Finals are here, and there’s a whole bunch of subjects to conquer. Check out last year’s post on how to “Lower Finals Stress” for some good studying tips. For this post, however, my students’ most challenging classes are their math and science classes… and the most challenging problems are the word problems. Thus, this post focuses very specifically on attacking word problems, because they have been my most requested topic this past month. If you are facing a difficult math problem (or chemistry or physics problem, etc.), ask yourself these questions…

1) What is the problem telling you?

In order to get to the answer, you have to know where to start. As a character says in Alice in Wonderland, “Start at the beginning!” Seriously: start at the beginning of the problem. Most students start at the end, with the question–which is definitely very important and I’ll address that next–but to begin a problem, look at “the givens” first. Most problems give you exactly what you need, nothing more, nothing less. Often, after recognizing the given info, your brain will automatically know what it needs to do, because it is the lesson you’ve been working on.

2) What is the problem asking for?

Many students just start guessing at what they need to do, without actually looking at what the problem is asking. If your brain didn’t automatically know what to do with the givens, then looking at the actual question will tell you exactly what you need. It may say, “Calculate the circumference” or “what is the length?” What is the unknown piece that the problem wants you to find?

3) What is the formula you need?

What is the formula or equation you need to find that unknown piece? Think of the lessons from the previous weeks. There are usually only a few equations or methods that you’ve learned. What is the formula that combines the question and the givens? Do you have all the pieces you need for this formula? If not, you’re probably only missing one piece–what is the formula to find THAT piece?

4) Plug in and solve.

Once you figure out the formula(s) you need, you now have a plan. Plug in (aka substitute) the pieces that you have, to find the piece that you need. If you have another formula to use after the first one, then continue plugging in your pieces, to get to your answer.

5) When you get an answer, does it answer the problem’s question?

This is important! Most students get an answer, and they don’t think of whether it answers the question being asked. Perhaps it’s just the answer to the first formula you needed. Check to make sure the answer you got makes sense. If the question asked for a “total,” then your answer should probably be bigger than the starting numbers; if you got a smaller number, then you might have done something incorrectly.

Oh, and please label your answer with the correct units. This goes along with making sure the answer makes sense. If you are solving for length but you label your answer with kilograms, then something is off.

If you need more math help, check out my post on “How to Help with Math Homework.” For more science help, check out “How to Help with Science Homework.” With consistent practice, you’ll improve at math and science so much that you might even like doing the problems!

Good luck, and happy learning!