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6 Tips for Solving Word Problems in Math and Science

By Meaghan Montrose

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Do you struggle with solving word problems in math or science class? Do you have a difficult time deciding how to start the problem? Have no fear, help is here! Below are six tips to use when you are solving word problems.

1. Highlight or underline important information given in the problem.

Word problems usually contain extra information and a lot of descriptions that are not necessary to solve the problem. The problem will be clearer if you can ignore the extra wording and just focus on the important details.
For instance, a question may say “Sally wanted to take a ride on the carousel at the amusement park. Each ticket costs $1.50 at the park. The carousel requires 3 tickets for a ride. If Sally has $5.00 can she ride on the carousel?” In this problem, the first sentence isn’t important to answering the question. However, knowing that a “ticket costs $1.50, the carousel requires 3 tickets, and Sally has $5.00″ are important parts that should be highlighted or underlined.

2. Draw a picture if appropriate.

This is especially helpful for Physics and Geometry problems. Sometimes having a visual will remind you what equations you need or what other information you have to figure out.

3. List all of the variables or values given in the problem.

This helps to pull important information from the problem and to keep you organized. In addition, it can also help you decide with equation to use.
For example, a problem may say “A sample of a metal was found on the factory floor. The metal sample has a mass of 12.0 grams. Using water displacement you determine that the sample takes up 6.5 mL of space. What is the identity of the metal?” You should start by making a list of the information you can pull out of the problem such as “mass = 12.0 g” and “volume = 6.5 mL”. Determining that the problem contains a value for mass and volume may help you realize that you should be using the formula for density (D = m/V).

4. Write down any equations you may need for the problem.

If you have a list of possible equations, you can use a process of elimination to determine which equation is appropriate. If possible equations for a problem are “density = mass/Volume” or “speed = distance/time”, you can rule out the second equation if the problem doesn’t provide speed, distance, or time.

5. After solving for the answer, go back and reread the problem.

Ask yourself: Does your answer make sense? Did you fully answer the question? Consider the sample word problem given in tip #3. If you simply calculated the density, you haven’t finished the problem. The question asks you to go a step further and “identify the sample.

6. If you get stuck on a problem, skip it and go back to it later.

Sometimes having a short break from thinking about the problem will allow you to restartyour thought process and approach the problem from a different angle. If this happens on a test, it sometimes helps to look at other questions on the test to refresh your memory.

Topics: Study Skills and Learning Strategies | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “6 Tips for Solving Word Problems in Math and Science”

  1. Online Math Tutor Says:

    Thanks for these wonderful tips. I will share them with my students…

  2. Rob Borgersen Says:

    Great tips. I give these tips to my students all the time. I would emphasize two things:

    For #5, you need to make sure you answer the question. I like to pose it this way: if you were an employee and the boss “said” to you the problem (that is, instead of reading the problem you are given, envision your boss saying it to you), then you need to ask yourself “what is my boss asking for?” He doesn’t care about math or variables. He wants to know something, and you need to figure out what that is. If he asks “How many products should I produce?” then your answer should be “you should produce this many units”. This also tells you what your variables should be in the problem: if he wants to know how many products to produce, start off the problem by saying “Let X be the number of products to produce”. Then when you get “x = something” at the end of the problem, you can answer his question.

    Number 6 is a VERY important thing that many students don’t think of. When writing any test or exam, you should ALWAYS do the problems that you know EXACTLY how to do first. This way you are GUARANTEED to get those marks. The opposite is to do the ones you are not sure of first, and then what happens is you spend all this time on those questions and then if you get them or not, you have less time to do the ones you “know” how to do. Because then you are rushed, you make mistakes that you wouldn’t have made otherwise. It is VERY important that you always do the questions you know how to do first, slowly, and making sure you get 100% on them.

    Great article!