5 Activities for Teaching Problem-Solving

This "5 Activities for Teachingpost (click the link for more 5 Activity Ideas) is all about Problem-Solving in Math.  As our testing relies heavily on our students' ability to problem-solve and analyze and solve word problems, we have a heavy focus on problem-solving all year long.  This post aims to give you some new ideas to get your students digging deep into word problems, on their way to becoming problem-solving masters.

1.  Use CUBES to help students analyze the problem before they begin solving -

Before I began using CUBES with problem-solving, I would watch in frustration as my students plucked numbers from the question and began solving without really thinking about WHAT they needed to solve.  Sometimes they would miss some of the steps in a multi-step question, and other times their answers weren't actually answering what the question asked.  By introducing CUBES, my students now actually slow down and examine the question fully first ... leading to much greater success in problem-solving activities.  I introduce CUBES very early in the school year.  I hang an anchor chart in the classroom, and we complete an entry in our Interactive Math Journals (click HERE to see this resource in greater detail).

I also created sets of concept-related Word Problem Activities using CUBES.  These resources contain a checklist for CUBES right on the page that students need to complete before they begin solving the problem.  I LOVE using these pages for quick formative assessments in the classroom - and they make a great portfolio piece to keep parents informed of what we are doing in the classroom, and how their child is progressing.  There are 2 different versions of each word problem so you can easily provide differentiation for your students or provide some extra practice for students who need some reinforcement with the concepts.

2.  Establish a set of success criteria for the steps to solving the problem -

Once my students know how to analyze the word problem, it's time to start talking about how to SOLVE the problem.  Because we have a HUGE focus on communicating HOW the students solve the problem, just showing their work isn't enough - they have to show their thinking, too.  Using my Building Better Responses in Math has been the key to this in my classroom.  This resource breaks down the problem-solving process step-by-step and creates a set of easy-to-follow success criteria for students, ensuring that they have not only solved the problem, but also communicated their thinking during the process.  We start out with our first success criteria, and every time we master a criteria (usually every two to three weeks), we add another criteria to our board (there are 9 criteria in all).  I also post EVIDENCE (a student-created exemplar) alongside the criteria each time we add a new one.  This gives the students a model to reference.  This resource also comes with printables for students to practice each criteria in isolation, as well as pages for scaffolding the steps each time they add a new one.  All pages contain a checklist for students so they can be sure they are completing each step.

3.  Work Backwards -

I LOVE this open-ended activity for getting students to think about word problems.  I start with an answer, and get each student to write a word problem for the answer on a sticky note.  They quickly check in with me before they post their question.  When we first started this activity, students were including the answer IN their question, but with more practice, they are now thinking more about writing the word problem with the answer in mind.  To extend this activity, students can choose a word problem written by a peer, and work to solve it - PROVING the answer is correct.

4.  Work Together -

Students can be a GREAT reference for each other.  I love letting my students explore word problems together.  They often have different ideas and strategies for how to solve a problem, which leads to awesome conversations about justifying their answers.  I always make them responsible for completing their own pages, but they can work together on the solutions.  My favorite resource for this is my Stick-It-Together Math Resources.  These resources have students working together in groups of 4.  Each students is responsible for solving the problem independently first (on a sticky note), then working together with the success criteria to build the best response they can from each other's responses.  I hear the BEST math talk when using this resource, and I watch them go back into their notes to help them with their solutions, which makes my teacher heart smile.  Each of these resources also contains an editable template, so you can add in any word problem you want to work on - better yet, give your students the opportunity to come up with the problem themselves.

You can also have them work together on large chart paper, or just give them some clip boards for their paper and let them work anywhere they wish within the room.  This is my students' favorite way to problem solve.

5.  Let them be the experts -

Lastly, let your students be the experts.  Allow them plenty of time to see other solutions, and comment on the work (their own, and other's work).  I do a lot of peer and self-evaluation with problem-solving.  After problem solving activities, we do gallery walks - where students' work is displayed, and the students are asked to go around and view all the work, giving "stars and wishes" to their peers.  This makes them really think about what is needed in the solution to fully answer the problem.

I also like to post all the responses on the board, and allow students time to present their solutions - explaining what they did and how they know they are correct, or what they would do differently next time.

To help them differentiate between explaining HOW they solved the problem, and WHY they chose the steps they did, I also like to do an activity where I give the students two different colors of stickers or sticky notes.  They walk around the gallery of math, examining all the solutions, and place the one color where they see students explaining HOW, and the other color for WHY.  This really helps them see the difference between the two.  I then allow them time to go back to their own solutions, to see if they have completed both steps, and improve upon their communication.

These are just a few ideas.  I'd love to hear some of your fabulous ideas for helping your students dig deeper into word problems - just leave a comment below to share your ideas.

Your Try / My Try Spelling Chart

This Your Try / My Try Spelling Chart is one of the best additions I've recently made to my classroom.  Within 3 days, it completed eliminated the "How do you spell ...?" questions that brought my students to a halt during the writing process, made my students actually think about and attempt to spell the word instead of just shooting their hands up, and freed up my time to meet with more students and provide more meaningful feedback and comments while working on writing.  And the best part ... it literally takes absolutely no time or prep to implement in the classroom.  And that's a win in my books.

I set up this chart on a chart stand that didn't get a lot of use in the room so it could be a permanent fixture in the room.  The instructions are simple - during the writing process, if a student has a question about how to spell a word, they can check a dictionary (online or in print) or write the word on the chart under "your try".  As soon as I get a chance, usually within a few minutes, I will write the correct spelling beside it on the "my try" side.  I've also started to put a checkmark beside correct attempts by students, and I still rewrite the word on the my try side.  And that's it.  I started this chart mid November, and by the end of December, we were already onto our 4th page of chart paper - so it's definitely getting used by the students.  I've also seen them go back and check previous sheets when they know the word was on the chart before.

I do a lot of free writing in my room, and that is when the chart is getting used the most, but I've also seen students using it when writing responses during other subjects, so I've encouraged its use for that, too.  My friend, Tina, from Tina's Teaching Treasures, has a great little freebie if you want to do this on an individual basis with your students.  You can check it out HERE.

Check out some of my other writing resources: