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Problem Solving Activities to Engage your Students

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about ways to get our students to do problem solving in the classroom. In this final post of the series, I will share seven problem solving activities to engage your students in problem solving.

One of the best ways I found to engage my students in problem solving is to vary the activities. As with most anything that we do as teachers, students respond differently to the activities that we use. What appeals to one student will not appeal to others. Variety is the focus of today’s post, so I’m sharing seven problem solving activities that are sure to engage all, or at least most, of your students.

Problem Solving Activities

1. Start the day or your math block with a starter. Starters are critical thinking activities designed to get your students thinking about math and provide opportunities to “sneak” in grade level content and skills in a fun and engaging way. These tasks are quick, designed to take no more than five minutes, and provide a great way to turn-on your students’ brains. Read more about starters here!

2. Let’s face it, solving word problems is not engaging to most students. Instead of using word problems as problem solving tasks, try engaging your students with non-routine tasks that look like word problems but require more than the use of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to complete. You can find some seasonal tasks in my Solve It! Library.

3. Make problem solving cooperative! If you’ve got a few extra minutes, have students work on problem solving tasks in small groups, create a poster to help explain their solution process, and then post their poster around the classroom. Students can then complete a gallery walk of the posters in the classroom and provide feedback via sticky notes or math talk. Read more about math talk here.

4. Before beginning a problem solving task, such as a challenging problem, conduct a Notice and Wonder session. To do this, simply asks students what they notice about the problem. Then, ask them what they wonder about the problem. This will give students an opportunity to highlight the unique characteristics and conditions of the problem as they try to make sense of it. Want an even more effective experience? Remove the stimulus, or question and then allow students to wonder about the problem. Try it! You’ll gain some great insight into how your students think about a problem.

5.  Create your own puzzle box! A puzzle box is a place to keep activities for fast finishers who need a challenge. It includes a myriad of activities so that all students can find a challenge which they find appealing. Read more about puzzle boxes here.

6. Use calculators! For some reason, this tool is not one that many students get to use frequently. However, it’s important that students have a chance to practice using them in the classroom. After all, we all have calculators on our cell phones and there are some standardized tests that allow the use of calculators. With this in mind, it’s important for us to emphasize calculator use. Plus, calculators can be fun learning tools all by themselves.

7. Use a three-act math task to engage students with a content-focused, real-world problem. These math tasks were created with math modeling in mind– students are presented with a scenario and are then given clues and hints to help them solve the problem. There are several sites where you can find these awesome math tasks. One site is created by Dan Meyer– Three-Act Math Tasks. Another site is created by Graham Fletcher– 3-Acts Lessons. Click the links to check them out!

Getting the Most from Each of the Problem Solving ActivitiesThis is a cover image for my Questions to Stimulate Student Thinking Flipchart freebie.

When students are participating in problem solving activities, it is important to ask guiding, not leading, questions. This provides students with the support necessary to move forward in their thinking and it provides you with a more in-depth understanding of their thinking. Selecting an initial question and then receiving a response from a student will tell you where to go next. (Looking for a great questioning tool to use? Click here!)

Problem solving can be a daunting aspect of effective mathematics teaching, but it does not have to be. Varying your problem solving activities by using the strategies above will provide endless opportunities for your students to build essential critical thinking skills.

Sound Off! Which of the problem solving activities will you try first? Respond in the comments below.

Shametria Routt Banks

Shametria Routt Banks

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