Whether you're talking state tests or just meeting with your team to plan the next math unit, the conversation inevitably turns to word problems. But it can be hard to know how to build math problem solving skills without resorting to pages of boring story problem practice.
These days word problems aren't the basic one-step wonders that many of us dealt with as students. Instead, multi-step story problems that require students to apply multiple concepts and skills are incorporated into instruction and state assessments.
Understanding brain research can help simply the process of teaching this challenging format of math problem solving to students, including those that struggle.
What research says about building master problem solvers in math
Have you seen how many math skills we are required to teach these days? No teacher truly has enough time to build the critical math skills AND effectively teach problem-solving…or do they?
Research would argue, we are going about these tasks all wrong. Instead here's what the brain research says about the must have elements for word problem mastery.
Finding #1: Becoming a master problem solver requires repetition.
Duh, right? Any good teacher knows this…but what's the best recipe for repetition if you want students to master word problems? How much practice? How often?
Let's start with the concept of mastery.
What it takes to become an expert
In the 1990's, Anders Ericsson studied experts to explore what made some people excel. Findings showed a positive correlation between the amount of deliberate practice (activities that require a high level of concentration and aren't necessarily inherently fun) and skill level.
In other words, the more practice someone gets the more they improve. This became the basis of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule, which stated that it takes 10,000 hours to make you an expert in a field.
But what should that practice look like? Is it better to have a long, deep dive into word problem or do short bursts of practice do more for long-term understanding?
Building better word problem practice
We can look at Ebbinghaus' work on memory & retention to answer that. He found spacing practice over time decreased the number of exposures needed. In other words, small amounts of practice over several days, weeks, or even months actually means you need LESS practice than if you try to cram it all in at once.
For over 80 years, this finding has stood the test of time. While research has shown that students who engage in mass practice (lots of practice all at once) might do better on an assessment that takes place tomorrow, students who engage in repeated practice over a period of time retain more skills long-term (Bloom & Shuell, 1981; Rea & Modigliani, 1985).
And how long does research say you should spend reviewing?
How long should problem solving practice really be?
Shorter is actually better. As discussed earlier, peak attention required for deliberate practice can only be maintained for so long. And the majority of research supports 8-10 minutes as the ideal lesson length (Robertson, 2010).
This means practice needs to be focused so that during those minutes of discussion, you can dive deep – breaking down the word problem and discussing methods to solve.
Applying this finding to your classroom
Less is actually more as long as you plan to practice regularly. While students may need a great deal of practice to master word problems, ideally this practice should be provided in short, regular intervals with no more than 8-10 minutes spent in whole group discussion.
Here are a few simple steps to apply these findings to your math classroom:
- Find 8-12 minutes in your daily schedule to focus on problem-solving – consider this time sacred & only for problem-solving.
- Select only 1-2 word problems per day.