Whether students are learning addition and subtraction, fractions, algebra, or geometry, word problems always play a role.
Some might argue that word problems are just that: WORDS. So why are they important enough to show up at every age and stage of MATH? The reasons are numerous: They keep our minds elastic and nimble. They challenge us to improve our understanding, our memory, and our creativity. In fact, some scientists have posited that solving math word problems may even help stave off Alzheimer’s Disease later in life.
Here are just a few of the many ways that word problems benefit math learners, math teachers, and even everyday math users.
- Comprehension. In spite of what some kids may initially believe, we don’t learn math in order to get a good grade on a test; we learn math to better navigate the world. Memorization will only get you so far. For example, memorizing the order of right and left turns on the way to a friend’s house will help you get there initially, but truly understanding where each home is located in a neighborhood of schools, parks, or trees on the corner will help you find your way to any of those places, regardless of where you are in the neighborhood. Similarly, word problems challenge students to understand each new concept in relation to other math skills they’ve gained over the years.
- Critical Thinking. Math practice may be all about numbers, but one of the deeper benefits of math is that it hones our logic and critical thinking skills. Word problems require students to go beyond following simple instructions and finding the answer on a multiple-choice test. Word problems require the student to parse the question critically, take stock of what’s really being asked, and look into their mental toolbox for the proper approach to solve this particular problem. Word problems will often require a student to use two or more math skills together to find the correct solution. In addition to refreshing their memory about older concepts, this multi-skill approach strengthens critical analysis ability and encourages creative thinking, which brings us to...
- Creativity. As all instructors know, each student learns in a different way. What inspires an “aha!” moment in one student may not do so for another. This is why instructors will cover the same concept in multiple ways. Word problems often appeal to students who are visual learners, because they encourage imaginingthe problem in concrete form. Word problems require students to visualize four candy bars and how they might be shared among eight friends... Suddenly—aha!—the concept of fractions makes sense!
- Application. Math in the classroom often seems to students as if it has nothing to do with everyday life. This is when you get students asking whether they’re ever going to use this in “the real world.” Word problems take math out of the realm of the classroom and into the real world. Sure, everyone jokes about the old “two trains leave their stations...” problem, but the fact is that word problems do indeed show students how the math they’re learning in the classroom will apply to everyday life. Students who are asked to solve thoughtful, creative word problems with each new concept they learn in the classroom will never have a reason to ask, “Why do I need to learn this?”
- Assessment. Because word problems are open to interpretation as to where to begin, which skills to use or in what order, it requires a deep understanding on the part of the student to determine for themselves how to solve that particular problem. Students who have internalized a new concept will be able to reach into their mental toolbox to pull out the skills they need to get started. Especially if students are required to show their work, word problems help teachers ascertain which of their students have truly understood a new concept and which may still be struggling.