Problem solving is a big focus in math today. One of the most important parts of the Common Core Standards are the Standards for Mathematical Practice. Most of the questions on our state assessments require students to apply the skills they’ve learned. If we only teach them basic formulas for computation, they won’t know how to use those concepts to solve problems. Use these tips to incorporate problem solving into all of your math lessons.
Incorporate Problem Solving into Every Math Lesson
As a third grade teacher, problem solving has to be a huge focus. The second grade enVision curriculum doesn’t incorporate problem solving nearly as much as I’d like. The third grade tests require a lot more reading and figuring out what the problems are asking you to do. My students always struggle with this at the beginning of the year. That’s why I’ve found lots of ways to incorporate problem solving into every math lesson. Use these tips to make your students better problem solvers.
#1 – Use an open-ended question as the hook for your lesson.
Start every lesson with an open-ended question that uses the skill you’ll be teaching that day. Give the students a chance to read the question carefully and try to figure out what to do to solve the problem. Training them to read a question and figure out the important parts are the first important steps to becoming problem solvers.
My students know that I’m happy as long as they’re trying something. Sitting there and doing nothing isn’t an option. They can underline the important words, draw a picture to solve the problem, or write a number sentence.
Once the students work independently for a few minutes, I have them turn and talk to a partner to share what they were thinking. Then, we talk about the problem as a whole class before breaking into guided math groups.
Find out more about my guided math groups.
#2 – Incorporate math vocabulary into every lesson.
A huge part of problem solving is knowing math vocabulary. Students don’t stand a chance at solving a lot of problems if they don’t know what the math terms mean. I make a point of addressing new vocabulary words during my minilesson. Then, we add the words to our math word wall. We review the words often, and I encourage the students to use the terms in their mathematical discussions and open-ended responses.
Click to download the math vocabulary cards I display on my word wall. The cards are available for every grade level for free.
#3 – Teach your students the problem solving process.
Having steps to follow really helps my students with open-ended math problems. If they are stuck on a question, they look at the Problem Solving Process chart that is posted in our math area, and that helps them get started.
My students also have a small problem solving steps chart in their math folders. They refer to it when they’re solving problems in class, and some of them take it home at night to help with their homework.
Download a free copy of the problem solving steps chart at the bottom of this post.
#4 – Set up a problem solving center.
My students do 3 different rotations for guided math. One of their centers is a problem solving center. This is where the students answer open-ended questions using the day’s skill. I have 3 different levels of math groups, and I differentiate the problem solving center to meet all of their needs.
The students work together at the problem solving center. They discuss the questions and work through them together. They explain their thinking and write mathematical explanations.
Check out my Do You Want to Build a Snowman Math Performance Task to practice money, division, and geometry.
#5 – Make your math supplies easily accessible.
Sometimes students need manipulatives to complete the problem solving tasks. I keep all of my math supplies right next to the side table where my students do their problem solving center. They know where everything is and can get anything they need. We spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year talking about using math manipulatives as tools, not toys.
#6 – Give your students feedback on their open-ended responses.
If your students do the problem solving center and never get any feedback about how they did, they won’t put forth their best effort. Students need to hear what they did well and what they can improve.
At the beginning of the year, I always get, “I just knew it” as the explanation to open-ended questions. We talk about how to teach someone else how to do the problem. Just telling them you knew it doesn’t help them solve the problem at all. I do a lot of modeling of great open-ended responses, and the students start incorporating my strategies into their own work. I usually start my Meet with the Teacher rotation by going over the previous day’s problem solving center.
#7 – Close your lesson with another open-ended problem.
In each lesson, the students do a problem-solving activity with you at the beginning of the lesson. They work with their group to complete a performance task at a center. Finally, they complete an open-ended question completely independently as an exit ticket. This will show you if they are really able to apply the day’s skill.
Creating Great Problem Solvers
Incorporating problem solving into every math lesson will help your student become better mathematical thinkers. They will know the steps to follow to solve any math problem they encounter.
Watch this video to see how I set up my problem solving center.
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What Do You Think?
How do you incorporate problem solving into your math lessons?
Let me know in the comments below.
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Plus, get the Math Problem Solving Steps handout to help your students become great problem solvers.