Problem Solving in 5 Simple Steps

In teaching math to third graders, one of the skills that we always found to be the most difficult was how to teach problem solving. How do you teach an 8 or 9 year old how to
carefully read a problem, pull out important information, choose a strategy, solve,
check the solution, and explain how they solved it when they can barely sit
still for more than 5 minutes!!!
And yet that is what we were being asked to do year after year with our students. After honestly feeling like we weren’t doing the best job in getting our students to persevere (we know you teachers out there love to hear that word) in solving problems, we decided that
it was time to try something new. And if YOU persevere in reading this blog
post, you will find a FREEBIE at the end!
We thought about what we wanted our students to be able to do as problem solvers. In addition to all of the skills mentioned above, we knew we also wanted them to be able to verbalize how they solved a problem to others, to apply what they learned to new
problems, and to even be able to create similar problems of their own. From
this desire, our Problem of the Week was born!


In the past we had given our students daily math and asked them to solve the problems. Then we would go over the strategies and the answer together as a class. We decided that instead
we needed to have our students become more independent in problem solving and
in order to do that, they needed a method that they could follow over and over
again until it became second nature. We created this problem of the week so
that each day the students would complete a different step in the problem
solving process. 


On Day 1, our students read over the problem independently and complete the CUBES strategy (Circle the key numbers, Underline the question and restate it, Box the
clue words, Evaluate, and Solve). Then they do their best to solve the problem on their own. We really try and encourage them to persevere (there’s that word again) without providing too much assistance. There are times, especially when you first start, that students will come up
and say “I can’t do this” or “This is too hard” and you simply have to give them a smile and say “Do your best!”. We realize that as teachers this can actually be quite challenging because we want to help our students, but we find that if we always guide them to the answer, they
never feel confident enough to try on their own (especially when the BIG test
comes along). 


On Day 2, students work with a partner to compare answers and strategies for how they solved the problem. After discussing their solution, they decide whether or not they want
to keep it the same or change their answer. If they decide to change it, they have to show how they solved it differently. This step actually takes a lot of modeling and practice to get the quality work we want from our students. We find that a lot of times students will just mark that they don’t need to change anything even though they might have a totally different answer from their partner. Our goal for this step is for students to make a detailed analysis of
another student’s work, as well as check back over their own. We did see progress in this area as students became more comfortable with the routine and understood our expectations. After this partner talk, we come together as a whole class and actually go over the solution to the problem. This is an opportunity to see the strategies that students are using, as well as get an idea of where the class is in their understanding of the targeted skill. 


Day 3 is our explanation
day, when the real fun begins! The students are asked to explain their problem
solving process in writing. This is usually a very difficult task for students
to complete, especially in the beginning of the year, so the written section is
scaffolded with transition words to help students structure their responses.
After students finish their explanation, we gather as a class and have several
students share, making sure to acknowledge what they did well, as well as provide
feedback on what could make their response even better. We also MODEL, MODEL,
MODEL and when we don’t feel like we can do it anymore we MODEL again! Let us
just warn you, at the beginning of the year these are AWFUL! But by the end of
the year our students improve by leaps and bounds and can more clearly explain
their problem solving process.
Okay…on to Day 4! This
is usually our students’ favorite day of the whole process because they get to
show their understanding of the problem in a different way and be creative. On
this day the students are asked to create their own problem based on the
original problem they solved. In having them come up with their own problem
using the same skill, it shows us that they have a deeper understanding of what
they learned throughout the week. They also think it’s fun to change the
characters or the situation. For example, we shared our love of coffee with the
students at the beginning of the year and from then on we saw the theme of
coffee drinking teachers show up again and again in our students’
On Day 5, students switch papers with a partner and solve each other’s problems. When they return the paper, they check to see if it was solved correctly. Also, sometimes this provides an opportunity to catch mistakes that were made in creating the problem.
Whew! Are you still with us? We hope so, because even though this it is quite a journey to get your students to become expert problem solvers, it is well worth the time and effort you put in. The reality is that problem solving is a lifelong skill and these tools will help to set them up for success!

Here is what a few teachers have said about using our Problem of the Week in their classes:

“If you’re on the fence about this resource, GET IT!! It’s amazing and is really helping my students with their math skills!!”

“I love this! Weekly guided practice of problem solving for students to get ready to ace the state test!”

“Just the right amount of scaffolding to allow students to write their math processes down! Thank you!”
“This is a great way to go deeper into a word problem and encourage student discussion.”
So…ready to try it in your class? 
Click on the pic below to get a one week sample for FREE!


Also, check out the Problem of the Week Bundle for 33 weeks of problems in Volumes 1-4!
While it’s not always fun, we hope these 5 steps will help your students feel confident in problem solving.

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