How do I solve math word problems?
Breaking down the process to solve math problems in the Earth sciences

"Given/Find/Solve/Evaluate" - A systematic approach to solving word or story problems

Your instructor passes out a paper on the first day of class with a half-page paragraph of words and numbers and asks you to solve the problem. This intimidating activity can be especially daunting for a student in a science class that isn't confident in their math skills, especially applying it in a way they've not done before. Add to that the instructor may be assuming students are comfortable with word problems, so doesn't spend time on the basics. How do you proceed as the instructor watches and waits?

Word problems (from middle or high school you may know them as "story" problems) are an important step in student learning because in real-world applications, scientists almost never have information ready to just plug into a formula. It's especially helpful to have a dependable way to approach word problems in science, mostly predicated on careful reading and patience! The "Given/Find/Solve/Evaluate" strategy (GFSE for our purposes here), is a simple way to slow yourself down and break a word problem down into smaller pieces.

The general premise of GFSE is to figure out all of the different variables and values that are in the problem (G), what you're being asked for (F), how to set up and complete the problem (S), and evaluating your answer for correct units and reasonableness of your number (E).

When do I use GFSE?

Any time you are confronted with a math problem, you should have a trusted, consistent approach to finding a solution. Without it, you might feel overwhelmed every time you have to solve one!  Given/Find/Solve/Evaluate is one of a number of related methods that involve breaking down a problem.  It is generic, so it can be used in just about any course or scenario where you need to use math principles.

How do I use GFSE?

The main thing to keep in mind when using the GFSE approach is to slow yourself down and be patient to work through the problem.  That might seem obvious or even annoying, because we often want to jump right in to getting something done.  However, if you have struggled with word problems in the past, a likely source of some of those struggles is that you missed key pieces of information or misplaced a variable.  These problems are reduced as you work deliberately through the steps below.  See the example below for an illustration of how this works and the thought processes that go into the solution.

Precipitation across the United States varies a great deal because of the large land area as well as due to topographic and climatic differences related to the history and global position. The average annual precipitation for the wettest place in the continental United States is Quillayute, WA at 99.5 inches, while it is only 2.0 inches in Stovepipe Wells, CA.  What is the average annual precipitation (in centimeters, cm & millimeters, mm) at each of these locations?

Step 1. On your paper, start by writing "Given:"  After that, list the terms that are given in the problem.  For this problem...

Given:  `P_w = 99.5 " in"`, `P_d = 2.0 " in"`

Step 2. Now write "Find" below your "Given" items.  Identify the variable that you are being asked to solve for.  For this problem...

Find:  `P_w = ? " cm"`, `P_w = ? " mm"`

           `P_d = ? " cm"`, `P_d = ? " mm"`

Step 3. Write "Solve."  Now you'll begin the solution of the problem. Because you may not be familiar with precipitation, you should consider logic and what you DO already know.  Consider this, you're already given Precipitation values, so you don't need to calculate anything NEW.  All you need to do for this problem is to convert the rainfall amounts to the different units!

Solve: `P_w = 99.5 " in" ((2.54 " cm")/(1 " in")) = 253 " cm"`, `P_w = 99.5 " in" ((25.4 " mm")/(1 " in")) = 2527 " mm"`

           `P_d = 2.0 " in" ((2.54 " cm")/(1 " in")) = 5.1 " cm"`, `P_d = 2.0 " in" ((25.4 " mm")/(1 " in")) = 51 " mm"`

Step 4. "Evaluate" your answer!  If you were asked for specific units, are those the units you finished with?  Does your answer make sense?

Helpful Tips

  1. Work the problem through on paper and be as organized as possible.  Organized doesn't have to be neat, but neat work tends to be more organized.  It's critical that your work can be read, so make it legible.
    1. Circle, highlight, box out, double-underline, etc. your answers!  Make them obvious and easy to find.
  2. Include the ZERO in front of a decimal value.  0.45 is correct, .45 is incorrect!
  3. Use correct (or at least reasonable) significant figures!  An answer of 12.64578329 cm is technically WRONG if you are calculating based on measurements that are not that precise.  It's likely 13 cm, 12.6 cm, or 12.65 cm is well within any measurement error tolerance.  As a general rule, you should use the number of significant figures that the least precise variable in the original problem had.
  4. Use scientific notation for large or small values!  In most cases an answer of 12,345, 000 cm should be reported as 1.23 x 107 cm.  For more practice with scientific notation, visit: 
  5. Use metric system units unless otherwise specified.
  6. Spreadsheet and programming can be very powerful tools!  As you progress through science, hopefully you will embrace the opportunities to learn the skills to take advantage of them. 


Where do you solve/use GFSE in Earth science?

  • Generally, in science, we solve problems and calculate solutions based on a wide variety of data types and sources.  It is rarely possible to just collect a data point, plug it into an pre-defined equation, and spit out a meaningful answer.  Here are some examples:
    • In Hydrology, we are concerned with interchange of water between atmosphere, surface water, ground water, and oceans.  
    • In Volcanology, we calculate hazards based on material viscosity, land slope, eruptive volume, etc.
    • In Environmental applications, we may have discontinuous data for soil, water, and human impacts that need to be reconciled.

Next steps

I am ready to PRACTICE!
If you think you have a handle the steps above, click on this bar to try practice problems with worked answers.

Or, if you want even more practice, see More Help below.

More help (resources for students)

Pages written by Kyle Fredrick (Pennsylvania Western University - California, PA).

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