November 7, 2011

8 Strategies to Motivate Kids to Love Problem Solving

Here are 8 strategies that helped my students feel more comfortable with problem solving. These techniques thawed their attitudes towards math and motivated them to actually enjoy problem solving!
Students often fear math, and are especially intimidated by problem solving. These feelings prevent them from being able to relax, think clearly, and apply what they've learned to problems they're trying to solve. The resulting brain freeze serves to reinforce the idea that mathematics is scary and difficult. Math standards keep getting tougher, and students are expected to be proficient at solving complex problems far beyond what we were expected to solve at their age. How are we to help our students become confident problem solvers when math continues to get more challenging?

Strategies to Thaw Math Brain Freeze
Fortunately, there are many tools and  strategies you can use to show your kids that math isn't all that scary after all. Here are 8 strategies that helped my students feel more comfortable with problem solving. These techniques thawed their attitudes towards math and motivated them to actually enjoy problem solving!
  1. Implement a problem-solving program in which students solve just one word problem a day, and start with easy problems they can ALL solve without difficulty 
  2. Mix up the types of problems and present challenges that require different problem solving skills and strategies. This will require your students to tap into different types of math content and skills to solve them. 
  3. Keep problem solving sessions short at first - no more than 10 to 15 minutes a day - but as students start to look forward to these sessions, you can include longer problems that require more persistence
  4. Refer to word problems as "puzzlers," "brain teasers," or "stumpers," and present them as fun challenges rather than dreaded math problems
  5. Alternate cooperative learning strategies with independent work to add an element of fun while ensuring individual accountability
  6. Allow students to use calculators during problem-solving sessions
  7. Require students to show their work with pictures, symbols, or words, but don't require them to write complete sentence explanations for every problem they solve.
  8. After giving students time to solve a problem, reveal the correct answer up front and then spend the remaining time asking students to share strategies. Ask, "How many different ways can we discover to solve this problem?" Call on several student volunteers to come to the front of the class, one at a time, to demonstrate how they solved the problem. This will highlight the variety of different ways a problem can be solved. 
Daily Math Problem Solving and Growth Mindset
I've had great success with these strategies, and when I've shared them with teachers, they have experienced similar results. They've told me that their students now look forward to their daily problem solving sessions! In the same way that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, it seems that a problem a day keeps the brain freeze away!

August 2017 Update - I'm in the process of updating the Daily Math Puzzler program to align it with best practices for fostering a growth mindset. On August 31st, I'm presenting a webinar called Math Problem Solving: Mindsets Matter, and I'll dive into recent research on this topic and bust some math myths about problem solving. If you miss it, you can purchase the professional development version of this webinar from my TpT store here.

Problem Solving Assessment Freebie
One of the free files I share during the webinar is my Problem Solving Assessment pack which can help you evaluate your students' problem-solving abilities. It includes both a pretest and a posttest on 4 different levels. Believe me, you'll learn a lot about how your students solve problems when you score their tests! If you don't have time to watch the webinar now, sign up HERE if you'd like a copy of this freebie sent to you by email.

What are some of your favorite strategies and tips for helping kids to thaw out math brain freeze and enjoy solving problems?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. 3 boys collect a total of $200.30 for camp. boy A collects $12.80 more than boy B and boy C collects 3 times as much as boy B, how much each boy collect?

  3. I remind students to look for clue words and look at our poster, one we made in class together and is hanging on the wall. This often alleviates brain freeze.


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