Dealing with Word Problems Study Guide

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Updated on Oct 4, 2011

Introduction to Dealing with Word Problems

A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat, which isn't there.

—CHARLES R. DARWIN, English naturalist (1809–1882)

Word problems abound both on math tests and in everyday life. This lesson will show you some straightforward approaches to making word problems easier. The practice problems in this lesson incorporate the various kinds of math you have already studied in this book.

A word problem tells a story. It may also present a situation in terms of numbers or unknowns or both. (An unknown, also called a variable, is a letter of the alphabet that is used to represent an unknown number.) Typically, the last sentence of the word problem asks you to answer a question. Here's an example: Last week, Jason earned $57, and Karen earned $82. How much more money did Karen earn than Jason? Word problems involve all the concepts covered in this book:

  • Arithmetic (whole numbers, fractions, decimals)
  • Percents
  • Ratios and proportions
  • Averages
  • Probability and counting

Doing all the problems in these two chapters is a good way to review what you have learned in the previous lessons.

Steps to Solving a Word Problem

While some simple word problems can be solved by common sense or intuition, most require a multistep approach as follows:

  1. Read a word problem in chunks rather than straight through from beginning to end. As you read each chunk, stop to think about what it means. Make notes, write an equation, label an accompanying diagram, or draw a picture to represent that chunk. You may even want to underline important information in a chunk. Repeat the process with each chunk. Reading a word problem in chunks rather than straight through prevents the problem from becoming overwhelming, and you won't have to read it again to answer it.
  2. When you get to the actual question, it. This will keep you more focused as you solve the problem.
  3. If it's a multiple-choice question, glance at the answer choices for clues. If they're fractions, you probably should do your work in fractions; if they're decimals, you should probably work in decimals; and so on.
  4. Make a plan of attack to help you solve the problem. That is, figure out what information you already have and how you're going to use it to develop a solution.
  5. When you get your answer, reread the circled question to make sure you've answered it. This helps you avoid the careless mistake of answering the wrong question. Test writers love to set set traps: Multiple questions often include answers that reflect the most common mistakes test takers make.
  6. Check your work after you get an answer. In a multiple-choice test, test takers get a false sense of security when they get an answer that matches one of the given answers. But even if you're not taking a multiple-choice test, you should always check your work if you have time. Here are a few suggestions:
    • Ask yourself if your answer is reasonable, if it makes sense.
    • Plug your answer back into the problem to make sure the problem holds together.
    • Do the question a second time, but use a different method.

If a multiple-choice question stumps you, try one of the backdoor approaches, working backward or nice numbers, explained in the next lesson.

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