Tackling Word Problems Like an Engineer
I will share the student handout I have used and outline or demonstrate how it is incorporated during a class session. I will also show some example problems for both Physical Science and Physical Geology courses that are amenable to this approach.
Goal: To teach students a way to approach word problems and reduce the panic that sometimes ensues.
Plan: Introduce the problem solving approach, model it in one or two example problems, have them practice it in one or two example problems, and then require using this approach for all word problems in the rest of the semester. Provide a handout laying out the approach for reference.
The Approach: (modified from engineering classes) Basically, this follows a given-find-solution format that forces students to identify the information they are given as well as what they are being asked to calculate before attempting to solve the problem. Many students struggle with these beginning steps, causing them to panic and either give up entirely or try mad things like just multiplying two numbers together and hoping for the best. The gut check at the end deserves special attention – many times students could use their intuition to judge whether their result is even reasonable and thus catch some errors they may have made, but they often don't bother to take the time to do so.
Outcomes: Reduced math anxiety and increased confidence when facing quantitative problems.
This was primarily developed for undergraduate general education science courses with a quantitative problem solving component such as Physical Science and Physical Geology courses. The problem solving approach must be introduced early enough to be useful to students, but not before quantitative problems have made an appearance in the class. Depending on how many examples I do and how many I have them do in class, the activity can take 10-20 minutes of class time. I am finding that all subsequent assignments and exams need to be structured to encourage or require use of the approach in order to reinforce it because the students that could likely benefit the most from it also seem to be the ones least likely to adopt it without being absolutely required to do so.
Why It Works
I can't speak to its effectiveness yet since spring 2021 is the first semester I have tried it, and I am not sure how innovative it is to just bring tried and true engineering teaching practices into general education courses, but I do think it is worthwhile if it can help students that suffer from math anxiety. The need for students to develop quantitative skills has been loudly trumpeted in the academic community for some years now, yet we still see undergraduate students who seem to panic when faced with a relatively simple quantitative word problem. My hope is that by teaching them this approach which forces them to pick apart the problem before trying to solve it they will discover that the problems they are being given are really not all that complicated which can help instill confidence in their ability to tackle quantitative problems.