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Mathematics Problem Solving Strategies

Math isn’t that hard! In fact it’s probably one of the simpler sciences. That said it could be confusing if you don’t know what to do. Certainly there are overwhelming problems in math (and even types of math where getting the wrong answer is the whole point!) but most math can be broken down into simple solvable steps.

Make Sure You Understand the Problem

You can’t solve a problem you don’t know is there, but you also can’t solve the right problem if you haven’t identified it. Solving the right problem is key. There’s a famous Internet case of a math problem asking to solve the question of what the value of x is and a student circling ‘x’ and saying there it is. Correct? Definitely. Was it the answer to the math problem, obviously not. There is a clear misunderstanding of the question. There are many situations where solving the wrong problem amounts to not only a bad score on a test but a lot of work on the wrong problem.

Making Mistakes

Circling X is a big mistake, and probably not on the road to a solution but in a lot of cases making mistakes is part of the solution! Certainly spending 2 hours reducing a complex equation sounds pretty grueling (especially when you’ve done it) but it may help more than you know! A lot of time in math (as well as sciences like programming which is applied mathematics) if you don’t make the wrong solution you might never find the right one! Obviously it’s not about getting it all wrong but sometimes the only easy way to figure out the right way is to get hopelessly lost on the wrong on for a while. 

Keep a Record

While traveling down the wrong road can lead to backing up to find the right one, math can be confusing! If you try a different route or are experimenting with different approaches keep each on a separate page. Don’t get frustrated when it doesn’t work but make sure you don’t keep traveling down the wrong path! Record your trials and look back when things don’t make sense to make sure you don’t go down the same wrong road. Also try to see whether there’s something your erroneous trials have in common that could lead to the right solution!

Draw a Diagram

Not all math can be diagrammed but much can. Certainly your trig question can be but even addition and subtraction can be as well. (Domino's or dice is a fun way for basic math and since the sides cannot change it’s a good test as well). You’re not going to solve Pi this way but it might give you a much better idea of the relationship between a couple of parallel lines.

Check Your Answers

Not every book has answers in the back but these days it’s pretty easy to check your answers anyway. Most graphic calculators can handle very complex scenarios, and give you a check (provided you have solved step one; make sure you know the problem). The Internet also contains a myriad of solutions to math problems from the basic to the complex. That said, sometimes the solution is the best wrong solution! Advanced math problems often require you to take these same steps and come to the right wrong answer; a true test of your mathematics solving skills!