The main reason for learning about math is to become a better problem solver in all aspects of life. Many problems are multistep and require some type of systematic approach. There are a couple of things you need to do when solving problems. Ask yourself exactly what type of information is being asked for: Is it one of addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division? Then determine all the information that is being given to you in the question.

Mathematician George Pólya’s book, “How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method,” written in 1957, is a great guide to have on hand. The ideas below, which provide you with general steps or strategies to solve math problems, are similar to those expressed in Pólya’s book and should help you untangle even the most complicated math problem.

Use Established Procedures

Learning how to solve problems in mathematics is knowing what to look for. Math problems often require established procedures and knowing what procedure to apply. To create procedures, you have to be familiar with the problem situation and be able to collect the appropriate information, identify a strategy or strategies, and use the strategy appropriately.

Problem-solving requires practice. When deciding on methods or procedures to use to solve problems, the first thing you will do is look for clues, which is one of the most important skills in solving problems in mathematics. If you begin to solve problems by looking for clue words, you will find that these words often indicate an operation.

Look for Clue Words

Think of yourself as a math detective. The first thing to do when you encounter a math problem is to look for clue words. This is one of the most important skills you can develop. If you begin to solve problems by looking for clue words, you will find that those words often indicate an operation.

Common clue words for addition problems:

Sum

Total

In all

Perimeter

Common clue words for subtraction problems:

Difference

How much more

Exceed

Common clue words for multiplication problems:

Product

Total

Area

Times

Common clue words for division problems:

Share

Distribute

Quotient

Average

Although clue words will vary a bit from problem to problem, you’ll soon learn to recognize which words mean what in order to perform the correct operation.

Read the Problem Carefully

This, of course, means looking for clue words as outlined in the previous section. Once you’ve identified your clue words, highlight or underline them. This will let you know what kind of problem you’re dealing with. Then do the following:

Ask yourself if you’ve seen a problem similar to this one. If so, what is similar about it?

What did you need to do in that instance?

What facts are you given about this problem?

What facts do you still need to find out about this problem?

Develop a Plan and Review Your Work

Based on what you discovered by reading the problem carefully and identifying similar problems you’ve encountered before, you can then:

Define your problem-solving strategy or strategies. This might mean identifying patterns, using known formulas, using sketches, and even guessing and checking.

If your strategy doesn’t work, it may lead you to an ah-ha moment and to a strategy that does work.

If it seems like you’ve solved the problem, ask yourself the following:

Does your solution seem probable?

Does it answer the initial question?

Did you answer using the language in the question?

Did you answer using the same units?

If you feel confident that the answer is “yes” to all questions, consider your problem solved.

Tips and Hints

Some key questions to consider as you approach the problem may be:

What are the keywords in the problem?

Do I need a data visual, such as a diagram, list, table, chart, or graph?

Is there a formula or equation that I’ll need? If so, which one?

Will I need to use a calculator? Is there a pattern I can use or follow?

Read the problem carefully, and decide on a method to solve the problem. Once you’ve finished working the problem, check your work and ensure that your answer makes sense and that you’ve used the same terms and or units in your answer.