University of Oregon

What are the issues surrounding the use of word problems in the math curriculum?


Word problems are consistently used as practice exercises and illustrations throughout math curriculum.  Despite this prevalence, many students have difficulty solving word problems, based on the complex and varied nature of these exercises. 

Success in solving word problems is reliant on a student’s knowledge of language and structure, ability to interpret vocabulary in mathematical terms, and actual mathematic knowledge and ability. The difficulty level of each of these factors can vary greatly between problems, and ability levels can vary greatly between students.  Based on this complex interaction, traditional teaching strategies for solving math word problems (e.g. key words, step-based problem solving models) are rarely universally helpful.   Instead, research suggests that strategies emphasizing comprehensive understanding of word problems, especially in how individual problem elements relate to each other and the problem as a whole (e.g. schema-based instruction), are most effective in helping students improve their word-problem-solving ability.  Students with learning disabilities and other obstacles to learning (e.g. ESL/EFL populations) have been shown to benefit from this type of instruction as well, but may require additional instruction in specific areas in order to achieve the same levels of success.



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