students learn to recognize that certain words mean to add (like in all, altogether, combined ), while others mean to subtract, multiply, or to divide, it helps them decide how to proceed a little better

Here’s a Key Words Chart I like to use for teaching word problems. The handout could be copied at a smaller size and glued into interactive math notebooks. It could be placed in math folders or in binders under the math section if your students use binders.

One year I made huge math signs (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and divide symbols) and wrote the keywords around the symbols. These served as a permanent reminder of keywords for word problems in the classroom.

If you’d like to download this FREE Key Words handout, click here:

math problem solving strategies for elementary students

C. What information do I already have?

This is where students will focus in on the numbers which will be used to solve the problem.

3. Write on the Word Problem

This step reinforces the thinking which took place in step number two. Students use a pencil or colored pencils to notate information on worksheets (not books of course, unless they’re consumable). There are lots of ways to do this, but here’s what I like to do:

  • Circle any numbers you’ll use.
  • Lightly cross out any information you don’t need.
  • Underline the phrase or sentence which tells exactly what you’ll need to find.

4. Draw a Simple Picture and Label It

Drawing pictures using simple shapes like squares, circles, and rectangles help students visualize problems. Adding numbers or names as labels help too.

For example, if the word problem says that there were five boxes and each box had 4 apples in it, kids can draw five squares with the number four in each square. Instantly, kids can see the answer so much more easily!

5. Estimate the Answer Before Solving

Having a general idea of a ballpark answer for the problem lets students know if their actual answer is reasonable or not. This quick, rough estimate is a good math habit to get into. It helps students really think about their answer’s accuracy when the problem is finally solved.

6. Check Your Work When Done

This strategy goes along with the fifth strategy. One of the phrases I constantly use during math time is, Is your answer reasonable ? I want students to do more than to be number crunchers but to really think about what those numbers mean.

Also, when students get into the habit of checking work, they are more apt to catch careless mistakes, which are often the root of incorrect answers.

7. Practice Word Problems Often

Just like it takes practice to learn to play the clarinet, to dribble a ball in soccer, and to draw realistically, it takes practice to become a master word problem solver.

When students practice word problems, often several things happen. Word problems become less scary (no, really).

They start to notice similarities in types of problems and are able to more quickly understand how to solve them. They will gain confidence even when dealing with new types of word problems, knowing that they have successfully solved many word problems in the past.

If you’re looking for some word problem task cards, I have quite a few of them for 3rd – 5th graders.

This 3rd grade math task cards bundle has word problems in almost every one of its 30 task card sets..

There are also specific sets that are dedicated to word problems and two-step word problems too. I love these because there’s a task card set for every standard.

CLICK HERE to take a look at 3rd grade:

3rd Grade Math Task Cards Mega Bundle | 3rd Grade Math Centers Bundle

This 4th Grade Math Task Cards Bundle also has lots of word problems in almost every single of its 30 task card sets. These cards are perfect for centers, whole class, and for one on one.

CLICK HERE to see 4th grade:

th Grade 960 Math Task Cards Mega Bundle | 4th Grade Math Centers

This 5th Grade Math Task Cards Bundle is also loaded with word problems to give your students focused practice.

CLICK HERE to take a look at 5th grade:

5th Grade Math Task Cards Mega Bundle - 5th Grade Math Centers

Want to try a FREE set of math task cards to see what you think?

3rd Grade: Rounding Whole Numbers Task Cards

4th Grade: Convert Fractions and Decimals Task Cards

5th Grade: Read, Write, and Compare Decimals Task Cards

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Problem Solving Strategies for Elementary-School Math Paperback – June 24, 2020

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The best way to learn math is by problem solving, but the challenge is that most elementary students don't know how to start thinking about a math problem that they haven't seen before. This book is especially designed to overcome this challenge by teaching seven basic problem solving strategies. The book contains more than 100 challenging problems that are suitable for elementary-school students, along with their step-by-step solution to help the reader master these strategies. This book will help you: - Learn seven useful problem solving strategies that can be used in many challenging math problems. - Ace your math tests in school, even the challenge problems that your teacher gives! - Get prepared for various math contests and education programs for gifted students, such as the GATE and Math Kangaroo. - Become an independent learner via the step-by-step instructions of this book. - Stay ahead of the curriculum when transitioning into higher grades and the middle school. - Become a creative thinker who can succeed in STEM fields. - Turn into a life-long math enthusiast who enjoys thinking and problem solving.

  • Reading age 7 - 12 years
  • Print length 124 pages
  • Language English
  • Grade level 2 - 6
  • Dimensions 6 x 0.26 x 9 inches
  • Publisher Now Publishers
  • Publication date June 24, 2020
  • ISBN-10 1680839845
  • ISBN-13 978-1680839845
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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Now Publishers (June 24, 2020)
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  • Reading age ‏ : ‎ 7 - 12 years
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  • #4,439 in Children's Math Books (Books)

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math problem solving strategies for elementary students


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