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Helping Students Develop Better Skills in Solving Word Problems

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

General Technical Session

Tagged Division

Computers in Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.842.1 - 26.842.16



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Paper Authors


John P. Mullen New Mexico State University

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Dr. Mullen has been at NMSU since 1990. He currently teaches and does research in stochastic and deterministic OR. Most of his courses are distance or online courses, though he does teach a few blended courses.

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Helping Students Develop Better Skills in Solving Word Problems.Many of us have noted over the years that students often fail to follow directions. Lately, I’vebeen focusing on the possibility that students’ failure to follow directions might be due to theirweak ability to process technical information.Students often tell me that they have no problem solving the equations and it is just that theyhave trouble with “word problems.” I usually respond that in engineering, virtually all problemsare word problems. Because of the advent of inexpensive, powerful computers to crunchnumbers, it is now very important that people be able to correctly interpret and express technicalinformation. However, empirical evidence shows that students’ ability in this area has declined,rather than improved.For example, every year, at the start of one particular junior class, I ask students to select anequation that expresses the fact that, “There are twice as many red balls as yellow balls in a box.”Almost every year, half the students select “2R = Y” and half, “R = 2Y.” Statistically speaking,that means nobody knows. Students unsure of this simple translation cannot possibly do well inphysics, chemistry, statics, strength of materials, etc. While it is true that this has been identifiedas a critical issue in K-12 education and we can look forward to future students’ improvedability, for now, there are still many students in the system that will not have benefited from thisincreased focus.Beyond the ability to solve word problems, students also suffer a disadvantage in abstractingprinciples from solutions due to a weak ability to verbalize key concepts. When students areasked how they know an answer is correct, responses are often vague and sometimes reveal thatthe student has a completely incorrect perception of the problem. However, even if a studentknows precisely why the answer is correct, failure to verbalize the facts means the student willhave difficulty remembering it later. This difficulty often leads to subsequent errors whenstudents attempt to adapt a method to a slightly different problem.While this is certainly a language-process problem, I’m an engineering professor, not an Englishprofessor. I have two concerns. Firstly, I want students to become at least minimally competentin technical language reading and writing. Second, I want their grade to mainly reflect theircompetence in the course content, not reading ability. This paper describes a number oftechniques I use, including Pólya’s Method, developmental exercises, and interaction by meansof an online quiz tool. The intent of these techniques is to help students improve their ability tounderstand and express technical information. Additionally, the paper outlines strategies toreasonably limit the impact of weak language processing skills. Finally, the paper containsexamples of interactions and tentative evidence of improved ability.

Mullen, J. P. (2015, June), Helping Students Develop Better Skills in Solving Word Problems Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24179

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