Problem Solving Activities: 7 Strategies | The Routty Math Teacher

Problem Solving Activities: 7 Strategies

Problem solving can be a daunting aspect of effective mathematics teaching, but it does not have to be! In this post, I share seven strategic ways to integrate problem solving into your everyday math program.

In the middle of our problem solving lesson, my district math coordinator stopped by for a surprise walkthrough. 

I was so excited!

We were in the middle of what I thought was the most brilliant math lesson– teaching my students how to solve problem solving tasks using specific problem solving strategies. 

It was a proud moment for me!

Each week, I presented a new problem solving strategy and the students completed problems that emphasized the strategy. 

Genius right? 

Wrong!

After observing my class, my district coordinator pulled me aside to chat. I was excited to talk to her about my brilliant plan, but she told me I should provide the tasks and let my students come up with ways to solve the problems. Then, as students shared their work, I could revoice the student’s strategies and give them an official name. 

What a crushing blow! Just when I thought I did something special, I find out I did it all wrong. 

I took some time to consider her advice. Once I acknowledged she was right, I was able to make BIG changes to the way I taught problem solving in the classroom. 

When I Finally Saw the Light

To give my students an opportunity to engage in more authentic problem solving which would lead them to use a larger variety of problem solving strategies, I decided to vary the activities and the way I approached problem solving with my students. 

Problem Solving Activities

Here are seven ways to strategically reinforce problem solving skills in your classroom. 

This is an example of seasonal problem solving activities.

Seasonal Problem Solving

Many teachers use word problems as problem solving tasks. Instead, 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. Seasonal problem solving tasks and daily challenges are a perfect way to celebrate the season and have a little fun too!

Cooperative Problem Solving Tasks

Go cooperative! If you’ve got a few extra minutes, have students work on problem solving tasks in small groups. After working through the task, students create a poster to help explain their solution process and then post their poster around the classroom. Students then complete a gallery walk of the posters in the classroom and provide feedback via sticky notes or during a math talk session.

Notice and Wonder

Before beginning a problem solving task, such as a seasonal problem solving task, conduct a Notice and Wonder session. To do this, ask 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 a better experience? Remove the stimulus, or question, and allow students to wonder about the problem. Try it! You’ll gain some great insight into how your students think about a problem.

This is an example of a math starter.

Math Starters

Start your math block with a math starter, 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 math starters here

Puzzle Box

Create your own puzzle box! The puzzle box is a set of puzzles and math challenges I use as fast finisher tasks for my students when they finish an assignment or need an extra challenge. The box can be a file box, file crate, or even a wall chart. It includes a variety of activities so all students can find a challenge that suits their interests and ability level.

Calculators

Use calculators! For some reason, this tool is not one many students get to use frequently; however, it’s important students have a chance to practice using it in the classroom. After all, almost everyone has access to a calculator on their cell phones. There are also some standardized tests that allow students to use them, so it’s important for us to practice using calculators in the classroom. Plus, calculators can be fun learning tools all by themselves!

Three-Act Math Tasks

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 then given clues and hints to help them solve the problem. There are several sites where you can find these awesome math tasks, including Dan Meyer’s Three-Act Math Tasks and Graham Fletcher’s 3-Acts Lessons

Getting the Most from Each of the Problem Solving Activities

When students participate 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 teachers with a more in-depth understanding of student thinking. Selecting an initial question and then analyzing a student’s response tells teachers where to go next. 

Ready to jump in? Grab a free set of problem solving challenges like the ones pictured using the form below. 

Sound Off!

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

Credits: Image mock-ups created using images from Megan Favre.

Shametria Routt Banks

Shametria Routt Banks

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