Recently I’ve been using a new technique to help students solve word problems, and nearly every day I am amazed at how helpful it is.
The technique helps students overcome their confusion with word problems.
The approach involves giving students permission to replace the numbers in a word problem with what I call easy, or “friendly numbers.” Essentially “friendly numbers” are just numbers that are easy to think about because they are simple, round numbers.
Here’s an example of the replacement process.
Word Problem as written: Of the people who voted, 90 percent of them voted for Sammy. If 1930 people voted, how many of them voted for Sammy.
I was tutoring a student. Her response after reading this: Huh?
Then I told her that it’s ok to temporarily replace the numbers in the problem with “friendly numbers,” just to make the problem easier to grasp. I helped her see that in this problem she could temporarily replace the 90% with 50% and replace the 1,930 figure with a nice round number, like 600.
The student then picked up her pencil and wrote the problem like this:
Of the people who voted, 50 percent of them voted for Sammy. If 600 people voted, how many of them voted for Sammy.
Then I asked the student if she could figure out this problem. She said it now made sense. She went on to say that if 50 percent of the people voted for Sammy, that meant that half of the 600 people voted for Sammy. So that means that 300 people voted for Sammy.
Then I asked the student if she could come up with an equation to solve this problem. With a bit of help, she came up with:
.5 x 600 = # voting for Sammy
She solved this using decimal multiplication and got the right answer: 300 voted for Sammy.
Then I asked her if she could make a similar equation for the original problem, using the following questions as prompts:
What number in the original problem corresponds to your 50%? Answer: 90%
What number in the original problem corresponds to 600? Answer: 1,930
Once she saw these correspondences, I had the student write her equation for the “friendly numbers” problem. Then, just below that I had her write the corresponding equation for the original problem. Her work looked like this:
.5 x 600 = # voting for Sammy
.9 x 1,930 = # voting for Sammy
I asked her to now solve this using decimal multiplication, and she got the correct answer, 1,737
After going through this process I often ask students what made the original problem seem so hard . Usually they will say they don’t know, or they will sometimes say that they just couldn’t understand it.
From my work with “friendly numbers” I’ve come up with a theory. I believe that for many students, merely looking at “unfriendly numbers” has a “psych-out” factor. When kids get “psyched out” by those numbers, they go into a mental panic. And in that panic they lose their intuitive sense of what they need to do.
While this is a problem, it is not insurmountable. All we educators need to do is help the student re-cast the problem with “friendly numbers.” When they do, the “psych-out” factor vanishes, and students see what needs to be done. And generally students can transfer their sense of what needs to be done from the easier problem to the original problem. At that point they are on their way to solving it.
So I encourage you to teach students how to use “friendly numbers” when solving word problems. Perhaps you will also find that students can succeed once they first make the original problem easy to grasp.