Word Problems

I’m teaching a new class for our school this year – Financial Literacy. It’s a course for seniors who are not interested in (or we didn’t think they should be taking) AP Stats or Pre-Calc, which are our only other options for senior math. (And AP Calc, of course, but since the pre-req for that is Pre-Calc…you get the idea.)


I probably should mention that I got sick over the weekend and am still suffering the effects of a pretty nasty cold including, but not limited to: headache, congestion, sore throat, coughing, scratchy voice, more congestion, exhaustion, general feeling of crappiness. My writing is going to make about as much sense tonight as my speaking did today – not much. But I have a story to tell. So I’m going to.

Ahem. Where was I? Teaching a new class this year…right, so I didn’t get very far. Tangents, right?!

So I’m teaching Financial Literacy. We’ve learned how checking and savings accounts work, how to balance a checkbook, and how to calculate simple and compound interest so far. Yes, I should admit I didn’t do a great job teaching balancing a checkbook, and I will do better next year. Next, we’ll be learning about how to get a job, how to read a pay stub, and other employment-related things. We’ll be learning about credit cards and loans this semester, and buying a car. It’s actually a really cool class and I’m very excited to be teaching it. Everything we do is a real-life application. Every single concept we’re teaching is something they will need to know next year when they finish high school. Every single problem is a real-life application problem.

What’s the downside (from a student point of view)? Every single problem is a word problem.

I was doing tutoring today with a couple other math teachers, and the AP Stats teacher (who I worked very closely with last year as he and I were the two Algebra 1 teachers) was chatting with one of my students. She asked him about AP Stats, or at least she must have because that’s what he was explaining when I started paying attention to the conversation.

He was telling her that AP Stats is very conceptual – there’s a lot of reading, a lot of concepts to understand, but not a lot of calculation (which, as we all know, is the part that students consider to be “real math”). To prove his point, he opened the AP Stats textbook to the first chapter, and told her to “find the math”. They started flipping through the whole first chapter, where she discovered that there was not an equation or formula to be seen. There was a table of numbers, but no operations being performed on those numbers.

I butted into joined the conversation at this point to comment on how different my class is – there’s very little conceptual information for us to discuss in class. For example, yesterday I taught compound interest by showing them how to use the formula and then making them calculate the interest. (We’ve already discussed simple vs. compound, and the effects of each.) I grabbed the Financial Literacy textbook, which my student already had open to the two pages full of word problems which were the current homework assignment, and showed it to the other teacher. “See,” I said, “It’s almost all calculation. Of course, they’re all word problems, so it’s a lot of reading too, because they have interpret the problem before they can calculate.”

I probably didn’t say it that coherently. He knew what I meant, and my student did too.

The AP Stats teacher made a comment about word problems, and how much students struggle with them, and my student agreed with him for a moment. She then went on to say that actually, “We really had a hard time with the word problems at first, but they’re not so bad anymore.”

People, let me be very clear here – it’s the fourth week of school. I’ve been teaching content a grand total of 12 days. After 12 days, they feel more comfortable with word problems than they probably ever have before. 

I’m not sure if I can attribute that to the simple fact that they’ve been forced to do so many word problems over the last 12 school days that they’ve adjusted a little bit, or if it’s because I’m so explicitly teaching them how to approach these problems in class. I suspect it’s a combination of both.

If this is what two weeks has done, I can’t wait to see what they have to say about these word problems in a few months, or at the end of the school year. Maybe reading the problem (twice!), pulling out the key information, interpreting the information in a constructive way, finding a solution, and checking that they have actually answered the question that was asked will be a process that is almost second nature to them. If, at the end of the year, my students (who, by nature of our course offerings, are the lowest-performing students in the senior class) can tackle a real-life application problem without feeling intimidated, giving up, or backing down, I will consider this to be a wildly successful year.


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