Strategies For ‘Attacking’ Maths Problems, A Guide For Students And Teachers

In an earlier article, “How to Answer Questions in a Formal Examination-A Student’s Guide”, I discussed how to answer questions to gain the best possible results in an examination. This article continues that theme but this time in relation to answering questions in a formal Mathematics examination. The strategies mentioned in the previous article should be applied to the Mathematics examination as well as the ones discussed below.

It is important to define what I mean by a problem in Mathematics before you start to study the strategies to solve them.

These problems are almost entirely ‘word’ problems. More often than not, the student needs to use a variety of Mathematical skills or ideas to gain a solution. Often, particularly in the senior years of high school, there will be an unfamiliar context in which to use your Mathematical knowledge. Alternatively, there may be a series of sometimes complex steps necessary to achieve a result. Finally, the answer is not one which is obvious.

Below are a list of strategies, if used together, will help you gain greater success in solving real problems in Mathematics not just ones you have practised. However, remember, if you don’t know your basics in Mathematics then no set of strategies will help you solve the problems.

So strategy Number 1 is and will always be:

“Know all your learning work and procedures as well as you can.”

The remaining strategies are as follows:

2. Remember, everything that you need to solve the problem is in the question itself. (So list what data the problem gives you as your starting point).

3. Checking is a compulsory part of every problem you are to solve. Here is a checking procedure to use:

• It is best to check as you do each step in the problem as this saves time often preventing unnecessary extra work.

• Ensure you have done only what you have been asked to do. Check, in fact, that you have actually answered the question fully.

• Check you have copied down all the data for the question correctly.

• Check that your answer (its size, etc.) fits, in a practical sense, into the scenario/context of the question.

4. Make sure you have been neat, tidy, organised, logical, clear, and concise. This will help you with your checking and allow the examiner/teacher to follow your logic easily.

5. This strategy was mentioned in the first article. It is part and parcel of answering any examination problem, especially in Mathematics. It is: List the steps you need to take, in order, to gain a solution.

Below is an example of what I mean by this strategy in Mathematics.

The Swimming Pool Problem

“How long does it take to fill a swimming pool with a bucket?”

Here is how I teach this strategy:

Step 1: I write the above problem on the board.

When I do this, I ask the students for their reaction:

It will be: “We can’t do it”

You ask: “Why?”

Their reply: “There are no dimensions”

Your reply: “You don’t need them. If I gave you them to you what would you do?”

Step 2: Now I have the students write down the steps they would use.

Step 3: Then I discuss the steps the class select and list the steps on the board.

e. g. Find the volume of the pool.

Find the volume of the bucket.

How long does it take to fill the bucket and pour into the pool?

How many buckets of water do I need to fill the pool?

Find total time to fill the pool.

Step 4: Now, I make the point that the above steps do not mention the dimensions of the pool. It doesn’t matter what it measures you still follow the same process.

Step 5: Lastly, I emphasise that a correct answer depends upon the correct steps, i.e. method of solution.

As a student, you can’t learn these strategies overnight and expect that they will ‘come to you’ easily in a formal examination situation. You must practice using them. Make a list of the strategies and have them with you as you try each new problem. Evaluate how well you use them and work to improve those you find hardest to use or are easily forgotten. Look to your teacher for help with this process. Remember, in an examination, be disciplined, write out the list of strategies you will use before you start and use them to solve the problems.

A Young Teacher’s Guide To Homework In Mathematics In High School

Most of what appears below was the advice that I wrote for teachers who taught Mathematics in my department when I was its head. It appeared in my department’s handbook.

Homework was an accepted part of what we did as Mathematics teachers for all classes except those with special needs students.

How And When To Set Homework

• It should be set daily or after each lesson.

• Write the assigned homework on the board.

• Ensure the students write it in their school diaries at the end of the lesson. In junior classes, you may stand at the door checking the homework is written in their diary as they leave.

• Discuss how long the work should take and any necessary advice.

• Lastly, early in the school year, teach your students how to use their textbook to help them do their homework.

What Homework Should You Set?

For students to achieve their full potential in Mathematics at high school, homework must be done on a regular basis. Homework, based on current class work, is meant to be an extension of the lesson and is needed for the re-enforcement of concepts.

In high schools, homework in Mathematics may consist of:

• Written exercises set for practice of skills and concepts. These are based on classwork.

• Learning work, e.g. rules, vocabulary and theorems.

• Assessment tasks – these usually count towards Semester reports.

What About Students Who Don’t Do Their Homework?

Teachers should record in their diaries the names of defaulters. Parents must be advised when a pattern of missing homework becomes evident.

Teachers should develop a process for dealing with homework defaulters.

What If Students Can’t Do Their Homework?

As most homework is based on the work done in class that day, this is not usually a problem for most students. However, if a student has difficulty in beginning homework, teach these strategies:

• The student should look for a similar problem in the work done in class. This is usually all that is needed to jog the memory.

• The student should look for an example in the textbook prior to the exercise. Each different type is usually done in full with an explanation.

• If students still have difficulty, they should see their teacher the next day BEFORE CLASS and arrange a time for individual help. Most teachers are available for a “homework help” time at lunch time or before and after school. Your teacher will tell you when he/she is available.

What If A Student Tells His/Her Parents That They Never Have Homework?

Often, there are complaints from parents who tell us that their students never have homework. This is clearly not the case! If a student has no written homework, (which is unlikely) then we would suggest that the parents set one of the following to be done:

• Ask the student to write a summary of the rules for the current unit and to work an example of each type of problem. The textbook will be useful here. Look for chapter summaries.

• Look at the student’s exercise book and find an exercise that caused difficulty. Set this exercise to be done.

• In each textbook, there are chapters on basic skills. Students can do any of the exercises from this chapter.

• Often there are chapter reviews and practice tests. These can be done.

The Review Process

Homework should, wherever possible, be reviewed during the next lesson for the greatest impact on learning to occur. This learning may, in fact, be the basis of the next lesson. A full description of a review practice can be found in the Article “Reviewing Homework in High School Classes” to be found on this website.

Even though there is a continuing debate as to the merits of homework, the advice here will help the young Mathematics teacher deal with homework successfully.