Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Do Students Hate Word Problems?

If you surveyed your classroom, how many students would say they like word problems?
20%? 10%? 5%? 

I actually did this in my science classes the other day.  Out of eighty-nine students over three class periods, representing sophomores through seniors, I had six students who claimed to like word problems and another three who did the half arm extension of, they kind of like word problems.  Let us give those students the benefit of the doubt and go with all nine students who claim to like word problems. Nine out of eighty-nine is a whopping 10.1%.  This is just about right for classes in a typical high school, when it comes to their desire to do word problems.

Why is there such a disdain for word problems?  Why do many students even balk at attempting word problems?  Why do word problems provoke fear in the hearts of the adolescent scholar?

As a science teacher, it is an absolute necessity that students work through the process of solving word problems.  I do not have the luxury of simply giving worksheets of repetitious, rote equation based problems.
Whether it is stoichiometry and gas law problems in chemistry or projectile motion or density problems in physics, students must be able to read a word problem, extract the necessary values and determine a method for solving for the unknown?

Over the years I have discussed this dilemma of word problems with the students who have made their way through my classroom. After years of gathering this anecdotal evidence, I have come up with three basic reasons that students avoid, dislike, or fear word problems: The Battle of the Left and Right Brain, The Language Barrier and The Lack of a Plan.
  • The Battle of the Left and Right Brain
    • Most students are dominant on one side of the brain.  They are either linear, numeric and organized on the leftt side of the brain or they are, artistic, verbal and feeling on the right side of the brain.  Word problems demand that students use both sides of the brain. Heaven forbid, that students use the left side for numbers and the right side for words simultaneously. They might blow a fuse. 
    • For a word problem determining how far a person traveling on a plane for a certian period of time would travel at a given rate, students dominant on the left want to know the numbers, the formula and how to find an answer.  Students dominant on the right side of the brain want to know where they are going, what are they wearing and what movie is on the plane.
    • Students on the left side of the brain can draw out the numbers but may confuse their significanance because the wording does not make sense.  Students on the right side, can decipher the words but do not necessarily have a purpose for the numbers.  
    • A bridge needs to be created to bring the two sides together.  Left sided individuals need to create charts to transfer the numeric values into an organized meaningful process.  Right sided individuals can use diagrams to transfer the words into a meaningful mathematical purpose
  • The Language Barrier
    • How many word problems have just too much information. Most students get overwhelmed by the sheer wordiness of the word problems.  If their is general discomfort with the math that is only increased by superfluous wording and unfamiliar vocabulary. 
    • For example: Johnny walks his shih tzu around his neighborhood every afternoon.  The evening constitutional usually takes about forty five minutes for the two of them to cover the five block trek through the neighborhood.  If the walk consists of one and a half miles, what is the average speed that they walk?
    • There are forty nine words in this word problem.  The majority of them are not necessary to solve the problem. Many students would have difficulty with several of the words, shih tzu, constitutional and trek. While it is important to increase vocabulary and integrate science and language, students who have difficulty with word problems will simply avoid this type of  word problem due the seemingly imposing amount of words. 
    • Students  must be given the opportunity to develop a sense of success with solving word problems gradually.  With time and greater success, students learn to identify the necessary information and filter out the wording that is unecessary to their problem solving. 
  •  The Lack of a Plan
    • Students need a problem solving plan.  Not a recipe, but an actual problem solving plan that is generic to all types of problems. 
    • I believe the best example of a plan for Problem Solving comes from Rafe Esquith in his book, Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire:
 I have always appreciated the simplicity of this approach, wheter it is for Esquith's grammar school students or AP Calculus students the plan holds true.  I also love the "Put Down Your Pencil" reminder for the brainstorming portion.  Too many students never get started because they don't know where they are going.  This plan forces students to truly develop a means for determining where to start, where to end and the path to choose.  

By providing the proper approach, diffusing their fear and providing a concise plan to solve word problems, most teachers can give students the opportunity to develop success in solving word problems.  They may not ever like them, but they most definitely won't avoid them.


1 comment:

Kelly Cox said...

This is a good article, and I plan on using your problem solving strategy with my students. But you should be aware of the fact that the left-brain/right-brain idea is a myth. It is commonly believed by many educators, along with learning styles and multiple intelligences.

Just one of many articles about neuromyths: