Kiss those Math Headaches GOODBYE!


If you want students to look at you like you’re crazy — and have fun because you know you’re doing a good thing — try this.

Tell students it’s their turn to make up a math problem.

Math Meeting Board and Lesson

Math Meeting Board and Lesson (Photo credit: Old Shoe Woman 

Yes, they’ll give you that look like, what are you talking about? But it’s o.k. Persist. Not only that … tell them to make up a word problem just like one in the textbook or on the worksheet. And tell them to make it relevant to their own lives.

For example, if you’re doing problems on rate, time and distance, suggest that students make up a skateboarding problem. One of my students came up with this:

You want to skate over to Ted&Tom’s (a local hangout), and you need to get there by 2:15 pm. If you’re 3 miles away and you leave at 1:30, going 4 mph, will you get there in time? [Answer:  You’ll get there right on time, not a minute too soon or too late.]

See how easy it is? Not really hard.

Or, let’s say that you’re doing ratio problems. Suggest that students do a problem on price comparisons. Another one of my tutees came up with this:

Lip gloss is on sale, 4 tubes for $7. At that rate, can you buy 12 tubes if you have exactly $20? [Answer:  No, since you won’t get the special if you have only $6 for the last set of lip gloss tubes.]

The benefits for students are many.

1)  Students start to see that math problems are “all around them.” i.e., They start to see math in their everyday situations. And they start to realize that they can actually use the math you’ve been teaching them to figure out  real-life problems.

2)  By developing their own problems, students grasp the concepts in the problems more deeply. In the same way that we teachers learn by teaching, students learn by making (and solving) their own problems.

3)  Making problems is a creative activity, and once students see they can pull their problems from real life, they start to enjoy the activity. And because this involves creativity, this exercise engages the “creative types” who often feel like math does not “speak to them.”

130423 Image With One of Arthur Koestler Quote...

4)  If you take the activity one step further, you can help students build their critical thinking skills. The one step further is: require that students get a whole number answer for their problem. This requirement forces students to think about how the numbers in the problem affect the value of the answer. And when they need to fine-tune those problem numbers to get out a particular kind of numerical result (like a whole number answer), they learn about the “innards” of the problem. They learn how the problem works more deeply than they would if they only were solving a problem someone else gave them.

5)  If you make the solving process cooperative, you can add even more fun to the process. By this I am suggesting that after students make the problems, they give them to other students to solve them. This way two students can exchange problems. I’ve seen students really get into this. They start making problems harder until they are just at the level that makes their partner “sweat.” But they enjoy this process, and it helps them get to know each other. I’ve found that this is a good way to get some fun socializing into a math class.

One last nice thing:  I’ve found that students cannot actually make up problems if they don’t know how to solve the problems. That means that this exercise tells you, the teacher, which of your students do understand the problem. And if they don’t get it, you can help them get it by helping them make the problem. It’s a nice, indirect way to teach.

So give it a try in your class or teaching situation, whatever that may be. I have a hunch you’ll find it as helpful and enjoyable as I have found it to be.

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