Learnamic Blog

Teach Math in Context to Improve Problem-Solving Skills


by Amy Emerson

While chatting with a friend recently about how students struggle with math, he said something along the lines of “because when do you ever just do math?” I echoed his statement with a resounding “YES!” because in my experience as a teacher, I have struggled with instructing students in math.

After I earned my teaching certificate, I started my career at a small alternative school (like 20-30 students). The first year I taught alongside ONE other teacher, so I had to teach math. I have tutored others in math all my life, but teaching it as a class was another matter entirely, and I struggled. I didn’t understand why I found it difficult to teach.

Then I found my personal solution: I started integrating math into my science classes, and I found it immensely helpful for my students.  Students can benefit from integrating math learning into other subjects for several reasons:

First, integrated math gives context, that is, it presents a situation the student needs to solve rather than just a pure “problem.”  In math class, these are typically referred to as “story problems” but as an adult, you know them by the term “real life.”

Unless you are a math major, teacher, or are homeschooling your children, the only way you will ever complete a math problem in real life is in context, in situations like:

  • Making a budget
  • Doubling a recipe
  • Deciding how many cans of paint to buy
  • Getting a loan

Giving kids this kind of real-world context helps them understand why it’s important to solve the problem, thereby challenging them and giving them the motivation to solve it.

Second, a problem-based approach requires students to use “21st Century Skills” like creativity and logic to come to a solution. Many workplaces prize these skills highly these days, so it’s a great way to prepare your kids for modern job requirements.

Many schools are adopting integrated learning as part of their push for “STEM” learning, which is basically just science and technology integrated with math.

Lastly, students must use higher order thinking skills to solve integrated math problems. They analyze the words, build a math sentence, evaluate the problem to reach a conclusion, and finally they relate the solution back to the original problem by putting it in context.

This whole process of mental gymnastics builds your brain’s ability to solve larger and more complex problems. We need to “Play 60” with our students’ minds as well as their bodies.

So why do we teach kids to do math in standalone format? Maybe because it feels easier to teach without using story problems, or maybe because schools focus so hard on specific “subjects” that it feels like you don’t have time to include context that should be covered in other classes.

Either way, we spend so much time with just numbers that words problems appear as an enigma in the math classroom. Students find these problems so difficult and irrelevant that they quickly sacrifice the points in favor of more straight forward math problems and end up unable to apply their math skills to real-world situations. In my opinion, students who cannot solve math problems in context are akin to a chef with a dull knife, so let’s spend more time helping them clear this crucial hurdle.

When your children struggle with story problems remember they measure a lot more than simple math, and help them persevere to learn those skills. One proven method of improving a student’s word problem skills is metacognition, or reflecting on your thought process. For example, if you are helping a student work on a math problem you might ask as series of questions as they progress:

They read the problem

  • What is the problem asking?
  • What do you know so far?
  • What is your strategy for solving the problem?

While they are working

  • Is your strategy working? Why or why not?
  • How else can you approach the problem?

After they finish

  • What strategy did you use to solve the problem?
  • Have you used this method before? How was it different this time?

Helping students become more aware of their thinking can allow them to catch their own errors and persevere in solving problems. If you would like to learn more about metacognition, check out our resources on Learnamic.com or sign up for the newsletter to receive my next post on metacognition.